Simon Noble: A Deep Dive with the Man Who Witnessed the First Online Wager

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Simon Noble was there when it all started. Some 20 years ago, he worked at Intertops and saw the first online wager make its way through the World Wide Web and set in motion the cogwheels of machinery that would grow into a multi-billion dollar market before long.

Today, Simon brings his expertise to Champion Sports, a supplier of premier sports betting software, and he finds himself in the right place to shape the future of the entire industry. There are few people more capable and more right for the job than Simon.

As Sports Product Director, he has witnessed the changes that have defined the industry over the years. As one of his colleagues said last year, the pandemic has put a highlight on responsible gambling and how important it is to the industry, and naturally consumers.

Here with us is Simon Noble who will further outline what the New Year is likely to bring and why, and where the future of sports betting lies.

Q: Simon, it’s good to have you here. You are an industry heavyweight with a lot of experience, and our first question is about how it felt to see that first wager drop at Intertops Sports?

It was an electric moment!

As a safety precaution, the original system was connected to a dot matrix printer and each time a bet was placed, the printer would jump into action to record the transaction. Our logic was that even if someone managed to compromise our network security, it would be impossible for them to alter the manual record.

A number of us were working late into a cold January evening in Salzburg and the printer would periodically make this whirring sound as we continued to place various test bets to check the system was still working and everything was fine. Eventually, there were only 3 or 4 of us left in the room talking and we heard the printer go.

We all looked at one another as if to say, “did you do that?” and then sprinted over to take a look. It was not only our first bet but the first bet ever placed online by a player called Jukka Honkavaara from Finland. I think we all would have kissed him then and there!

It was amazing to think that the journey we had started months before based on a lot of hard work and a naïve optimism that online betting might actually be a thing one day had actually happened.

After waiting for another hour to see if any more bets came in, we grabbed our coats and headed out to celebrate…

Q: What do you make of regulation? Intertops still operates as a sort of a grey area sportsbook but you have since moved to share your expertise with regulated operators. Do you see regulated sports betting as the only way forward?

That being said, I think regulation is the only way forward for sports betting as it ensures the fairness and integrity of the games and dictates how betting activities are conducted within that jurisdiction.  This creates a trusted environment for players and provides a degree of certainty and a level playing field for the operator.

It also provides avenues for the creation and provision of player protection legislation and responsible gambling activities to provide resources to help with addiction for those players when the fun in gambling is no longer fun.

Online betting has come a very long way in 20 years and operators have long since learned that without earning and maintaining the trust of regulators and players alike, we cannot create sustainable, long-term business value.

Q: Can you share some monumental changes in the sports betting industry over the years, events that really razed the board and pushed us all in a new direction as an industry?

In my mind, nothing has changed the betting and gaming industry as much as online betting and the change to remove the need for players to be physically present in a betting shop or at the racetrack in order to place a bet.

It’s easy to forget just how exciting and breathless the early days of the Internet and online betting and gaming actually were. We were all working ridiculous hours, often in exotic locations and riding the crest of a wave that none of us could ever have imagined and fewer still predicted.

From gaming hotspots in far-flung places such as Gibraltar, Antigua, Costa Rica, Darwin and Curacao you seemingly could not go out to a bar or restaurant without seeing another operator there, forcing you to keep your voice down when discussing business. It was an incredibly incestuous industry, and everyone seemed to know everyone else or at least claimed they did with rumours running rampant the entire time. Who was doing what and how much?

We were all pushing the envelope in some way in an arms race to offer more sports… more leagues… more games… more markets… but then there were the game-changers. Events or innovation that seemed so astounding at the time that they genuinely changed the game.

The first one to shake the establishment to the core was the seemingly unstoppable rise of Betfair and betting exchanges. Once Betfair merged, or rather acquired Flutter, their one serious rival they dominated the sector with unrivalled liquidity.

‘Claiming’ 20 per cent better odds much to the chagrin of traditional bookmakers, it was the fact that you could back a horse to lose that terrified jockey clubs and high street bookmakers all over the world.

Not only that, but players could bet live in-play – another first – and easily trade out of a position to limit their losses or lock in a profit but more on that later….

Seemingly in parallel to the rise of Betfair was the early successes of Mark Blandford and the Sportingbet group. With an ostensibly unlimited supply of ‘paper money’, access to capital and a blank cheque book, Sportingbet soon began snapping up some of the best and the brightest brands in offshore gaming from Sportsbook.com to Paradise Poker.

