When it comes to online casinos and sports betting in the Great White North, PointsBet Canada isn’t playing.
PBC is the Canadian-facing off-shoot of Australia’s PointsBet, a cutting-edge bookmaker that prides itself on its user-friendly tech. Founded in the land Down Under in 2015, PointsBet successfully entered the American gaming market in early 2019.
As of today, PB is active in ten states, including New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Iowa (plus Australia). And with Ontario online casino and sports betting market launching on April 4, PointsBet Canada aims to extend that reach north of the border.
‘We’re exuberant,” said Nic Sulsky, PBC’s chief commercial officer of iGaming Ontario’s recent launch announcement.
“Candidly, we’ve been waiting for this day,” he added. “Now, finally, everything we’ve started building, we have an endpoint where we can actually unveil everything that we’ve been thinking about and talking about and working towards.”
PointsBet has ‘made a lot of bets’ on Canadian branding
By all appearances, the PBC team led by CEO Scott Vanderwel and chockfull of Canadians (including Sulsky, born in Montreal and schooled at New Brunswick’s ‘Mount A’) have been doing the work.
Last week, PBC was the first operator to announce approved registration with Ontario’s Alcohol and Gaming Commission. However, similar announcements came in short order from theScore and Rivalry, two homegrown peers.
Additionally, behind the scenes, PBC has been hustling to make deals to advance their quest to cement themselves as “authentically Canadian.”
“PointsBet Canada has been, I think, the most aggressive new operator building a brand in this market,” Sulsky said. “No pun intended, you know, we’ve made a lot of bets.”
Hurry hard and welcome to Sunnyvale, home of the Trailer Park Boys
Sulsky doesn’t want to beat the authentically Canadian drum too loudly. However, PBC’s goal of building a Canadian-centered brand is key to the company’s plan for success in the Canadian market.
PointsBet Canada knew Ontario’s existing grey market would mean a lot of competition in the province out of the gate, Sulsky said. To counter that, PBC must create a distinctive brand that speaks to Canadians. And highlighting what makes Canada special seemed a no-brainer.
“Distinctive Canadian brand positioning was something that I just believed in from day one,” said Sulsky.
In fact, according to Sulsky, the first call he made after taking the job at PBC was to Curling Canada’s CEO Katherine Henderson. Thirty-five percent of Canadians follow curling, so the betting opportunity is massive.
“If we can help unlock 35% of a national audience and bring them into sports betting (which is fairly nascent in curling), it gives us some pretty significant upside,” he said.
PointBet Canada will also capitalize on partnerships with Alpine Canada, The Nation Network, Daily Faceoff, and the NHL Alumni Association. However, one particularly fascinating component is PBC’s deal with the Trailer Park Boys. Even that came about in a very Canadian way — Sulsky is friends with Sheila Roberts, TPB’s head of publicity and marketing.
Welcome to Sunnyvale
“Canada’s so fortunate to have so many artists and stars that are celebrities in the sports space,” said Dave Rivers, PBC’s VP of marketing.
But the reality, Rivers said, is as a brand ambassador, those personalities are not content creators or storytellers. The Boys, on the other hand, are content creators first. And they’re funny. In that way, the partnership’s something of a perfect marriage. The show’s even got a casino storyline.
But, to Rivers, what’s exciting goes beyond introducing TPB’s community to online gaming. The episodic content that will follow Ricky, Julian and Bubbles’ journey through sports betting is the real pot of gold.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Rivers said, noting the potential to educate the audience. “I think there’s going to be a great narrative using The Boys to introduce the product, how to bet, where to bet, when. And it’s our belief that they’re the perfect platform to tell the story.”
Building community from coast to coast to coast
For PBC, the goal of these partnerships and stories amount to one thing: Building meaningful relationships with customers (and fans). In other words, it’s about creating community.
“What Nic and I have really concentrated on,” Rivers said, “is making sure that the partnerships that we’re working with are going to bring value to community in meaningful ways.”
In that way, PBC’s NHLAA partnership is particularly poignant.
In some cases, it might mean working with NHL stars who only skated one season. But, because of that, they’re a hometown hockey hero, Rivers said.
“Those are opportunities, coast to coast to coast that we’ll absolutely leverage and take advantage of, Rivers said. “And we’ll grow as the market grows with us. We’re not looking at the marketplace as Ontario; we’re looking at the marketplace as Canada. And we’re building strategy that will layer out to Canada as the markets open.”
