Ismail Vali interviews Dr Laila Mintas, Chief Executive Officer of PlayUp USA
EI: Can you share some background on your career with readers and elaborate on your role as CEO for PlayUp USA?
As a lawyer by trade, I started my career at White & Case LLP where I was involved in many areas including gambling-related mandates. I wrote my PhD in law about Sports Betting via the Internet, which was published as a book. An executive at FIFA read it and hired me to run FIFA´s integrity efforts, where I was using sports betting related data to prevent, detect and sanction sports betting related cases of match-fixing. I negotiated agreements with betting operators but also led the discussions around commercial opportunities that the betting industry offers to sports.
Later, I became the first Director of Sports Integrity at CONCACAF – the administrative body for 41 soccer nations including the US, Canada and Mexico, where I did similar work as at FIFA.
When PASPA was repealed in 2018, I was heading up the US business for Sportradar. I became deeply involved in how betting data is collected, packaged and sold across the industry and negotiated commercial deals with the major US leagues to become their data partner. It was an interesting time during which many discussions about the value of “official data” and “integrity fees” started.
Through my involvement as Chairwoman of Bet.Works, I was involved in the omni-channel iGaming and sports betting platform business. After having worked in all different facets of the sports betting sector - on the league side, the data supplier side and the tech platform side – I was approached by an operator, PlayUp, and I couldn’t be more excited to have accepted my new challenge as CEO of PlayUp USA. I am part of a dynamic technology company that offers innovative sports betting and fantasy sports products, has a global footprint and is about to launch in the US.
Across my career, what has excited me most, is how we can combine technology with sports content or data to create something new and engaging, that hasn’t existed before.
EI: How have you found the COVID-19 period, so far, and how is it affecting the work of the team at PlayUp USA?
We’re fortunate to have seen our strongest growth since the company was founded. We are an online-only brand which certainly helps while navigating through these unprecedented times. The pandemic aside, being online only is a great and timely strategy. We have seen the strong trend in our society to use mobile phones as our-all-in-one-solution already before the pandemic. We use our phones to watch sports, book a hotel, call an Uber or buy a coffee. Mobile betting is not only the future, it’s the reality today. We see it in markets outside the US, like in the UK, where the majority of betting volume comes from mobile despite the broad retail presence and history. We also see that in New Jersey, where online betting accounts for over 80% of total betting volume.
EI: What are your core missions in your role as CEO for PlayUp USA? Has the loss of nearly all professional sports over the pandemic so far affected the roll-out and offering?
Over recent years, there has been little innovation across sports betting, globally. Probably the last revolutionary change was betting-in-running, with live streaming, allowing players to use the same app to view a game and bet on opportunities during play.
If you compare betting and gaming to other consumer-focused industries, we’ve been fairly late to the game introducing features like personalisation.
At PlayUp, our mission is to be disruptive. I wouldn’t have taken the CEO role just to introduce another sportsbook to the market. We want to be different, we want to be innovative and we are launching with differentiated products.
We already offer products in Australia that don’t exist in the USA today. Given our proprietary tech platform in-house, with our own trading and risk teams, we are agile and fast when it comes to new product development.
This proved advantageous during the suspension of traditional sports - for example, we launched our betting on esports offering and accelerated the launch of our fantasy racing products, both of which have been developing well.
EI: Will PlayUp pivot to casino, poker or other verticals to lessen the risk from a second wave of COVID decimating sports calendars again?
We are certainly looking into those verticals. Online casino has boomed since COVID, so many operators are rushing to cater to this audience. We will be offering a full suite of various products and I believe that casino and social casino are great products that can be used to cross-sell customers.
EI: Which US markets are you most involved with? What similarities and differences do they present? Can you discuss a challenge common to them all and solutions that helped you overcome it?
Before PASPA was repealed in 2018, Americans spent around US$200bn with offshore operators, according to several studies. Nevertheless, some of the first States to legalise sports betting, restricted the activity to the retail premises of casinos despite learnings from other countries which confirmed that legal online channels are required to convert sports fans from offshore, and now black market, sites.
I have been vocal on the black market for reasons including the risk of match-fixing and the lack of consumer protection. Now, as people stay home to self-isolate, State revenues from taxation upon betting and gaming are declining. We will hopefully see States respond to this by easing retail restrictions and fast-tracking legislation to enable online betting and gaming, which is a correct step and of course good for an online brand like PlayUp.
EI: Many look to the more mature European and Australian markets for learning and insight. Would you say that PlayUp USA has been heavily influenced by its Australian parent operation or do you wish to bring a wholly American experience to the platform for its US activities?
Working with an experienced and innovative team that has been operating in a regulated sports betting market like Australia has been a tremendous support. Their learnings and experiences are not to be underestimated, particularly as US sports are very popular in Australia. Our trading and risk teams are used to trading American sports and we offer very competitive odds by virtue of our in-house expertise. The popularity of US sports in Australia is certainly an advantage versus Europe where around 80% of the betting volume is from soccer. We don’t envisage importing an Australian experience to the US, however. We have the right products and business DNA for many markets, but each territory is unique - one can never apply the learnings on a cookie-cutter basis. American sports fans love their experience with greater data and analytics and sports betting needs to be seen as a tool to entertain and engage fans.
EI: Do you perceive a threat from the black market to the legal, licensed US State marketplaces? Does the black market present a problem for player protection?
Regulatory restrictions on products and bet types, for example betting on politics and entertainment, is a challenge that we face in US markets. In comparison to more mature online regimes, like the UK, none of the American States offer betting on the upcoming US elections. Black market sites can and will offer these bet types, but regulated onshore sites like PlayUp cannot.
Regarding player protection, as the black market is secretive and non-public, it presents a threat to sports integrity and the potential for corruption that comes from match and game-fixing. This area is a huge risk for player protection and undermines trust in sports, leagues, teams and betting and gaming.
EI: What is the most important challenge facing your mission over this year?
We have some processes on the operational side taking longer than usual due to partners and suppliers being affected by the challenges of COVID.
EI: What has been the most satisfying achievement for your team and yourself over this year?
When we started acquiring market access in the US this year, we won tender processes twice, underlining the trust and interest the US market has in PlayUp.
EI: Over your career, you’ve navigated challenge and reached success. What advice would you offer those just starting out in the industry?
There is no success without challenges: those challenges are what make you learn the most. Never be discouraged – focus, regroup and keep going.
I don’t like to follow certain procedures or processes just because of tradition. I wanted to challenge the status quo and find better ways of thinking, acting and delivering.
Looking for pain points that exist across the industry, and how they can be resolved, opens the mind to innovation and outside the box thinking. The global online sports betting and gambling industry is certainly a growing one that provides flexibility and space for great ideas.
EI: There are many stakeholders in betting & gaming: government, regulator, industry, media, gambling education and harm-prevention bodies, players and customers. Which one thing would you highlight as important for improving the conversation among all these stakeholders, in the USA, nationally, and in the most important US States?
The US sports betting market is still in its infancy. We have to make sure nobody risks the reputation of the industry by making short-sighted decisions. All stakeholders have to work hand in hand to protect the integrity of sports and protect our customers through effective responsible gaming policies. We need the right forum to discuss those topics and educate all stakeholders on best practices.
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