All of us looked on with envy from the outside and before you knew it, there wasn’t an offshore operator worth their salt who wasn’t attempting to woo the investment community or at the very least Mark directly. There must have been a five year period when I can’t believe he ever had to buy a drink at a gaming conference…

This all came to a grinding halt in 2006 following the arrest of David Carruthers, the CEO of Bet on Sports PLC on charges under the RICO act while flying through the States. Following the passage of the UIGEA in the dead of night later that year in October, early retirement plans were put on hold across US-facing operators in Costa Rica and beyond.

Fortunately for non-US facing operators it wasn’t just in London that big things were happening. In Austria too, a small Austrian outfit called Bet and Win with access to capital on the Wiener Börse were also on the IPO and acquisition trail after acquiring Simon Bold in 2001. Led by co-CEOs Norbert Teufelberger and Manfred Bodner, not content with rebranding as BWIN, they stunned European gaming circles with their World record shirt sponsorship of the mighty Real Madrid.

A few years earlier, Mansion had attempted to sponsor the shirts of Manchester United but settled for a multiyear sponsorship of Tottenham Hotspur when their offer was rejected. However, the coup of pulling off a sponsorship agreement with the likes of Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich was for the time absolutely unprecedented.

When not sponsoring the other giants of club football, BWIN and a relative newcomer to online betting called bet365 were seeing some amazing results with streaming live sport to complement their product offering and live markets. With that the race to offer more markets, across more games, from more sports was well and truly on, in a space that bet365 soon came to dominate thanks to their highly successful campaigns with Ray Winstone.

In Asia too, there was a huge increase in the product offered not only pre-game but live. Even matches from leagues many of us had ever heard of were offered live in-play at wafer thin margins and nosebleed limits.

Then after being the next big thing at every gaming conference since the start of the Millennium, mobile betting finally began to fulfil its promise. Following the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and numerous other copycat smart phone devices soon after, mobile arrived and made a huge impact to our daily lives and the way that the majority of players bet today.

After the initial mobile gold rush where everyone tried to replicate every single feature from the desktop experience on mobile (with varying degrees of success), we have seen leading brands attempt to differentiate their mobile offering by taking a customer first approach to the user experience.

In recent years, Cash Out has been hugely influential when first launched by Betfair and subsequently perfected by bet365 as has request-a-bet but all of these have really been made possible by the ‘rise of the machines’ – the algorithms, derivative pricing engines, automated trading systems – that you will find in every self-respecting, trading room today.

There was a time where books would be heavily criticised for ‘moving on air’ when the trading room would move a price by following the moves in Asia or at other bookmakers known to have high limits without taking a bet themselves. Now thanks to services like Bet Radar and Bet Genius no self-respecting bookmaker would dare trade without their little black boxes.

Let’s not forget that none of this would have been possible without forward thinking legislators. What difference have they made? In just 12 short years we went from the passage of the UIGEA to the repeal of PAPSA in 2018 in the US alone…

Q: What is your opinion of the U.S. market? Where is it headed and will Champion Sports thrive in that ecosystem?

Unquestionably it is a hugely exciting opportunity for all operators and extremely encouraging for bookmakers due to the obvious appetite for betting on sports amongst the American public.

The repeal of PASPA has enabled unprecedented opportunities for the sports betting industry and a whole host of other organisations. We have seen major marketing partnerships between operators, professional sports franchises and leagues and no doubt this month’s Superbowl will set new records for single game handle and revenue.

Obviously much depends on the enabling legislation and levels of taxation. No doubt in the coming years, focus will shift to whether the ROI on marketing spend continues to be strong, and if these deals were a key part of the success or end up being a cautionary tale.

One thing is certain that to be successful, it will require a great deal of investment, not only from a technological and infrastructure perspective but also from a marketing perspective. 

At Champion Sports, we believe we can thrive in this ecosystem by providing flexible, customer centred solutions that allow operators to take control of their brand and enhance the player experience by using advanced, responsive technology to scale their business.

Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, at Champion Sports we are seeking to work with partners to achieve distinct service differentiation for their sportsbook operations. This bespoke approach provides feature and function differentiation to maximize the operator’s competitive advantage and leverage their brand.

Q: Looking south, do you see Latin America as an opportunity? A few markets are already on the move down there!

Undoubtedly there is enormous potential – Brazil for example is the sixth most populous country in the World, where sports betting accounts for an estimated 95% of the local market, but there are challenges for foreign operators looking to enter Latin America. First and foremost, it will be heavily dependent on the enabling legislation and the applicable levels of taxation.

H2 Gambling Capital last year estimated that sports betting gross win for offshore operators from Brazil were worth R$169.8 million (US$32 million). They anticipate that this could rise to upwards of R$2.39 billion (US$451.73 million) in a gross win by 2024 within a proper regulatory framework and taxation structure.

At Champion Sports, we are aiming to prioritise the markets with the biggest potential and will focus our efforts on them. We see the key to success in Latin America in working with strong local partners using a localised, bespoke version of our premium sportsbook solution to provide a seamless betting experience for players across an extensive range of in-play events and markets from the most popular local leagues and cup competitions.

Q: How about Asia, you attended the PAGE Phil Asia Gaming Expo 2021 earlier in January? Did you see the interest you were hoping for?

Asia continues to excel in its way of doing things – unique in many ways, similar in many others but must always be respected for its differences…

All too often you will see companies attempting to make their one-dimensional product fit into a three-dimensional market. Whereas many years ago players would be reasonably content with a ‘one size fits all’ approach, personalisation and localisation are an absolute must and we have found this certainly to be evident in the appeal of Champion Sports in our largest market. 

It can also be difficult for some to compete as the industry continues to evolve, however events such as PAGE are a great platform for us all to review the industry as a whole. Through the provision of insights and education via a well organised series of seminars and events we see reinforcement of the ongoing maturity of the market, and that resonates with what we discussed earlier regarding Regulation being a key factor.

Operators are increasingly and acutely aware that any product that has the privilege of being added to the portfolio on their site represents their brand and integrity. This is the reason we insist that at Champion Sports everything we deploy is tested and certified to Tier 1 standards. We are proud to be in an age that embraces this and PAGE really highlighted what an incredible and exciting industry this is.

Q: Commenting on changing legislation globally, do you think the industry is headed in the right direction in places such as Germany, Spain, and the UK?

Change is inevitable given the increasing concern about gambling’s role in society. In the UK for example, we have seen a series of well-publicised incidents that have been incredibly damaging to the industry as a whole.

My main concern is that the regulations do not go too far and rather than protect players, will instead drive them into unregulated markets and operators without the same safeguards in place and little to no player protection.

Q: Do you think that at one point the United States will get as “strict” about gambling as the UK?

We haven’t seen the same level of negativity or backlash towards the industry since the repeal of PASPA but I believe it is only a question of when not if. The United States public have embraced their new found freedoms as we have seen a steady progression of enabling legislation enacted across the Nation. Responsible gaming initiatives have yet to gain the same level of traction that we have seen in more mature gaming markets but it is likely to be only a matter of time if we want to build a sustainable industry in future.

Q: How do you imagine the future of sports betting globally in five years’ time?

I think we will see land-based, online and mobile betting, in particular, become more widely accepted and adopted globally with increasing regulation as countries and states that previously prohibited sports betting, will look to embrace the taxation benefits that a well-regulated and responsible industry can bring.

I think we are going to see further consolidation within the industry and the market entry of at least one major media or technology company, as the gaming and entertainment industries continue to converge as interest in sports changes creating unique opportunities for increased player engagement and social interaction.

In terms of the operators themselves, there will be a continued focus on building distinctive brands and marketing capability with further innovation in product development as operators look to create intuitive products focused on customer needs and player engagement.

At Champion Sports, our operators stress the importance of providing a fast, easy and responsive experience throughout the customer journey, from initial registration and the funding of their account through to bet placement, settlement and withdrawal.

I think we are going to see advances in gamification and finding ways to connect players and communities throughout the game and the increased adoption of ‘minute’ or ‘micro’ markets on live events to give players an unparalleled choice of reasons to wager throughout the game.

As Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been” and at Champion Sports our aim will be to continue to deliver the vision, core functionality and feature-rich sportsbook solutions to create a high-quality and engaging sports betting experience that supports their needs and creates real business value for our operators.

Oh and hopefully we also won’t have to wait 5 years before we see an eSports feed that truly does justice to the sport…

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