IMG Arena sees branded products driving sales with virtual sports betting here to stay
By Simon Ward
Golf is among the sports best placed to capitalise on the development and growth in demand for virtual sports, according to IMG Arena, the sports betting business of the international agency giant.
In partnership with ATP Media, the global sales, broadcast production and distribution arm of men’s tennis’ ATP, and Leap Gaming, the games developer, in which the agency has a stake, IMG Arena this week unveiled the sport’s first officially branded virtual tennis product.
The initiative represents the latest advance in the sector, with demand driven, to a certain extent, by the current lack of live sport during the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic.
The tennis product is the second official product developed by UK-based IMG Arena and Leap Gaming, which specialises in virtual sports and casino games, building on the Official Carnoustie Virtual Golf game, based on the famous Scottish course (pictured), and that sport is considered to tally particularly well with the concept.
Freddie Longe, executive vice-president and managing director of IMG Arena, told Sportcal: “This is a vision with gaming that has been going for a few years. Virtuals have long existed through sportsbooks.”
“[However], virtuals historically have been generic meaning that they have had no federation IP built in. Taking a spec in virtual sports and levelling in the federation IP was the next logical step.”
The new product is set to complement a 10-year, $1-billion betting streaming and data rights deal to be finalised between IMG and ATP Media.
In addition to golf and tennis, IMG Arena has been working on virtual sports initiatives in motorsports, soccer, horse racing, speedway, greyhound racing and cycling.
Amid the global suspension of sports leagues, competitions and series amid the pandemic, sports rights-holders and agencies have acted quickly to create virtual sports and esports events to connect with viewers and enable broadcast partners to fill their schedules.
These include IMG, which, as the promoter of the suspended World Rallycross Championship, is organising World RX Esports races on the same dates as postponed rounds.
However, while the lack of live sport has prompted a switching of resources to virtual sports and helped to accelerate their growth, the agency can see significant potential beyond the current health emergency.
Longe said: “IMG Arena has deals with the PGA Tour and European Tour, and where we see virtuals doing well is when sport is not being played. In golf, events run from Thursday to Sunday, but there are opportunities when there isn’t play from Monday to Wednesday.”
He said that the ATP Media and Carnoustie initiatives are “just two of the irons in the fire” on the official products front, adding: “LG already had pre-integration for verticals, but integrating federation IP through brand loyalty will drive more engagement. Something that is branded will drive more sales.”
IMG Arena can already detect considerable demand for the tennis product, with Longe saying: “It’s been very well received in the industry. In the absence of live sports, [betting] consumers are spending money on other areas such as casinos and virtual sports.”
He added: “The great thing in this sports betting ecosystem is there’s a lot of innovation. It may not necessarily be in virtuals, but there are other betting opportunities.
“We have a number of other ongoing conversations. It’s not straightforward, and it takes a lot of understanding, but we’re excited about the things we have in the pipeline.”
IMG Arena was launched in November 2018 as the new entity for IMG’s sports betting business (it was formerly known as IMG Gaming), as the agency looked to ramp up its activity in the provision of live streaming and data to betting operators and business-to-consumer brands.
IMG had signed a strategic agreement with Leap Gaming, including taking a stake in the company, in June 2018.
IMG Arena’s multi-sport streaming portfolio for betting operators includes English soccer's FA Cup and English Football League, Italian soccer's Serie A, North America's Major League Soccer, tennis’ French Open and US Open, basketball’s EuroLeague, NHL ice hockey, UFC and snooker and volleyball events.
Asked if he felt the current absence of live sport would contribute to an acceleration in betting on esports and virtual sports, Longe said: “Esports are gaining great traction in parts of the world, and it [betting in this area] was already developing.
“Virtual sports are not new. They pre-dated the pandemic. There are many profiles of consumer, and there will be profiles of consumer who would bet on esports and virtuals even without it.”