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Draft Kings digital gambling exec discusses fledgling legal sports betting industry

10th November, 05:19

Jamie Shea, head of Draft Kings Digital Sportsbook, visits Pittsburgh's North Shore near Heinz Field on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019.

Much has changed in U.S. sports betting since Jamie Shea's days as a 22-year-old Las Vegas oddsmaker in the 1970s.

Shea, a Florida native who grew up around horse racing, quickly discovered she had both a passion and a knack for working in legal sports gambling.

She went on to open and run several sportsbooks at the some of the Vegas Strip's ritziest casinos. But she grew weary of getting told that if she wanted to stick with then-Vegas-centric legalized industry, she might not ever be able to leave Nevada.

Shea recalled how frustrated she got "watching people have so much fun betting and knowing that the rest of the country couldn't do it for no good reason."

Flash forward to 2019, barely a year after the Supreme Court paved the way for states to legalize and regulate sports gambling, and Shea travels the country as head of the Draft Kings Digital Sportsbook, one of the fastest-growing mobile sports betting companies in the nation.

Eight out 10 of people who place sports bets in states that allow it do so via their smartphone, tablet or other mobile device.

This fall marks the first full NFL season with legal sports betting available in Pennsylvania and a dozen other states.

Western Pennsylvanians can bet on professional and college sports using the Draft Kings mobile app for the first time this weekend, joining a handful of mobile betting rivals that have entered the state's fledgling market in recent months.

Prior to its Pennsylvania debut, statewide revenue from sports gambling -- including casino-based sportsbooks as well as mobile and online betting options -- climbed to nearly $160 million in September alone -- up from $83 million in August, state Gaming Control Board data show.

"I'm enjoying watching each state come on board," Shea said. "People are just so excited to have that opportunity."

Draft Kings -- an on-the-go betting behemoth that's ballooned from less than 400 employees last year to more than 1,000, perhaps rivaling only Fan Duel in nationwide popularity -- claims to have doled out more than $1 billion in winnings to mobile bettors since Aug. 1, 2018.

The private company will not disclose how much it's made over the same period nor cite the precise number of bettors. Industry observers cited a $2 billion valuation earlier this year. Draft Kings boasts 11 million combined users across both major platforms, including not only sports bettors but players of fantasy sports -- which, unlike sports betting, is considered by most legal standards as a game of skill, not of chance.

Among one of Shea's favorite lucky winner stories: A man won $1,600 off a 14-cent parlay bet on a March Madness college basketball game, and he used the money to buy an engagement ring.

The Tribune-Review sat down with Shea while she visited Pittsburgh's North Shore on the eve of Draft King's official mobile launch in Pennsylvania early Thursday, just in time to place bets on the weekend lineup of Penguins and Steelers games.

Here's what the tech-savvy executive who once pondered a career teaching kindergarten had to say about why she loves her job, how the industry is evolving and what Draft Kings is doing to position itself amid intensifying competition.

Tell us about how you got into the sports gambling industry.

"I started in 1994, when we were still hand-compiling the odds. So we were oddsmakers using power rankings, using the 'Gold Sheet,' getting to those numbers to find out what is the best spread to put up. Now, things are very algorithm-driven, very automated.

"I kind of grew up in that industry, loved it, and worked at several different sportsbooks. I opened the Venetian. I worked at the sportsbook at Hard Rock for nine years.

"In Vegas, in the '70s when they first started out, they actually were separate entities. The casinos didn't want the sportsbooks inside the casinos. And then they quickly realized how fast their customers were going over there and not staying in the casino. ... And that's how it became an amenity in casinos in Vegas and Reno -- where everybody needed to have a sportsbook.

"And sportsbooks then were very different in the way you'd bet, because you would just bet the game, and then you'd have three hours to wait. So people would go and bet the game, and then go play blackjack, play slots, do whatever else. Sports betting has changed so much with the advent of the mobile application."

What are some of the biggest changes?

"So, now you have live-wagering, which means while the whole game is going on, you can be betting. You can be betting the next score. The line constantly moves. ... Like, if (the spread) was Steelers minus-7, as the game goes and the score goes, it changes, it could be Steelers minus-3.

