Sportsbooks look for competitive edge in deep Ontario pool

By Tom Nightingale

The sports betting field in Ontario has quickly become saturated. A score of online betting gaming operators from Canada, the U.S., Europe, and beyond have waded into the provincial regulated market since it went live on April 4. More, of course, will follow.

From an operator’s point of view, it has been a long time coming, and many have seen the rewards of patience and preparation already.

PointsBet Canada and Rush Street Interactive (RSI) brand BetRivers were two who jumped in with both feet from day one, while U.S. giant DraftKings went live in the market six weeks after the curtain was raised.

It is still early days, of course. You don’t need us to tell you that. But, nonetheless, there are conclusions to (tentatively) draw and behaviours to assess. How is the market stacking up? How are brands profiting from the flurry of partnerships that has characterized the last few months? What can we look to on the horizon?

We got together with PointsBet Canada CEO Scott Vanderwel, DraftKings’ President of North America Matt Kalish, and RSI’s Managing Director in Canada Bruce Caughill to assess the early going.

What key conclusions can be drawn from the first weeks?

Caughill: To put it simply, the response we’ve seen since launch has really reinforced that there is a huge appetite for regulated online casino and sports betting within the Ontario market. Our new customers tell us that they enjoy the convenience of wagering with us as well as our product and offerings. It’s been an affirming experience thus far to see tangibly the demand that we all were confident was there in this province. It has really been exciting to see.

Vanderwel: As a truly new player in the market, there’s a tremendous opportunity ahead of us, and Ontario bettors have demonstrated a level of sophistication that excites us. We’ve been encouraged by the market’s interest in product differentiators and depth of offering. In particular, we’ve loved the response around live in-play markets, lightning bets, and the flexibility of cash-out options. We know Canadians want a trusted, fast experience, and the action we’ve seen across basketball, hockey, baseball, and tennis in the opening weeks suggests to us that we are resonating with them.

Kalish: We just see so much potential to grow and evolve our relationship with Ontario sports fans. We did not launch immediately but we believe providing an exceptional service over the long term to customers will win in the long run. We didn’t believe being a first mover on April 4 was a significant factor for us because there were so many incumbent grey market operators already operating in Ontario. Additionally, our brand is healthy here: we’ve had significant momentum from serving many DFS fans since 2012 in the province.

There has been much focus on partnerships and affiliates in this market. Why is that so important here?

Kalish: Since we are in the early stages on the betting side in Ontario, it’s important to build awareness that our products have launched through various advertising techniques. We want to really showcase what we can offer passionate Ontario sports fans and those who enjoy playing online casino games, hopefully winning them over and exceeding their expectations. We also want to actively promote our resources for responsible gaming and other relevant community efforts such as our Corporate Social Responsibility program, DraftKings S.E.R.V.E.S., and partnerships and affiliates are a great way to do that.

Vanderwel: When the PointsBet Canada team began building for the Ontario launch, we placed a major emphasis on curating a brand that is authentically Canadian. Our team on the ground in Toronto has worked hard to secure and begin realizing brand-defining partnerships, be it national governing bodies like Curling Canada, iconic local entities like MLSE, or unapologetically Canadian brand ambassadors like the Trailer Park Boys. From our perspective, true partnerships allow us to talk to Canadians inside the sports communities that are important to them. We prefer to entertain and converse more directly than screaming at folks via a 30-second commercial.

Caughill: Partnerships and marketing will continue to be really important, given the regulations around sign-up offers and the sheer saturation of the market. We want to help Ontarians become aware of us and building trust and creating awareness through known brands is key to that. It’s all along the lines of the communication piece and the customer experience. Canadian sports broadcaster Dan O’Toole is creating content for us that is really entertainment-based, more than just gaming, for example. We also see a great opportunity to be a gender-neutral brand and appeal to both men and women, and we try to partner with brands that are consistent with that and leverage that. If you look at the demographics and how things are changing in the long run, we feel the gender differentiation that has historically been the case within betting is going to level out further. We want to support that as much as we can.

Looking ahead is a tough gig given the pace of change, but where do you see us going from here?

Vanderwel: As a regulated Canadian industry, we are just getting started. As a company, we’re just excited to compete. We anticipate many more operators entering the fold in Ontario while other provinces continue to evaluate their respective best paths forward. We welcome that within an open, regulated, and competitive iGaming environment as seen in Ontario. Importantly, we expect the framework in place to create a healthy ecosystem where non-regulated operators are no longer in a position to offer false equivalency to those operators embracing the regulated market. We are about open and fair competition and believe this will ultimately create the right level of innovation in our space.

Caughill: We’re excited about the opportunity to market in an inclusive way for both the sports betting and online gaming side. I just think it’s a really exciting time to be in the industry and not just on the online side. There are going to be so many new and different opportunities that come out of this, and for me personally, to have started in the bricks-and-mortar world with Niagara Casinos so long ago and now to be in this role in the online world, it’s really an amazing thing to witness and be a part of.

Kalish: We’ve seen so much progress being made across the industry, whether it’s the expansion of legalized sports betting in new territories or sports leagues partnering with operators. This growth and mainstream adoption of legalized sports betting is very encouraging because it enhances the fan experience and provides consumers with protections that do not exist in an unregulated market. We also know that a healthy regulated industry generates meaningful tax revenue for states and territories to fund important priorities, as well as create new jobs. It’s truly exciting to see what’s next for the industry, and I think we’ll see more investment in experiences and rapid product enhancements now that there is a clear, regulated market in Ontario.

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