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The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) recently voted to grant FanDuel temporary approval to offer mobile betting on horse racing. The vote was unanimous, 4-0.
The proposal came to the MGC from Suffolk Downs, which acts as FanDuel’s racing partner in the state. The app could go live as soon as January.
Massachusetts currently allows online horse betting and daily fantasy sports but no other forms of online gambling. A bill was introduced at the beginning of 2019, which would have legalized online sports betting, but it has since stalled.
FanDuel was acquired by gambling giant Flutter in May 2018, back when the parent company was still known as Paddy Power Betfair.
Flutter also owns horse racing broadcast network and betting provider TVG, which is already active in Massachusetts. Following the acquisition of FanDuel, it restructured its US assets — including TVG — under one umbrella known as FanDuel Group.
It’s perhaps obvious that TVG is partners with Suffolk Downs. What’s more, FanDuel links directly to TVG’s app from within its own DFS app. In fact, the new FanDuel Racing app is built on top of TVG’s platform.
That doesn’t mean the new racing platform is redundant. Only 5% of FanDuel’s customers currently cross over to TVG, the company says, due in part to a lack of familiarity.
Flutter hopes that creating a new app with FanDuel branding will make its DFS customers more comfortable branching out into horse betting. The user interface will also more closely resemble FanDuel Sportsbook than TVG, making it more approachable to those customers.
It’s also about brand unity.
Massachusetts may yet legalize sports betting, and potentially even online casino gambling. FanDuel will want to offer all the verticals under one brand if that materializes, so it makes sense to get its racebook set up ahead of time.
Establishing its brand is of special importance for FanDuel in Massachusetts, given its primary rival is headquartered in Boston.
It doesn’t seem like FanDuel’s expansion into horse racing in Massachusetts is simply a compromise in the absence of broader options. Integrating its brand into TVG’s platform seems to be the plan nationwide, or at least in states where horse racing is popular.
Massachusetts may be the first state to get a dedicated FanDuel Racing app, but it probably won’t be the last.
In July, TVG and FanDuel landed a partnership deal with the Breeders’ Cup. This year’s Breeder’s Cup races took place in November at Santa Anita Park in California. The betting handle was up 12% from 2018, perhaps in part due to this partnership.
Shortly thereafter, FanDuel secured permission from the California Horse Racing Board to begin accepting advance deposit wagers through its racebook on behalf of TVG.
The strategy likely comes Flutter executives rather than from the FanDuel team itself. Racing is still very popular in the UK and Ireland after all, and important to both Paddy Power and Betfair. Indeed, Flutter’s name comes from the expression “to have a flutter,” meaning to place a casual bet on a horse race.
There’s certainly no shortage of experience at Flutter to guide FanDuel in addressing the US racing market.
It’s a bold strategy, however. It means expending money forging a path into a market that’s already struggling.
Suffolk Downs is a former thoroughbred racetrack located not far from Logan International Airport in East Boston. It opened way back in 1935, but the historic oval hosted its last live race on June 30. Today, it only offers simulcast wagering on races hosted elsewhere in the country.
The date of that final race just so happened to coincide with the opening of Wynn Resorts Encore Boston Harbor.
At the same time, Wynn was pitching its casino to the MGC, Suffolk Downs had a proposal of its own. In partnership with Mohegan Gaming, it suggested opening a casino at the racetrack. That proposal would have guaranteed that live horse racing would continue at the track for at least 15 years.
The MGC said no, however, opting to go with Wynn instead.
It’s not just Suffolk Downs that’s suffering, nor even only Massachusetts.
Nationwide horse racing peaked in 2003, around the same time the poker boom began. Bettors wagered a record $15.2 billion on US horse racing that year.
The industry has been on the decline since then, however. Revenues have dropped by an average of 1.4% annually since 2013. Competition from other forms of gambling and a lack of interest among younger generations are presumably the main factors behind the decline. Does that remind you of anything else, poker players?
In Massachusetts, the picture is particularly bleak.
It’s down to just a single venue still offering live racing, Plainridge Park Casino, which holds a license to host harness racing. The state’s horse racing statutes are moreover set to expire on Jan. 15, which would shut down both racing and simulcast facilities.
The MGC has pushed the House for another time-limited extension and presumably expects to get it. After all, there would be little point in authorizing the FanDuel app if there would be no races to bet on by the time it came to the market.
Getting a big brand like FanDuel involved might help in the long run. Even so, the MGC’s tone might best be described as cautiously optimistic.
“I’m somewhat encouraged by what FanDuel is trying to do or positioned for the players in terms of introducing new folks to horse racing and race betting,” said Commissioner Bruce Stebbins.
The ongoing explosion of legal sports betting in the US is likely to accelerate the decline of horse racing nationwide. It appears, however, that FanDuel may be hoping to drive things the other way and carve out a niche for itself in the process.
That’s a story to keep an eye on next year — especially as Kentucky, the nation’s horse racing capital, is among the top candidates to pass a comprehensive online gambling bill in 2020.