A decade ago, international sport and entertainment agency giant IMG launched the service which would eventually become IMG Arena, its betting and data rights arm.
The division has been through several name changes and rebranding efforts since its 2012 launch, eventually becoming IMG Arena in 2018. Since November of that year, it has been led by Freddie Longe, who became its president this April having first joined IMG in 2006.
The service now has in the region of 50 sporting bodies and rightsholders as clients and is “focused on fan-first engagement through the delivery of digital content and product innovations that fuel the emotions and excitement unique to world-class sport.”
At the recent Sportel 2022 conference in Monte Carlo, Longe (pictured) sat down with GlobalData Sport to discuss the current state of play at the subsidiary after 10 years, how the sports betting industry as a whole (one of IMG Arena’s four key pillars) is rapidly evolving, and which sports and regions are currently best set for expansion in the sector.
In April last year, IMG took over Flightscope Services, a Poland-based data collection, audiovisual production, and tracking technology company, while six months ago the company snapped up a controlling interest in Swedish tech firm Signality. Between them, those two firms are now being used across IMG Arena’s tennis, golf, and soccer portfolio.
Longe tells GlobalData Sport: “These two businesses give us capability across the entire data pyramid and give us a broad church in terms of sports coverage.”
Rights deals struck this year, meanwhile, include tie-ups with 19 European soccer leagues (including in top-tier nations such as Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark) German soccer’s DFB-Pokal knockout cup, the Canadian National Basketball League, and the British Basketball League.
The most recent tie-up entered into was a significant and multi-faceted tie-up in July this year with North American soccer’s top-tier Major League Soccer (MLS), and Longe is keen to highlight some of the opportunities involved.
He describes the MLS tie-up as “a multifaceted commercial program, covering authorized gaming, data distribution, live-streaming distribution, programmatic marketing, and audience conversion for sportsbook partners.”
Longe adds: “We’ll also be looking at innovation and product development – how we can use our datasets to drive fan engagement for MLS audiences across all channels.”
Under the deal, struck after a lengthy tender process, IMG Arena is responsible for delivering official data, content solutions, fan analytics, and marketing tools to MLS’ media and sports book partners. Three new MLS live data feeds are being created through the partnership.
In terms of assessing the wider picture around sports betting in the US, Longe says: “The days of sportsbooks just spending millions there on brand awareness are coming to an end.
“Betting firms now need to see hard evidence on how and where they’re getting a return on investment for their marketing budget.
“Our unique position as a part of IMG Media … is being magnified further by the US sports betting market opening up. Over there, the industry is still an incredibly blank canvas.”
Longe says the agreement between IMG Arena and MLS will complement the decade-long domestic broadcast deal between the league and tech giant Apple, which was struck in June and extends through to 2032.
The IMG Arena president says: “We’re excited about [MLS’] Apple deal and how we can lean in and support it with our data-driven solutions.”
The MLS-Apple deal will see every match from the league covered live over the next decade through the Apple TV streaming service for a domestic audience.
“It’s the broadest deal that we’ve struck in terms of services we provide for our rightsholding clients,” Longe explains. “And we’re excited about getting the foundation layers in place over the next six months.”
Other US-based IMG Arena clients, aside from MLS, include tennis’ US Open, stock car racing’s Nascar, and mixed martial arts’ UFC (which like IMG is owned by Endeavor, the huge talent and media agency holding company).
Turning to the place of betting and wagering in the sports ecosystem more widely, Longe believes the industry is changing at a rapid pace, especially Stateside.
Ever since the US Supreme Court effectively legitimized sports betting in 2018 by overturning a 1992 law that banned the practice in most states, the entire sports ecosystem in that country has been leaning more and more into that sector.
As Longe puts it: “In the US, the approach when it comes to sports betting has evolved at an unbelievable rate over the last four years …
“The US market now provides the most sophisticated consumers on the planet. They’re incredibly demanding in how they want to consume content.
“We’re going to see a lot of product improvements there soon, it’s now all about acquiring and retaining customers on an affordable basis.
