A ‘Bettor’ future

We gaze into our crystal ball to try to predict how sports betting will evolve in the next five to ten years and look at the hardware that could transform gambling as we know it today.

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Published: 17th December 2015

It was just over two decades ago that online betting first appeared in a corner of cyberspace, though only those privileged enough to own a PC and an expensive, but painfully slow, dial-up internet connection could enjoy a flutter.

Since then, how we gamble has been transformed by technology, meaning that the opportunity to make a bet is never more than an arm’s length away thanks to the smartphone resting in a trouser pocket. Indeed, Juniper Research predicts that more than one in ten adults worldwide will partake in some form of mobile or online betting by 2019. In the UK alone, almost half of adults will be gambling online by then, Juniper forecasts.

Leading online bookmakers report that roughly 60% to 70% of bets are now placed via mobile as increasing numbers of punters shun the desktop PC for the speed and convenience of smartphone betting apps. “A big jump has been taken in terms of how people are developing products, with 95% building for mobile first and then reversing it into desktop,” says Liam Casey, former CEO of Betsafe and Tailorbet, and now a management consultant for betonexperts.com.

Also, features such as form guides, cash-out, partial cash-out, live streaming and in-game pitch virtualisation are all now stuffed into mobile betting apps. Touch ID login on Apple apps, which was first rolled out for gamblers by Sky Betting & Gaming, eschews the need to rack your brain to remember the random jumble of letters and numbers that make up your password, though perhaps in the near future this will be superseded by effortless face or retina scans to sign in.

Personal services

Speed of bet placement will continue to be a focus. For instance, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has slashed the number of taps to place a bet on its brand new iOS app by 60%. And betting will finally become much more personalised in the future. Retailers like Amazon and eBay are often lauded as beacons of the personal touch with their powerful recommendation engines and suggestions based upon previous searches and purchases.

“I’m hopeful that in a few years’ time, personalisation will have finally been grasped by the industry and I won’t have to wade through copious amount of sports I have no interest in to get to my bet on.”

Veteran gambling industry consultant Steve Donoughue.

The betting industry is playing catch-up but in the near future bookmakers will be able to instinctively anticipate what you want to bet on, creating a much more seamless, intuitive and tailored experience. “I’m hopeful that in a few years’ time, personalisation will have finally been grasped by the industry and I won’t have to wade through copious amount of sports I have no interest in to get to my bet on,” says veteran gambling industry consultant Steve Donoughue.

At weekends, some operators are serving up thousands of markets on hundreds of in-play sporting events, which can sometimes prove to be a bewildering experience for users trying to locate a market. So rather than trying to cram everything into one ‘full fat’ app, stripped down betting apps could become more prevalent.

Paddy Power pioneered the WhatsApp-esque Messenger App, enabling users to effortlessly instant message Paddy Power HQ to place a bet. Similarly, BetVictor’s standalone InstaBet app sends push notifications to users about a special price boost on a particular market; bettors than have 15 minutes to place that bet before the offer expires.

Let the games begin

Another trend that could gather pace is the so-called ‘gamification’ of sports betting (gaming elements used to spice up the user experience when selecting and placing wagers). For instance, William Hill’s standalone darts app boasts a roulette table-style layout whereby customers use casino chips to bet on various pre- and in-play markets. It’s a unique approach to sports betting, as well as being quicker and less laborious than trawling through menus.

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WILLIAM HILLS’S ‘GAMIFICATION’ OF DART BETTING. PHOTO: WILLIAM HILLS’S PRESS OFFICE

Likewise, William Hill’s Cheer Me Up is a randomised betting product in which a roulette wheel is used to predict in-game events, such as free kicks, corners and goals.

The betting giant has also produced its Yes/No app, which provides a series of six yes-or-no-answer questions about a particular event that pays out at 33/1 if you are correct. “One strand we are looking at is a more ‘gamefied’ experience within sports,” says William Hill’s innovation product lead, Alex Rutherford.

“We are looking at a different ways of making the whole betting experience more engaging for the customer – be that if they want very quick bets or if we are giving them longer bets which is what Yes/No is; it’s per event with six questions and it’s a nice little upsell for sporting events.”

With in-play betting showing little sign of slowing down, there could be more short-term markets for rapid-fire betting. For example, who will score the next point in tennis match? In the updated version of the aforementioned darts-betting app, released in December to coincide with the sport’s world championships, you can now wager on where the first dart on each player’s throw will land by sliding chips to segment of the board.

For example, 11/8 for a treble twenty or perhaps you fancy a long shot – the odds of the dart nestling in treble one is 33/1. If correct, your chips are bust by a virtual dart and your winnings are speedily credited to your account thanks to the same proprietary bet settlement engine found in William’s Hill’s in-house casino product. Director of innovation and customer experience, Jamie Hart, wrote in a recent blog post that they had built a gaming experience around a sporting event.

Wear next?

But how will the hardware running these products evolve? Will customer usage continue to be split between smartphones, tablets and desktop, or will another platform shake things up? One possibility is wearables, including smartwatches. A clutch of operators have already created rudimentary betting apps for the Apple Watch, though the obvious screen limitations and the fact it has to be tethered to an iPhone aren’t ideal.

Yet one betting app that has received plaudits is Matchbook.com’s for the Watch, which the company says is the first predictive and personalised smartwatch app. It recommends markets unique to different users. Marketing chief Roibeard Long says: “It not only gives our users incredible customisation in modelling Matchbook to suit their personal betting habits, but it will also remember their habits so as to present them with the data and betting options that they want with seamless interactions.”

“What we do know is that as people create devices to make their lives easier, we will use our technology capabilities here at Matchbook to make our platform more customisable and more predictive.”

Marketing chief at Matchbook Roibeard Long.

However, the fledgling smartwatch market has exactly set the world alight; sales have been disappointing, especially with Android watches. It makes you wonder whether these wrist computers are firmly here stay, or merely a passing fad. “We don’t know if the future of wearables will be smart watches, helmets, or even tattoos,” Long says. “What we do know is that as people create devices to make their lives easier, we will use our technology capabilities here at Matchbook to make our platform more customisable and more predictive.”

Others, though, are unsure about the long-term prospects of smartwatches. “They do exactly what your phone does, just on a tiny screen and eight inches away from your phone,” says Donoughue. However, he is convinced that larger screens wrapped around a wrist could prove to be a viable proposition in the years to come.

Through the looking glass

Another wearable device that showed flashes of potential from a betting perspective was Google Glass – the head-mounted computer masquerading as a regular pair of glasses, albeit costing €1,000. One noticeable Google Glass evangelist is Betfair’s Barry Orr, who would often rock up to UK racetracks and appear on Channel 4 Racing wearing the intelligent spectacles.

Betfair’s tech team was able to display the company’s live exchange odds above his right eye. “It was so handy having the exchange prices in front of me – it was like looking at an autocue for relevant information that was in a tiny glass prism,” he says. “I was then able to relay prices to audiences and tell them if there had been a price movement in real time, so it added credibility to what I was saying.” He adds: “You don’t have to take you eyes off the action to bet in play. It’s definitely the future as technology becomes more advanced.”

However, Glass had its fair share of detractors. “People call you names like ‘Glasshole’, but ten years ago people said mobile phones wouldn’t take off like they have,” Orr explains. “Something will replace mobile phones.” Despite the prototype turning out to be massive flop and Google binning its hi-tech eyewear, the company is believed to have already created a second iteration that is more powerful and, more importantly, more practical and less conspicuous.

“Hopefully they can improve it, but it all hinges on being available to the mass market,” says Orr. “Also, you needed to have a phone, so I was connected through my phone’s [internet] hotspot. If they made it so you don’t need the phone then it could be a game changer.” Although you can see potential for placing bets at a sporting event without having to take your eyes off of the action, some remain unconvinced. “We are a long way from mass-market adoption…I don’t necessarily see something like that becoming the next big thing from a gambling perspective,” says Casey.

On the box

Away from betting at a stadium, ‘second-screening’ sport on the living room TV with a smartphone or tablet has become the norm nowadays. But could betting via the actual TV finally take off in the next few years? After all, smart TVs have been available for a few years now but we haven’t seen sports betting operators truly embrace betting on a home’s main screen. One obvious issue is that it can interrupt the action. According to Liam Casey management consultant for betonexperts.com we will see gambling companies appearing on our smart TV in the next 12-24 months.

Furthermore, scrolling through betting markets with a remote control can be a fiddly and cumbersome process (this could be improved with voice commands or a more intuitive controller). And betting is a private pastime for many people – you may not want your spouse to glance up and spot you’ve stuck £10 on Sergio Aguero to score first in the Manchester derby.

