The iGaming Show - EP3 (Ontario Is Open For Business With Nic Sulsky)
It’s been a couple of months since Ontario’s iGaming market went live. Prominent merchants such as theScore Bet, bet365, FanDuel, and PointsBet Canada have launched their gaming platforms in the province, expanding their brand in the Great White North. In this episode, we will discuss what iGaming regulation in Ontario looks like from a merchant’s perspective and predictions on what to expect from other provinces and their gaming industries.
The iGaming Show, presented by Paramount Commerce, is a podcast that will analyze gaming industry trends with experts from various gaming organizations.
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Read the full episode transcript:
Varad Mehta: Hello everyone. And welcome to the third episode of The iGaming Show presented by Paramount Commerce. I’m your host, Varad Mehta. And in this podcast, we explore gaming industry trends with experts from various gaming organizations. And in today’s episode, we look into iGaming regulations in Ontario from a merchant’s perspective with Nic Sulsky, the Chief Commercial Officer at PointsBet Canada. So without further ado, let’s get the show rolling. Yeah Nic. I’d like to begin with a sort of non-iGaming-related question. I saw on your Twitter bio. It says that you’re probably listening to Queens of the Stone Age. So I’m going to throw two Queens of the Stone Age questions to you.
Nic Sulsky: I like this. This is the best beginning of a podcast I’ve ever been a part of.
VM: So let’s see. Who was the guest drummer on the 2002 hit No One Knows.
NS: Dude he wasn’t just the guest drummer of that song. He toured with them. He toured with them during the break-up of the Foo Fighters. During that short period of time. Dave Grohl drummed on a majority of that album, it wasn’t just that one song.
VM: Yes. So, number two, for bonus points. Josh Homme was also part of another band that he formed with Dave Grohl. Do you know the name of that band? I’ll give you a hint.
NS: Well, of course. Homme has been a part of a number of bands. And the band that you’re talking about, the third member, is one of the most legendary bass players of all time, John Paul Jones. Them Crooked Vultures, is fantastic. There you go.
VM: Because I’m big on music. So I was like, this is perfect to start the interview out with Nic, learn more about music, and then we’ll go into iGaming. So I guess we’ll shift the focus now. Could you maybe tell me about your background and how you got involved with the online gaming industry? Because I saw that you’ve been part of the fantasy sports world for a majority of your professional career. So could you tell me how you got involved with fantasy sports and then transitioned into iGaming?
NS: Yeah, it’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll try and make it as short as possible. So before I got into iGaming, before I got into the sports world, I worked in film and television and at the time, primarily children’s television. And at the time, there was a sports talkshow up in Canada called Off The Record. And I started doing that show because, as you could guess, I’m not shy and I’ll talk about anything. And I was on television at the time, and this was kind of the early mid-2000s. And this was right around the time I just started getting obsessed with seasonlong fantasy sports as a player. I love fantasy football. And the producer of Off The Record also happened to be a big fantasy football player at the time. But there wasn’t a lot of content that existed for other fantasy players to kind of learn, read, watch. Lots of reading, but nota lot of online content around it. So I alongside the producer of Off The Record, we created and produced something calledThe Fantasy Hockey Report, which was broadcast on TSN.CA for a couple of years. Ended up founding a start-up. It was called In-Gamer, and we built it, built the product, raised some money. It was a live, real-time fantasy sports game where you would pick five players before a game, and then you would score points based on how those players would do in the game. But then you could also change your players during the game. So it was the first live in game, ergo In-Gamer, fantasy sports product in the world. And licensed it to a bunch of big media properties in Canada. It was a part of Hockey Night in Canada,licensed it also to Rogers. Then money was starting to flow into the ecosystem because effectively what daily fantasy sports was and is close to legalized sports betting as you can get in markets where there is no legalized sports betting. So a lot of people were trying to figure out how to get involved in it. And so this European regulated gaming operator brought me on to help them figure out a strategy for how they were going to get involved in the US daily fantasy sports industry. Ended up architecting a deal to buy a company called Draft Day, which at the time was the third or fourth biggest daily fantasy sports company. And then I became the president of the Draft Day gaming group, in September of 2015. And that was really my first entry point into kind of real money sports gaming in North America. Then I founded and became the, I co-founded and became the president of a company called Monkey Knife Fight in 2017. Built Monkey Knife Fight to be the third biggest daily fantasy sports company in the world. Monkey Knife Fight was sold in January of 2021, which was just before I joined PointsBet in June of 21. So that’s kind of my very abridged path into the world of iGaming.
