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IMG Arena develops virtual Nascar betting product, secures streaming rights

IMG Arena, the sports betting arm of the IMG agency, is to begin offering bookmakers a virtual sports betting product for the Nascar US stock car racing series, along with distributing the international betting streaming rights for the first time.

In a deal with Nascar that licenses IMG Arena official assets to create the virtual sports betting game, IMG Arena will be able to offer the product to sports betting operators worldwide.

The agreement announced today (Wednesday) deepens the relationship between Nascar and IMG, which holds a 10-year deal to distribute the series’ worldwide media rights (excluding the Americas) until 2024.

The virtual product has been created by 3D sports content developer Leap Gaming and will replicate famous Nascar tracks, including Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Watkins Glen International.

Following Nascar’s return to live racing on Sunday at an empty Darlington Raceway in South Carolina after a 10-week hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, IMG Media has also struck a “long-term” deal to offer live betting streaming rights to Nascar Cup Series races. The international betting rights secured exclude the US and Canadian markets.

The agreement represents the first motor sports property that IMG Arena will sell the live betting streaming rights to (or develop and market a virtual betting game for).

Scott Warfield, Nascar’s managing director of gaming, said: “The international sports gaming landscape is mature and vibrant, and this partnership allows us to offer compelling products that further enhance our international footprint.”

Speaking to SportBusiness, Freddie Longe, IMG Arena’s executive vice-president and managing director, indicated that further ways to “gamify” the virtual product are being considered in a bid to “take it beyond the boundaries of the traditional version”. These include a “lottery-style proposition” allowing customers to select five numbers corresponding to the various cars racing around the track.

Longe remarked: “The virtual Nascar will have universal appeal. The difference between motor racing proper and virtual motor racing is that motor racing proper is typically once a week on a Sunday throughout the season, whereas the virtual Nascar product will be a 24/7 proposition.”

The virtual sports betting game is separate to Nascar’s iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an esports proposition using the NASCAR Heat video game and to which IMG distributed the broadcast rights in 160 countries to help fill the void left by the absence of live racing.

Data rights are not included in IMG’s new agreement with Nascar as they were awarded to rival Genius Sports a year ago, allowing Genius to use Nascar’s official data feed in its offering to sportsbook clients.

Quantum Leap

The enforced global sports shutdown has led to bookmakers searching for virtual sports offerings in bid to retain a chunk of their customer base, with IMG Arena particularly prominent in that space thanks to its ties with Leap Gaming.

In 2018, IMG signed an agreement with the 3D sports content developer to add additional services to the existing live streaming and data offered by IMG Arena across different sports. As part of that deal, IMG Arena acquired an equity stake in the company. The tie-up also included working closely together on sales and product development initiatives.

IMG’s portfolio of virtual products now includes cycling, football, golf, greyhound racing and horse racing, while the ATP Masters 1000 tennis product is expected to go live this week.

Various development projects were already well under way with Leap Gaming but the interruption of most sports during the Covid-19 shutdown quickly brought them to the forefront, according to Longe.

He observed: “The current state of the world has expedited the vision that we always had. Virtual sports products were always generic in nature and IMG’s heritage and DNA is in client servicing so being able to marry up this growing space with our rights-holder clients’ IP was always the intention.

“In a very fast-paced sports media ecosystem it’s not always easy to lay the focus on new initiatives and this [the current lockdown] has helped us expedite that vision.”

An ‘Official Carnoustie Virtual Golf’ game replicating the British Open venue was one of the first projects undertaken with Leap Gaming to add to IMG Arena’s European Tour offering to bookmakers.

Longe continued: “The ultimate goal is to have a complementary virtual product to sit alongside the data and the video feeds that we distribute to sportsbooks as well with the overriding ambition of having an ‘always-on’ fan engagement for our key properties.”

He added: “We had a very strong [virtual betting] pipeline already…but when the door slammed shut on live sport mid-March, that pipeline sped up. We got ourselves a very significant raft of deals, which come with the added complexities of integration so they don’t happen overnight but there is lot of activity across the board.”

Despite IMG Arena and its sports betting clients clearly suffering the hit from the sports shutdown, Longe insisted: “We had a huge number of ongoing initiatives anyway and weren’t necessarily reliant on sport being live. Those initiatives have continued unabated in the background.”

Some properties to which IMG sells the betting streaming rights, notably Belarusian football’s top-tier Vysheyshaya Liga, have continued without interruption. IMG Arena has also picked up rights to local tennis tournaments that have been created.

Elsewhere, the Endeavor-owned mixed martial arts’ Ultimate Fighting Championship, for which IMG Arena is now marketing a live betting data product, returned to action earlier this month and the PGA Tour, another IMG Arena client, has earmarked its return in the middle of June.

Longe concluded: “There is light at the end of the tunnel and there will be a ‘V’ recovery in terms of activity on sports betting operators’ website and the content that we service them.”

Read this: Nascar begins to expand audience with iRacing Pro Invitational Series