Despite these inherent challenges, sports betting apps could soon become regular fixtures on new smart TVs, according to Casey. “I know of at least two companies that are actively exploring deals with a couple of the largest hardware manufacturers in the world whereby if gambling is regulated in a particular market that the hardware manufacturer is serving, the gambling company’s product will be physically bundled with the smart TV. So with your new Samsung TV you will get your BBC, Netflix and there will be gambling companies appearing in there in the next 12-24 months.”

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ACCORDING TO LIAM CASEY WE WILL SEE GAMBLING COMPANIES APPEARING ON OUR SMART TV IN THE NEXT 12-24 MONTHS. PHOTO: ETC@USC/FLICKR

Donoughue, however, says he’s excited by the prospect of more TV audio syncing with a mobile device to serve up betting opportunities. For instance, Channel 4 created a ‘horse tracker’ app that synced with the TV commentary to allow viewers to follow the position and speed of their horse as well as the distance left to run.

Likewise, PokerStars has an audio-synced Play Along app that enables armchair poker fans to try to second-guess what players on TV will do next. “Therefore, I’m sitting watching TV with my tablet and it’s listening what I’m watching,” says Donoughue. “It can then, if I’ve given it permission, provide me with betting opportunities.”

A reality or not?

One development that’s being touted as the next big consumer entertainment technology is virtual reality, or VR. Next year sees the full release of Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, as well as HTC Vive, while Sony is also developing a VR headset for the PlayStation 4.

Not wishing to miss out on what could have a significant and disruptive impact on the gambling industry, bookmakers have been keeping more than a close eye on VR. In fact, a few companies have developed immersive prototype VR casino and poker products that recreate that feeling of being ensconced in a real life gambling venue.

As for sports betting, William Hill – arguably the most innovative operator in terms of product R&D – collaborated with production company Unit9 to recently launch its ambitious ‘Get In The Race’ prototype VR horseracing experience. Users straddle a mock racehorse and don VR equipment – either high-end kit like the Oculus Rift or a £10 smartphone-powered Google Cardboard set up – to experience a real horse race recreated in a 3D virtual environment from the perspective of the jockey. It’s made possible by GPS trackers attached to the horses. Users choose bets by turning their head towards a particular bet slip option, while looking down during the race displays stats such as race position, distance left to run, heart rate and stride length.

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THE VIRTUAL REALITY PLATFORM GOOGLE CARDBOARD. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA.

Rutherford says: “We can show this pretty much on anyone’s smartphone through Google Cardboard, and it really is something that we are selling in addition to that chance to win money – it really is the thrill of the ride. It has received almost unanimous positive feedback from everyone we’ve shown it to. Personally, I think it adds a lot to the experience and if it makes a difference to a customer having a bet with us rather than a competitor then it is a great addition to our product set.” This kind of technology could assist with making horseracing more appealing to millennials who generally prefer to bet on football, and perhaps even gamers who’ve never placed a bet in their adult lives.

“It rests on where VR gets in general. If it reaches a tipping point with the consumer then it will become a core part of our product set.”

William Hill’s innovation product lead, Alex Rutherford.

As to whether VR can become a ubiquitous piece of consumer entertainment and achieve widespread adoption as a gambling platform in the next few years, Rutherford, for one, is on the fence. “It rests on where VR gets in general. If it reaches a tipping point with the consumer then it will become a core part of our product set.” Meanwhile, Orr says: “VR definitely helps to enhance the experience, which can only be a good thing.” Donoughue, who says VR will never fully take off until the problem of motion sickness can me rectified, doubts VR’s merits as a gambling platform: “You have to question who really wants a full VR experience of a casino. You are basically just sitting next to people at a table or staring at a slot.”

Most of the experts are in agreement that mobile will inexorably grow to become the dominant channel, rather than any new hardware – be it wearables or VR –shaking up the industry. In fact, Casey serious doubts whether we’ll see giant leaps forward on the hardware front. “The online gambling industry didn’t exist 20 years ago and in that time mobile has probably been the biggest shift…I don’t see massive paradigm shifts or massive changes over the next five years in terms of how mobile sports betting is presented. Those big leaps aren’t going to be happening because they have already been made – the drive to mobile. So I think there will be slower progress over the next five years than you have in the last five years.”

If he’s indeed correct, it could be more a case of evolution rather than a revolution in the world of online betting.