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Monumental gets gambling head start with Wizards betting broadcasts

  • ‘Predict the Game’ telecasts on NBC Sports Washington aim to engage fans and gamblers
  • Broadcasts are also pilots for ‘totally synchronised’ sports betting programming
  • Network taking advantage of legalised sports betting roll-out in its geographic footprint

The betting-infused broadcasts of Washington Wizards games started this year by NBC Sports Washington are putting both the network and the NBA team’s majority owner, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, at the “bleeding edge” of sports-betting innovation.

In January, the regional sports network, which is co-owned by Monumental – owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals as well as the NBA’s Wizards – and NBCUniversal, produced a secondary, gaming-infused basketball broadcast of the Wizards v Milwaukee Bucks game on overflow channel NBC Sports Washington Plus in partnership with the Wizards. It was the first of its kind.

For the second half of the 2018-19 NBA season, the network is producing seven more. A central point of the broadcast is a free-to-play ‘Predict the Game’ contest whose $500 prize winners are announced in the network’s post-game coverage. There is also real-time sports-betting data and statistics on-screen throughout the game.

The broadcasts – which run concurrently with the standard Wizards broadcasts on the main NBC Sports Washington channel – are designed, in the short term, to get fans more engaged with regular-season games and to appeal to supporters who have an interest in gaming.

Results so far have been encouraging. During that first Wizards v Bucks broadcast on January 11, the contest had over 4,000 responses; of those who streamed the match online, 20 per cent took the alternate gambling telecast.

In the long term, they are pilots for far-more expansive gaming broadcasts when sports betting is officially legalised throughout the Mid-Atlantic region covered by NBC Sports Washington.

Monumental majority owner and founder Ted Leonsis, the billionaire former AOL senior executive, has been a big proponent of sports betting for several years and is eager to capitalise on new revenue opportunities. Leonsis’s venture capital firm Revolution Growth has already invested in fantasy sports operator DraftKings, data company Sportradar and sports betting start-up WinView.

At the All-Star Weekend in Charlotte this month, Leonsis said sports betting was the NBA’s “most important new business”.

Monumental Sports and Entertainment owner Ted Leonsis

The current DC sports betting bill will allow gambling at Capital One Arena, the home of the Wizards and the Capitals, and a sportsbook at the facility is planned, as are commercial partnerships with gaming operators. The sports betting broadcasts on NBC Sports Washington keep Monumental ahead of the game.

“From a team and an organisational standpoint, we are always looking to be on the bleeding edge of new technology and new engagement tools,” Zach Leonsis, the Monumental senior vice-president of strategic initiatives, tells SportBusiness.

“Instead of shying away from an inevitability [of sports betting] we want to embrace it – to maintain the integrity of our sport and to create really engaging tools from which our fans can enjoy.

“We’ve really tried to be a leader in terms of media distribution, new technologies, new live event products and this is in line with things that we want to experiment with. We really try to cater to a Millennial- and Gen Z-orientated audience that is normally enthused by being on their phone while watching a live linear broadcast. Why try to move away from that? We should try to feed that and be front and centre on people’s mobile devices, be that via the web or an application in the future.

“There is so much data publicly accessibly about on-court, on-ice, on-field performance, and young, savvy viewers really crave data as content. This naturally bridges itself to trying to play with that data and earn a few dollars from it. And whenever you have money on the line from a game, it really raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting and more fun.”

Conditions for innovation
“This is a project that is really led by NBC Sports Washington, but it is something that we have talked with them about for quite some time,” adds Leonsis, who is Ted’s son. “I think there is certainly a reason why this has happened in Washington versus any of the other RSN markets: it’s because we’ve been very outspoken and progressive on this issue and we’ve shown a sincere willingness to experiment.”

NBC Sports Washington’s senior vice-president and general manager, Damon Phillips, tells us: “We have a very close relationship with Monumental – that ownership group is one of the most innovative and technology-driven in all of sports. On an on-going basis, we have conversations with our team partners about new initiatives that we want to try, or they want to try, and this was one that we mutually agreed upon. The team is extremely supportive of what we want to do in this space.”

Significantly, the legislatures in NBC Sports Washington’s Mid-Atlantic footprint happen to have been quick to embrace sports betting. Delaware and West Virginia have already legalised sports betting, while Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia are on course to do so this year.

“What we wanted to do, as the world is moving in this direction, was get a head start and try and experiment with free-to-play games to introduce fans to sports betting,” says Phillips, “but also be able to gather some key learnings on what works and what doesn’t work so once sports betting does become legalised throughout our footprint, we’ll be able to participate in a more meaningful way.”

Going forward, NBC Sports Washington and Monumental are looking to enhance the product by introducing a specific play-by-play team for the betting broadcast and gain extra revenues through sponsorship and advertising deals. Maryland casino MGM National Harbor has already been signed as an Official Presenting Partner of the alternate telecast.

“I can anticipate in the future that we’ll have separate on-air talent for this alternate broadcast, and it could be tied to a specific sportsbook partner or sponsor as well,” Leonsis says. “That really leads to a unique opportunity to create a totally synchronised second-screen experience that probably only a few partners can totally take advantage of.”

Alternate betting broadcasts for Capitals games are planned as well. “Whatever we end up rolling out in its entirety for the Wizards, we would definitely want to do for the Capitals. We wouldn’t be doing a pilot with this if we didn’t think that that eventually we could make the jump to having an alternate feed for each one of our broadcasts,” Leonsis says.

There are no plans to put the betting telecast on the main NBC Sports Washington broadcast. “Choice is very important for fans. There’s going to be a segment of fans who just want to watch the game and we want to make sure that’s available to fans,” says Phillips. “Who we are appealing to is not necessarily the hardcore gambler but sports fans and we’re trying to make the game more interesting and more fun for them.

“We will always have a traditional broadcast for fans and on our secondary channel we will have something different. We want to make sure that a fan who does not care about gambling does not have to see or hear any gambling references.”

First of many?
NBCUniversal has taken an interest in the initiative and could roll it out with other RSNs in co-ordination with state-by-state sports-betting legislation. “One of the advantages of NBC Sports is that we have a number of regional sports networks, so we are able to share best practices across the entire portfolio. Something that works here could work in San Francisco or Chicago or Boston,” says Phillips.

“Overall our head of the regional networks are very pleased with what we’ve done so far. It’s the first inning of a very long ball game and we hope that we hope to we continue to stay on top of it.”

Capital One Arena could soon get a sportsbook

Monumental, meanwhile, is in “active discussions” with a number of potential sports-betting partners, says Leonsis, and is ultimately looking to install a sportsbook in Capital One Arena.

“We would likely look to partner with an existing blue-chip brand that is a professional, experienced operator and they could operate a space within our building that has street access. It’s a really unique opportunity to create an experience that is outside of the actual game window,” says Leonsis.

“People are usually out of the building by 11pm [on game nights], with a sportsbook operation we could potentially keep the store front as long as they’d like – from 10am-2am – and that creates more all-day programming.

“We’d love to have people to finish a game at the arena and then head to the sportsbook and watch the West Coast games. It would also be a great place to spend Sunday afternoons and spend a whole day watching American football in the [autumn].”

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