As Sulsky notes, Canada is incredibly unique. And that’s something that maybe, not many operators genuinely understand. On the other hand, Sulsky has driven the Trans Canada Highway end-to-end. And he’s built so many Canadian connections throughout his career that ‘Sulsky’s Law‘ (i.e. 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon) is an inside joke within PBC’s ranks.
And Rivers spent years working at Bell Media, a national brand, so he too has experience tailoring his message.
To Sulsky, the NHL Alumni Association provides PBC with the opportunity to do just that.
“Brands can go out there, and they can partner with Wayne Gretzky, as we know, an operator has,” Sulsky said. “But what’s exciting for us is, as we know as Canadians, there are Wayne Gretzky’s from every small town.” And the NHL Alumni Association, he said, offers a pathway to building that community of right across the country.
We’re different but still the same
Despite regional differences, at least one thing binds many Canadian sports fans together, and that’s pride.
Sulsky touts morning sports highlight shows an example. During those highlights, if one of the athletes happens to be Canadian, that gets trumpeted. It’s when RJ Barrett hits a 3-pointer playing with the Knicks, and Jay Onrait yells, ‘Canadian!’
“It’s not just about Raptors highlights,” Sulsky said.
‘We [Canadians] just love cheering on other Canadians,” he added. “We’ve spent our life growing up watching American broadcast feeds, American athletes dominating sports… there’s something that rallies us as Canadians when other Canadians are doing really well.”
For Rivers, an additional quality to Canadian athletics comes into play: Our athletes tend to go about their business and get the job done.
“It doesn’t come with flash. It doesn’t come with showboating. It doesn’t come with bravado,” Rivers said. “In fact, I would argue that to a Canadian fan of sport, you appreciate the person on the third line more than you do the first line.”
As Canadians, he said, we appreciate the come-from-behind story. And PBC intends to capitalize on its scrappy, underdog status in a typically Canadian fashion.
“It’s not because the expectation was they’re gonna lose; the expectation was the odds were stacked against them,” Rivers added. “So so as we think about our brand … for us, the expectation is we’re going to win. But we’re going to do it in a way that is authentically Canadian.”
“It’s going to be about going about our business, building equity in our brand, demonstrating to our customers why our product stands up, and why we’re proud of our product, and really moving that forward as the needle.”
We can build it; we have the technology
Building a sense of community is undoubtedly essential for online sports betting and casinos. However, success depends on the product, platform, and performance that drives the customer experience.
On that front, PBC is ready to get in the ring.
From a platform perspective, Sulsky said, PBC owning its entire tech stack allows it to be nimble in its customization of products for the Canadian market.
That will include things like focusing on building a vertical around curling which, traditionally, has been underserved in betting markets. Another aspect will be harnessing their in-house technology to drive innovation.
To that end, last year, PBC’s parent company purchased Banach Technology, a business-to-business software firm based in Ireland. Banach develops systems for sports betting platforms and algorithms, including in-play wagering.
Based on that acquisition alone, PointsBet has leveraged the team’s technology to become the first (and so far only) company to offer in-play, live same-game parlay. They also conducted the first successful test of their ‘Always On,’ live in-game betting during a recent NFL wildcard contest.
As Sulsky highlights, in-game betting occasionally has lag issues and restrictions. So, PointsBet fired up Always On for the Raiders/Bengals playoff game. Notably, the test to see whether the platform could support 100% uptime was successful.
“Nobody else has that technology, except for us,” Sulsky said. “So from a high level, we are the most innovative sports betting technology company in North America. And then, from a foundational level, owning that whole tech stack is not only going to allow us to focus on some of those market customizations … it’s going to allow us to drive that innovation even faster in the future.”
With great power comes great responsibility
PointsBet Canada‘s tagline is, ‘This is how we play sports.’
One crucial and often overlooked aspect of a sustainable betting ecosystem beyond the revenue generated is responsible gaming. But PBC is committed to promoting safe play to protect players and the industry. And, with a minor tweak, that tag becomes ‘this is how we play responsibly.’
For Sulsky, what’s exciting about a regulated market is the chance to have frank discussions around consumer protections and responsible play. Due to the longtime existence of Canada’s grey market, he believes Canadians are mainly unaware of the difference between the grey market operator and one that serves a regulated framework.