VM: Now sort of transitioning from your role or your time in fantasy sports. Last year, you joined PointsBet Canada, and you joined it at a really critical time with Canada’s sort of sports betting industry, where single-event sports betting went live through our provinces. So when you joined, what was the atmosphere at the office like at that time?
NS: Well, I was actually the very first person in Canada. But even before I officially joined, my job out of the gate was to express to everyone how unique Canada is. Canada is not just a carbon copy of a US state. We are very unique people. We’re a very unique market. And the way that we engage with sport is different than someone in New Jerseyor someone in Colorado. So I think that when I joined, there was a level of excitement that we were on to something because not every operator had dedicated and committed themselves to building a unique, I shouldn’t say authentic, but just a specific Canadian team. On June 8th, when I started, I think that my international colleagues were pretty excited that finally we had a presence, or they had a presence in this country. Because the way the PointsBet works is we really do believe in creating local or country-based divisions. PointsBet was founded in Australia, publicly traded company 2017. Founded a US business in 2019.Obviously Canada in 2021. But I will say that there was a level of anxiety when I started because ultimately there was no guarantee that the bill was actually going to pass the Senate, which was the last kind of stumbling block in order for it to become law. And then finally, Bill C-218 passed. And it was, I mean, we were so excited at that point. I think we were five people in Canada at that or 4 people in Canada at that point. And then it was just all guns ablaze and getting ready for market launch. I think that was really the other two elements which are candidly, a little bit more direct into kind of my responsibility is one, building the Canadian brand strategy, brand vision, and what our go-to-market execution was going to look like, because we really took an authentic because we were building our own Canadian team. I came to the table very passionate about, well, here, let me step back, the AGCO and iGO, who are the two regulatory bodies in Ontario made it very clear that Ontario was going to have a multi-private operator model, meaning there was going to be dozens and dozens of licenses given out to operators. So we knew Ontario being the fourth biggest market in North America, just from a kind of city perspective, and I would say right now, probably the second biggest iGaming market outside of New York in North America. We knew that the competition was going to be massive, right? So I was a big believer, and still am a big believer, we all are, that creating a differentiated lane from a brand perspective was going to be really vital. Right.
VM: So using your content background, even the fact that you’re Canadian, when the iGaming market launched in Ontario, using all of the amazing work that you had done up to that point, what were some early sort of consumer-related observations you noticed? Because I think based on the amount of work you did by partnering with Curling Canada, being part of these different sports organizations, what were some observations you noticed during that time, even during the first two months of the market launch?
NS: It’s a really good question. I think before I answer, I’ll frame it even a little bit more. The biggest challenge that we had at PointsBet unlike pretty much every other operator in the market was we didn’t have a database. When the market launched on April 4th, we started from scratch. We started from zero. So we had to spend the early months leading up to launch and then as of launch, just at the first point, getting the Ontario sports fan even hearing about PointsBet, understanding who PointsBets was. So our initial challenge was really just getting some brand awareness out there, some aided and unaided awareness as we define it so people would download the app. I mean, ultimately, in order for anybody to gamble or to play online casino or sports bet or play online casino, the first thing is you need to get people to know who you were or are. We did a deal with ClubLink. ClubLink is one of the biggest golf brands in Ontario. And we are literally on the ground activating at golf courses every week. Right. We did a deal with the Ottawa Sports Entertainment Group who own the Ottawa Redblacks. During every Ottawa Redblacks game, we are in stadium with personalities announcing live halftime prop bets for all of the fans at TD Place in Ottawa. Right. We have a partnership with the NHL Alumni Association. So all of the ex-players in NHL. We bring NHL alumni we have a partnership with a fairly, in my opinion, the best sports bar in downtown Toronto called The Bottom Line. Now we bring NHL alumni to that bar to watch games with fans. Right. We are really trying to figure out how we can get face-to-face with the Ontario sports fan because honestly, I think there’s a level of annoyance now of a lot of the Ontario sports fans when they’re watching live television because of all of the ads. And I will admit that there might be a level of hypocrisy here because if I had the budget, or if we had the budget of some of the other operators out there to afford to bombard the Ontario sports fans with 30-second commercials, maybe we’d be doing the same thing. Right. I mean, I don’t think we would. Maybe we would do some of it. But we don’t have that money, so we have to out-think, we have to out-strategize our competition. We can’t outspend them. So I think that to answer your question much more directly, as far as what I’ve witnessed within the market over the first couple of months, is just a ton of noise, a ton of laziness, a ton of sameness, and we’re really trying to figure out a way to differentiate in that sea of sameness. And I know that’s a cliche, but when you look at the things that we’re trying to do, they are a lot more unique and different than a vast majority of every other operator out there.
