Virtual sports remain a mostly untapped market in the US

Scientific Games, Inspired Entertainment Form A Dynamic Virtual Sports Duo

Scientific Games (SG) announced this week that it has struck a deal with Inspired Entertainment to provide virtual sports products through its OpenMarket aggregation platform.

SG is among the world’s largest business-to-business gambling companies whose operations have increasingly focused on establishing a platform for connecting online gambling operators with third-party content creators.

Inspired, which recently had its best quarter on record, is also a global company with clientele in over 30 countries. It offers a variety of gaming products, including both online titles and physical cabinets.

The new partnership certainly has the potential to move the needle for virtual sports in the US.

“We’re thrilled to partner with Inspired Entertainment so our partners can offer their customers realistic computer-generated re-creations of their favorite sports, and keep customers engaged between games once live sports are back,” said Keith O’Loughlin, SG’s Senior VP for Digital Sportsbooks.

Virtuals starting to find traction in New Jersey

Virtual sports seem like a natural fit for the US online gambling market, given the range and intensity of the American public interest in sports.

In practice, there are numerous challenges.

Many of these, of course, stem from the fact that sports betting was until recently illegal under federal law. Lack of consumer familiarity and a shortage of US-specific products are only part of the problem, though. Perhaps the bigger issue is regulatory in nature.

The virtual sports experience appeals more to a casual sports bettor than a typical casino user. From a regulatory standpoint, however, these products are more like casino games whose outcome is not based on a real-world event.

That has mostly left virtuals languishing unnoticed among online casino offerings in New Jersey.

Bet365 NJ was the first operator to obtain permission to place virtual sports alongside conventional betting options, where they would typically be found in European and international markets. They’re still taxed as casino products, but they appear as an alternative form of sports betting from the players’ standpoint.

The deal between Inspired and SG should now make that arrangement more commonplace.

SG describes OpenMarket as “the industry’s first one-stop content marketplace for sports betting.” Operators using OpenMarket should now have an easy time integrating Inspired’s virtual sports into their online sportsbook.

Golden Nugget connection makes for a happy trio

One of the first beneficiaries of the deal is likely to be Golden Nugget. Despite being the market leader among NJ online casinos, it has up until now been only a small player in the sports betting space.

This February, Nugget expanded its existing partnership with SG to include sports betting. In the process it adopted SG’s OpenGaming and OpenSports platforms, which dovetail with OpenMarket.

That enhanced relationship has already borne fruit in the form of new slots offerings. Golden Nugget last month became the first US online casino site to offer games from ReelPlay, including its innovative Infinity Reels mechanic.

The makeup of its customer base may make it hard to compete in the sports betting space, though. Companies like DraftKings and FanDuel have a huge lead there, with top-tier league and media partnerships and an inherent sports-first focus. Virtuals, however, could serve as a bridge for cross-sell between the two segments.

Golden Nugget moreover has some of Inspired’s products already available within its casino. In fact, the very first virtual sports product in New Jersey was a virtual horse race produced by Inspired and offered by Golden Nugget.

Big potential in Pennsylvania, beyond

SG and Inspired also have a common partner in neighboring Pennsylvania, namely the state lottery. That partnership has been a fruitful one for both parties, yielding an expanded relationship in recent months.

PA online lottery sales have skyrocketed in conjunction with the drop in sales of physical tickets due to COVID-19. All-time online sales since launch have passed the $1 billion mark and recently set a single-day record of $4.2 million.

Meanwhile, virtual sports have already established themselves in Pennsylvania in offline form thanks to Inspired. The lottery rolled out its XPress Sports cabinets starting in August 2018 under a new law passed the year prior.

It’s less obvious what these mutual connections mean in PA. State law doesn’t include provisions for the lottery to offer traditional sports betting or virtual sports. Golden Nugget will soon be expanding into the state with an online casino as a Qualified Gaming Entity, but that license doesn’t cover sports betting either.

Although NJ and PA are the immediate priorities, SG and Inspired stressed that their partnership is long-term and multi-state in nature. And the list of potential US markets for virtual sports keeps growing.

Michigan and West Virginia may be appealing in the near term, as both have legalized online casinos and sports gambling.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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