Innovation By Jamie Hart

Changing the way sports betting works

I took my first bet just over 27 years ago. Some parts of the sports betting experience have changed significantly in that time, but others haven’t.

We’ve made massive strides in terms of the range and availability of sports betting markets for instance. In 1988, working in a betting shop in Cherry Hinton, Cambridge, the business was dominated by race-to-race horse and greyhound bets, supplemented by a flurry of football coupons on Saturdays. We opened at 10:15 am and closed either 15 minutes after the last horserace, or 6:30 pm - whichever was earlier. Winter was a blissful time for the betting shop worker. Opening up after a leisurely morning, done and dusted and in the pub by 5 pm – what was not to love?

All that changed as the availability of sport on TV increased. Rupert Murdoch’s new Sky broadcaster drove satellite TV sign-ups on the back of their football coverage, but those sports channels needed to be filled with live sport – a task that required far more games than the 4 o’clock kick off on Sunday provided (betting shops weren’t even open on Sundays in those days). That increase in live sports in turn drove demand for more betting opportunities, at all times of the day, and people needed to be able to access to it when the betting shops were closed.

Stan James led the way with in-play betting and a 24/7 call centre, whilst the later internet revolution paved the way for today’s relentless increase in sports, leagues, markets and betting opportunities. We at William Hill now regularly have over 10,000 markets available on hundreds of simultaneous in-play events across a multitude of sports. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the way we place the bets.

In the shops you fill in your betting slip, take it to the counter, pay your money and get a receipt/copy of your bet. Online you add your selections to a bet slip (a shopping cart, really), pay your money and get a (digital) receipt. In both scenarios the transaction itself isn’t particularly fun. The entertainment happens away from the counter, when you watch the match or the race. If you’re successful, in a shop you go back to the counter and get paid your winnings in cash - if you’re online you refresh your balance and are greeted with a higher number.

That’s the bit we’re changing: everything from the bet placement, to the emotional joyride of watching the bet unfold, to the payout.

In sports betting, we’ve traditionally relied on the match or the race to add the excitement, with few opportunities to quickly reinvest your winnings. To address that shortcoming, we started by introducing very short-term markets. In tennis this meant markets like “Who will win the next point?” and in football “What will happen in the next two minutes?”. But the rapid-fire nature of these markets strained our sportsbetting systems, meaning that there was a limit on how far we could develop the customer experience.

The urgency for a change in approach was highlighted most when we wanted to introduce betting on where the first dart will land as each player visited the oche. In the middle of a PDC match the gap between each player’s first dart is roughly 12 seconds. That’s 12 seconds for the system to create the market, price the market, publish the market, take bets on the market, take down the market, result the market and settle the bets on that market – and we have to repeat that process around eight times per leg until the match is won.

We challenged ourselves to solve this and soon realised we already had a system that could take and settle bets repeatedly in minimal time: our proprietary Vegas gaming platform was built for exactly that. Vegas deals with multiple spins of a slot machine, settles after every spin and gives our customers a rapid-fire betting experience. If we could get our Vegas platform looking at a sporting feed for its results instead of a Random Number Generator (RNG), we could build a gaming experience around a sporting event.

So, that’s what we’ve done.

Instead of having to add each selection to a bet slip and go through a checkout process, I can now place chips on a dartboard and watch as the dart hits home – and my chips explode and balance increases immediately. The process itself adds to the excitement of the event.

This is just the start. We’ve also built systems that combine gaming and sport to bring rapid churn to events that would otherwise be impossible to price accurately. Building the RNG into the selection process adds excitement, removes risk and enables us to offer an engaging betting product at a much smaller margin than we would have been able to via traditional betting methods.

Building dedicated apps to showcase the process enables us to bring a much richer, more immersive and more engaging experience to bear when ‘second screening’, and it’s now so engaging we’ve found customers often don’t need the TV coverage. The app creates its own atmosphere and you don’t want to take your eyes off the screen.

For those looking to experience these first-hand, please look out for our upgrade to the William Hill darts app, which will be hitting app stores in time for the William Hill PDC World Championships this December, and our revolutionary new app “Cheer Me Up”, soon to be released under our experimental WHLabs brand. With these apps, as ever, we’re looking to push boundaries, learn and improve with everything we build, therefore we’d welcome your feedback.

We have a long list of sports and treatments we’d like to provide, but we’ll always be guided by what our customers want us to give them next.