"During Super Bowl LI (in 2017), the Patriots vs. Falcons, the Patriots were such a big favorite. And then midway through the game, because they were down, you actually could get plus-money on the Patriots -- which is unheard of, right? -- and so people bet that, and then the Patriots end up coming back and winning. So it just makes it so much more exciting.

"Some of these games that are, maybe, not the best games to watch -- it's a 14-point spread, or something, and you think it's going to be a blowout. The spread is a great equalizer, so it makes people get in there and want to bet. You can bet the next play -- is there going to be a rebound, what's the next drive?

"I would say on any given game, there's around 300 opportunities for bets. The reason you need to have the mobile is it needs to be instantaneous, and it's instant gratification as well. You're going to know if you've won or lost in the next 30 seconds."

Tell me about the origin of Draft Kings.

"Draft Kings has been around since 2012. There's DFS (daily fantasy sports) in over 40 states.

"But the history of Draft Kings was daily fantasy. So it wasn't sports betting.

"As soon as they saw that (federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) was going to be on the docket of the Supreme Court, they said, 'Hey, let's look into this.'

"And they started moving fast. They started building, not even really knowing if it was really going to go away, but anticipating that it might. So they started building a front end. They started figuring all of it out.

"And with that forward thinking, we were able to be first in the market in New Jersey with mobile on Aug. 1, 2018. And we stayed the first-and-only for about six weeks.

What's your vision for DK's mobile sports betting business?

"We're going to continue to grow. That is the goal, that we will be in every state. We're learning the regulations as they come into play, what do we need to do, how do we get in. It's letting people know how this works, taking away some of the intimidation and fear, and that it's just fun.

"We're trying to make sure that we get better all the time. You should see our list of everything we want to do. It's amazing. We're constantly doing focus groups and surveys and just pulling the data to see what people like, and we'll pivot. We're constantly learning, making sure that we're listening to our customers.

"We want to make it intuitive ... We didn't want people to go in and go, 'Well, I don't know what a money line is, I don't know what the point spread actually means.' So we just said, 'Do you think that they will win by this many points?'

"So, if you look at our app, there's a page that teaches you how to bet, there's a stats tab, which is awesome, because there's game predictions.

"We want educated bettors. We want them to know what they're betting, how they're betting. We had (former NBA star) Charles Barkley do this great, 'parfait vs. parlay' (segment to explain) this is what a parlay is, just giving people a better understanding what the betting options are.

"If you're betting with Joe from down the street, your local bookie, you're just going in and saying, 'Hey, I want to bet the Steelers.' There's not really much more to it. This is so much more content, this is so much more robust, so there is some education that needs to happen."

Rivers Casino had the grand opening of its new sportsbook last month, and several more have recently opened are or about to open across the state. What do you think of such investments in Vegas-style, casino-based sportsbooks around here?

"I think they're fun. Competition is good. Competition keeps us innovative.

"There's a difference with a bricks-and-mortar book. There's that comraderie, that feeling of going in and sitting and watching it together.

"I also think that we're a society now that enjoys being able to sit on our couch and shop or bet. We like to be home. So I think being able to have both options is great.

"We were alone in New Jersey for almost two months, but now we have 20 competitors."

What guidance do you have for our brand-new to sports betting? What are some tips for people who want to make sure they don't get carried away?

"Go with your gut. Just go around and bet what feels right.

"So if you're watching a (Philadelphia) 76ers game and you're into live betting and you think they can score here, bet it ... see how it goes, and just keep learning. Don't be intimidated. "You can bet 10 cents, you can bet $2.

"Bet something small, and learn how the app works. Learn how to bet. And then you can go along and if you want to up the wagers, depending how full your bankroll is.

"On our mobile device, we have controls in place. You can go in and set limits for yourself on how much you can deposit per month, per week, how much you can bet. We've given you numbers, we've given you resources.

"It's meant to be fun, it's meant to be skin in the game, it's not meant to be anything that's harmful. People who do the best are doing this for fun, for entertainment, because that's what this should be. You're having a great time, it makes the game more enjoyable."

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .