Verizon mulls entry to sports gambling

U.S. Supreme Court expected to rule on a legalized betting case early this year

The Verizon logo is seen on the side of a truck in New York City, U.S., October 13, 2016.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The Verizon logo is seen on the side of a truck in New York City, U.S., October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Verizon Communications is considering entering the multibillion-dollar market for sports betting, which could become legal in the United States before the year is out, according to people familiar with the matter.

The New York-based phone giant, which last year bought Yahoo and its popular sports fantasy business, has been meeting with consultants to assess the potential for a sports-focused online gambling venture if the laws in this country change, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision early this year in a case that challenges the current federal prohibition on sports gambling.

“There are some changes coming that we pay attention to. We stay close to that to see how it would affect our asset and how we may chose to respond,” Verizon Chief Financial Officer Matt Ellis said Tuesday. “I’ve not looked at anything in detail.

“If someone has an idea around it, I’ll look at it like any other. But we are not getting ahead of ourselves there.”

The company ultimately may decide to stay away from gambling. After an earlier exploration, Verizon concluded that entering the business, dominated by casinos, would be a formidable competitive challenge, one of the people said.

But Verizon is trying to transform itself into a more diversified media business with deals like its $4.5 billion acquisition of Yahoo, and gambling is a tempting potential growth market. The company has the nation’s largest mobile network, with more than 100 million subscribers, and Yahoo has 1.3 billion users.

Yahoo’s fantasy sports unit has tens of millions of fans who spend 30 billion minutes a year managing imaginary teams and picking players, often paying fees to participate in guaranteed prize pools.

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Instead of trying to build a gambling business internally, Verizon could look at acquiring online sports-betting companies to speed up the process. That’s a strategy it has used in the past to get into a new line of business, such as its acquisition of Intel’s OnCue video service in 2014.

Verizon also has streaming rights to some National Football League and National Basketball Association games, which opens the door to live betting alongside broadcasts, a popular offering in markets like the United Kingdom. Last week, when Verizon announced an expanded streaming deal with the NBA, CEO Lowell McAdam and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discussed a $25 million joint investment to develop features such as quarter-by-quarter fantasy betting.

Both Verizon and the NBA see such contests as a way to boost fans’ interest and engagement in live games, even otherwise boring ones.

A fully regulated U.S. gambling market would be worth as much as $15.8 billion in revenue, according to a study by Eilers and Krejcik Gaming. That could include 44 million customers wagering $245 billion annually — about three times bigger than the firm’s estimate of the current black market for sports betting in the U.S.

Among the estimated black-market American betters, more than 90 percent place bets online, versus 33 percent in person.

After the Yahoo deal, Verizon created a media division called Oath. Oath contains Yahoo Fantasy, which for decades has been the most popular online service for season-long fantasy contests.

In 2015, Yahoo began offering for-money daily fantasy contests, which many consider a legal proxy for outright betting. It is now a distant third in the daily fantasy sports world, which is dominated by DraftKings Inc. and FanDuel Inc.

Those two larger rivals also are likely to consider becoming sports books if the laws change, Bloomberg reported last week.

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