Mobile sports betting is still in its infancy in Arkansas but early returns show the appetite is there for betting on the go.
The Arkansas Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee approved mobile sports betting through one of the state’s three existing casinos in February 2022. The Arkansas Racing Commission had recommended the expansion in December 2021; sports betting on-site at an Arkansas casino had been approved by voters in 2018.
Southland Casino Hotel in West Memphis launched its mobile betting app, Betly, in March. Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff launched its platform, Bet Saracen, in May, followed by Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort’s launch of Oaklawn Sports in September.
Mobile sports betting allows wagering on college and professional sports from a mobile device, laptop or desktop computer from anywhere in the state. Previously, a gambler would have to be physically inside one of the state’s casinos to place a bet.
Saracen has seen the most mobile success, handling more than $52 million in bets between May and November, according to the state Department of Finance & Administration. That is $42 million more than its on-site sports betting handle from January through November.
Southland, which had the state’s first mobile betting app, handled $39 million between March and November, $13 million more than its on-site handle for the year. Oaklawn’s mobile sports handle was $5 million for the three months of operations; it handled $20 million on-site through November.
“We are very pleased with the performance of our Betly online and mobile sportsbook offerings,” Osi Imomoh, president and general manager of Southland, said in an email to Arkansas Business. “After about nine months under our belt, we are seeing positive growth — growth that is sustainable and doesn’t inflate the market with loss-leading promotions and bonuses that oftentimes come with the out-of-state national brands.”
The Arkansas mobile sports betting model is unique in that it requires 51% of the net revenue to be reserved for the casino. National sportsbooks such as FanDuel and DraftKings had argued against that rule before the Arkansas Legislature adopted it in February.
“The very first thing you have to recognize is that Arkansas cut its own path in terms of regulating mobile,” said Carlton Saffa, the chief market officer for Saracen. “Arkansas’ model will prove to be the right model. Arkansas and the Racing Commission rightly saw that the casinos should be in the driver’s seat for sports betting.”
Saffa said the usual agreements between casinos and sportsbooks in other states have the sportsbook keeping up to 90% of the revenue. That makes the casino a silent, minority partner, Saffa said.
“If your name is on something but you’re only going to get 5% to 15% of what it produces, it is difficult to believe it is really yours,” Saffa said. “Arkansas did the smart thing.”
Saffa said by keeping more money local, the Arkansas model will result in more jobs and more tax revenue for the state. Saffa said there are three public policy reasons for gambling: jobs, taxes and keeping revenue local.
“If you have created an environment where you have outsourced sports betting to a third party, very few jobs are created,” Saffa said. “If you’re giving away so much in promotions that the business is not sustainable, there are no taxes created.”
As promising as the early numbers are, casino officials have to be even more enthused about where the numbers can go once mobile sports betting gains a foothold.
Mobile sports betting is active in 23 states and the District of Columbia with another three states soon to become operational. The American Gaming Association estimates Americans bet more than $63 billion on sports on unregulated sites, compared with $100 billion at legal sites, so there is plenty of bite in the country’s gambling appetite.
“We believe there is room for growth as mobile sports betting has only been introduced for four to six months in Arkansas,” said Oaklawn General Manager Wayne Smith. “As we found with our Oaklawn Anywhere horse racing app, it will take two to four years for the state to hit its peak.”
All three Arkansas casinos — a fourth will eventually open in Pope County — have expanded or announced plans to expand their gaming and hotel facilities. The beauty of mobile sports betting is that gamblers can access the betting floor from the comfort of their homes.
“We’ve tailored all our products to our Southland customers and continue to evolve their gaming experience with Betly online, as well as at the property by expanding the casino and adding a hotel and other amenities — all of which are driving revenues into Arkansas,” Imomoh said.
Saffa said Saracen’s casino advantage is its proximity to Little Rock. Its gambling app doesn’t have that advantage.
“Location, location, location still applies with gaming,” he said. “Throw that out of the window with sportsbook because our app is just as close to everyone in Arkansas as the other apps. [Northwest Arkansas] is a huge, important market for us. We have huge players in southwest Arkansas, a huge presence in the Jonesboro market. It doesn’t matter where the players are; it doesn’t matter where we are.”