“I don’t think the current Canadian sports bettors understand that their money is going offshore, he said. “They’re seeing these brands, they’re seeing these advertisements, and they don’t truly understand.”
Sulsky believes that if we do the market right, the positive impact will trickle down to uplift the entirety of Canada’s sports ecosystem. Success is not just about adding revenue to the bottom line of media companies and operators.
Integrity and pride go hand-in-hand
“Ultimately, that’s what we want. We want a healthy sports landscape,” Sulsky said. “To make sure that happens, I think responsible gaming has to be at the forefront.”
“I think integrity, pride, I think those things go hand in hand. So I think that Canadian sports fans are going to want to know their money is being serviced in Canada,” he added.
“I think Canadians are going to want to know that there’s a place that they can go to learn about what to look for … We want to be very proactive in helping people understand how gambling makes sports more fun. Ultimately, that’s what we’re all here for. We’re not here to make people rich; we’re here to give people an opportunity to have more fun when they’re watching their favourite teams play.”
For Rivers, who led Bell, Let’s Talk for a decade, mental health (related to addiction) is critical.
“I see it as pretty cut and dry. I see this as an opportunity for us at PointsBet,” stated Rivers. “It’s a priority for me as an organization…I want to be forward-thinking as an organization on how we take advantage of what’s being asked of us and do it in a meaningful way.”
A place to stand, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ari-o
By all estimations, Ontario’s soon-to-launch regulated market is going to be huge. That assumption is why at least 30 operators have applied for a chance at a piece of the action.
But, whether Ontario comes close to matching New York’s stratospheric sports betting launch is yet to be seen.
Sulsky does believe Ontario is going to be massive. However, Ontario’s long-running grey market makes a Big Apple to a slightly smaller apple comparison challenging. New York has nearly 4.5 million more people than Ontario boasts. And until very recently, the only way for New Yorkers to bet on sports was a trip to Jersey. In contrast, NY only legalized sports betting while Ontario welcomes private online sportsbooks and casinos.
Ontario, according to Rivers, will be bananas. But the offshore, unregulated market provides a unique context.
“The reality is. Nic and I are going to have to hustle to convince people who already have five apps on their device to bring on another,” Rivers said. “So for us, it’s going to be a competitive steal…from a competitive landscape standpoint; it’ll be interesting.”
A definition of success
So, with all that said, how will PointsBet Canada gauge success in Ontario?
For Sulsky, the answer is more than simply numbers.
“I think most operators are going to gauge themselves on how many bettors they can acquire; what’s their handle?” he said. “I think we’re going to gauge ourselves on how we can retain the users we acquire.”
It all comes back to creating that authentic connection with the audience. If PBC can use that connection to keep people engaged, that’s proof for Sulsky and Rivers that things are going well. Of course, acquiring customers and growing the handle is essential. But, building a community around the PBC brand and platform is a long-term strategy to help realize that.
“When you look at the regulatory environment in Ontario,” Rivers said, “we can’t lead with promotion and offers … and frankly, I’m glad that we can’t.”
As a result, companies will have to stand their product up against competitors and let customers decide on the superior product.
“For me, the goal is about acquiring customers who want to come along and be a part of our journey, not chase $100 free bets,” Rivers added. “In the US, it’s $2,000 free bets. That’s just that’s not a sustainable business. And frankly, it’s not a business I want to get into.”
The anticipation is real and spectacular
When it comes to what PBC is getting into in Ontario, however, Rivers couldn’t be more excited.
Asked what keeps them up at night, Rivers noted the sheers size of the opportunity could conjure some anxiety. But mainly it presents a vast and exciting opportunity.
“I just want to jump in and get started,” he said of his first gaming launch. “My mind just keeps going around and around all the different things I want to do.”
For Sulsky, however, this is not his first rodeo.
“We have an incredible team; we have an incredible product, we have an incredible platform… So, I sleep pretty well because I know we have our s**t taken care of.”
If anything does keep him up at night, like Rivers, it’s the excitement.
Sulsky feels PBC has done an admirable job of building a presence in Canada over a short period. And he’s is anxious for the moment people can download the app and get in there and start playing.
But that time will soon come.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” added Sulsky.
“And what Dave and I want to do is make sure that [our] message and experience resonates,” he added. Because if it does, we’re going to be around.”