“We’ve seen the sector move from a period when it was basically just an arms race for customer acquisition into a situation where product quality is becoming more and more important.”
There are currently in the region of 31 US states where the practice has been legalized, with each state government having the power to take its own individual decision on the matter.
Longe says: “Over time, we’ll see sports betting become more and more of a second-screen experience for users, to add to a live sports broadcast.”
“We think that approach might cross the Atlantic into Europe soon, it’s something we’re looking at with some clients in that market, in terms of how we advise those properties.
“That’s a hugely exciting prospect, and we think the data we hold will play a central role … This will evolve in ways we can’t predict over the next five years.”
Indeed, Longe feels that “we’ve now entered into the data age of sport, across every sector.
“Being able to provide data feeds to stimulate innovation is something we’re looking forward to doing on behalf of our clients …”
The IMG Arena president says that, globally, with regard to sports betting, “what was previously considered a taboo subject is now an integral part of a sports fan’s overall experience.
“A lot of territories are now realizing it makes sense for them … This will now have a knock-on effect across the whole industry.
“In the last decade, we’ve seen an enormous transition from retail wagering to digital wagering, and also from pre-event betting to in-play options.”
‘Instead of the end of the conversation, this is only just the beginning. We’re going to see many more countries worldwide introduce their own frameworks … And so, sportsbooks will continue to have to innovate to capture the imagination of potential customers.”
He adds that while all attention has been on the US in terms of legalization and the regulatory sports betting process over the last four years, “a lot of other countries have been on that same journey, including in Europe and Latin America.”
Progress is also being made in Asia, where Longe says “the behavioral patterns in some of those markets [in terms of sports betting] are replicating what we saw in the US in the years immediately prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in 2018.”
In explaining the reasons behind this boom, Longe points to the proliferation of digital media outlets popping up over the last few years.
He says: “The barrier to entry in terms of the technology needed is now incredibly low … People can start up these businesses from home in a way that wasn’t common previously.
“The pandemic expedited that trend, and with this comes an incredibly fertile environment for innovation … The sports betting space is actually now very congested.
“It’s more and more about how sportsbooks and betting firms add value to the content being shown or the bets being offered. We feel data plays a significant role in this.
“The beneficiaries of this will be rightsholders and eventually consumers, it’s an incredibly well-stimulated environment.
“For sports betting, data is increasingly being used to reimagine the entire experience, both from a front-end consumer perspective and for betting firms looking to secure market share.”
As for which sports are currently undervalued in terms of their sports betting exposure, Longe points to golf.
“While all arena sports [such as soccer, cricket, rugby, tennis, American football, and basketball] have been able to ride the wave,” he says, “Golf, because of the worldwide nature of the main tours and the completely different locations and circumstances one week to the next, hasn’t quite been able to.
“It was also difficult for golf when sports content and its consumption transitioned live to mobile.”
“Up until recently, it was the only traditional, globally understood, sport that hadn’t been able to ride the sports betting growth curve.
IMG has deals in place with both the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour), as well as with the LPGA women’s golf organization (the last property to come on board, in January).
In 2020, IMG created the Golf Event Centre (GEC) to deliver real-time shot-by-shot data and information to a series of worldwide sportsbooks.
The GEC is a front-end solution that was launched off the back of IMG Arena’s deal with the PGA Tour to distribute official scoring data to betting operators in North America and international markets.
Flightscope, from its Polish base, is now being used by IMG Arena to build out these sports betting and data solutions and Longe says that “they’re world-class in terms of data capture … There’s now a collection of experts out in Poland who have helped build the DP World Tour’s infrastructure in this space from scratch.”
As he puts it: “We took on that challenge four years ago and now have relationships in place with all the major tours … We’ve arrived at a point where there’s a consistent output of data which is producing market types which have previously never been made available.”
However, he adds that “golf still has definite growth potential, and we’re still only at the early stages of its sports betting journey … Only in five or six years’ time will we have enough evidence to work out the precise size of the opportunity in this sport.”
“Now, it’s being adopted – broadly – more and more by sportsbooks the world over.”