U.S. Sports Leagues Remain High On Official Data Value As Pushback Begins

March 23, 2023
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As some operators review their partnerships with leagues, and at least one state is revisiting its official data policy, representatives from major sports leagues say much of the U.S. market is still using its data and that the value in doing so remains high.

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As some operators review their partnerships with leagues, and at least one state is revisiting its official data policy, representatives from major sports leagues say much of the U.S. market is still using its data and that the value in doing so remains high.

The concept of official data mandates at a policy level was introduced by major leagues in 2018 as sports-betting legalization exploded throughout the U.S. and ultimately proved to be far more successful than the league’s ill-fated request for a direct “integrity fee” payout from sports-betting operators, with at least eight states boasting some kind of official data requirement to settle in-play wagers as part of their laws or regulations.

However, in most cases, official data has been purchased by operators as a result of private commercial agreements rather than directly because of legal requirements in key state markets.

David Highhill, vice president and general manager of sports betting for the National Football League (NFL), said “almost 100 percent” of the U.S. sports-betting market is using the league’s official data.

“It is vital as the source of record,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of pushback.

“I think it's unique for us that we can incorporate not only our down in distance, as quickly and as accurately as we can, which is faster and better than anyone but also that we can layer on our next gen statistics,” he added, referring to proprietary data collected from player and ball tracking.

Eric Rimsky, U.S. head of fantasy sports and betting for the National Basketball Association (NBA), said that he believes official data will only become more valuable as the popularity of in-game betting continues to grow.

“Now we're seeing greater than 40 percent [in-game] but we expect to have closer to 70 percent, which is what we're seeing internationally for in-game betting,” he said. “So official league data becomes even more important as we move along that spectrum.”

Casey Brett, senior vice president of business development at Major League Baseball (MLB), added that the league’s value proposition when it comes to official league data is about “speed, accuracy, and data fidelity richness.”

“I can’t name a sportsbook that isn’t using official league data right now,” Brett said. “It’s been really successful in terms of helping to drive a lot of product innovation, which is the whole purpose for us.

“Nobody's denying the speed component relative to an unofficial data source,” he continued, adding that the latency from the field to the data feed “right now just isn’t being beat in the market.”

“Will there always be an unofficial data stream? Yes, I think that is something at the end of the day, there's somebody who can sit in front of a TV screen and log a game,” Brett added.

“Will it ever be able to beat the official? No, and I think the gap is actually going to widen because of the fact that we continue to invest in a lot of product development.”

Most states with official data mandates on the books would first require sport leagues to trigger the mandate by filing a request with the regulator that it desires operators to exclusively use the league data.

However, given their commercial agreements with many of the major operators in the U.S., leagues have not had to go down that enforcement route to date.

A spokeswoman for the Michigan Gaming Control Board said no league has filed such a request in accordance with the state's 2019 sports-betting law. Similarly, in Arizona, although IMG Arena is an approved official data provider for a host of league governing bodies, none of the four major North American leagues has filed for such approval.

In Illinois, both Genius Sports and IMG Arena are listed on the Illinois Gaming Board’s website as applicants for an Official League Data Provider license pursuant to state law, but according to the site, no change has been made to their application status since 2021.

Instead, Tennessee has recently become the epicenter for the official data debate because it is the only state that requires operators to use official league data to settle in-play wagers unilaterally, without any action needed from the league to force it. The requirement would only cease to apply if an operator can demonstrate to regulators that official league data was not available on commercially reasonable terms.

As a result, every operator in Tennessee that wishes to take bets on NFL games is effectively forced by regulatory requirements to purchase official league data from Genius Sports, the league’s exclusive data provider.

SuperBook and Betly recently filed requests with the Tennessee Sports Wagering Advisory Council for permission to use unofficial NFL data, claiming the official data was not being offered on commercially reasonable terms.

“We are confident that the outcome of such in-game wagers can be determined objectively, accurately and timely using other reliable data sources,” Superbook wrote in its request. “Mandating Superbook to utilize official league data feeds will negatively impact our bottom line while providing little to no value to users in Tennessee.”

Rather than try to judge whether the cost of using official NFL data was commercially reasonable, the Tennessee regulator deferred a decision on official league data to the legislature, with executive director Mary Beth Thomas suggesting the legislature look to remove the requirement.

“In other words, let the market sort out what is commercially reasonable,” she said. “I think the bottom line here is that these are highly sophisticated tech companies that are engaged in the complex business of sports wagering.”

Thomas added that plenty of sportsbooks use Genius’ services in other jurisdictions even when not required to.

“This tells me that there are some operators who believe that the services are very worthwhile to their business,” she said. “On the other hand, we have two experienced operators that do not believe they need the services offered by Genius. This tells me that there may be other viable options.”

The Tennessee legislature is indeed considering such a move to reconsider its official league data requirement, with bills filed in both chambers of the state’s legislature that would repeal the official data requirement entirely.

Chris Bevilacqua, CEO of microbetting technology provider Simplebet, said one of his concerns regarding official league data is potentially stifling innovation.

“The way they’ve architected [data rights] today as it’s moving into exclusivity, they’ve given these rights to essentially the gatekeepers … and the conversations I have quite regularly with the leagues is you don’t want to farm out innovation to gatekeepers,” he said. “It’s a real issue.”

“I don’t think it’s going to stay the way it is now, there’s obviously a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes with the regulators involved, there’s people looking at all this,” he continued. “I’d like to see it more malleable in terms of the way the leagues bring it into the market with their partners, and I think there’s some work to do there."

Bevilacqua and the league officials spoke about the official data issue during the iGaming Next conference in New York City earlier this month.

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