VM: I think even using sort of a creative approach is such a unique thing right now. Right. I think when people are boxed in, it’s usually that time that makes or breaks. And I think the way you describe it, I think yours was more of a make approach that let’s try to use this box and creative approaches to get accustomed with customers, let them approach our brand.Using that approach and that mindset, were there some major goals that PointsBet Canada struck within the first two months of the market going live? Were there like some major wins that you guys wanted to accomplish and then you did accomplish those wins?
NS: Yeah, I think there were two in particular. One, and I alluded to this before, is because we started with absolutely zero database when market launched, our initial goal was to create, excuse me, a level of aided awareness, non-aided awareness that would register, excuse me, with Ontario sports fans. And by that I mean we track through a number of sources and data and third party sources, just the general awareness of Ontario sports fans across a number of the different iGaming brands. And we hit levels of aided and un-aided awareness in Ontario that really excited us, because, again, we started from zero. Right. So to think that we were hitting numbers that were very close to some of our competitors who had been in the market a lot longer, that had brands that were way bigger, that really excited us.
VM: I guess, with major wins, come some challenges or even a set of goals that you’d like to take on over the next few quarters. So are there specific challenges whether it’s related to messaging or responsible gaming initiatives, which is really important right now. Are there specific challenges that the PointsBet Canada team will be working on over the next few months?
NS: That’s a really good question. I think that the biggest challenges that we’re working on right now is we launched on April 4, which was kind of at the tail end of most of the major North American sports seasons, right? So the biggest challenge for us right now is looking at September, which is the beginning of NFL football season, right? And NFL, that’s still the most explosive moments of every sports year’s calendar. Right. September is kind of the new year of sports. Right. But that also then leads into the beginning of the NBA season and the beginning of the NHL season as well. And because of our relationship with both the Leafs and the Raptors really nailing how those two seasons start for us and the NFL season are challenges, but massive priorities right. And figuring out how we’re going to do that. I think you bring up a really important point by way of responsible gaming. I think it’s really important for every operator to make responsible game and consumer protections a priority. Right. Because a rising tide lifts all boats and what we want to do is create the healthiest sports-iGaming ecosystem or I should say sports and iGaming ecosystem as it can for Ontario. Because we, especially PointsBet, we’re playing the long game here, right? I don’t care how we do tomorrow, I care how we do in two years. Right. And so everything that we’re doing, of course I do care how we’re going to do tomorrow, but I’m more focused on how do we create a strong brand and a strong product so as the market consolidates, which I do think it will over the next three years, that PointsBet is not only a leader within that market, but we learn as much as we can over the next short period of time. So three years from now, five years from now, we’re a better company for it, right? So when it comes to responsible gaming, I think it’s really important to make sure that the Ontario sports gambler is aware of the things that they need to look out for to ensure that not only they are not showing signs of addiction or showing signs of overindulgence, over exposure when it comes to their own gambling activities. But I think it’s also very important for the Ontario and the Canadian iGaming user to also understand what to look out for by way of what operators are going to be using. Right. Not every operator respects responsible gaming, anti-money laundering, and consumer protections the same way. And I think as this market evolves I think it’s important for customers especially as we’re trying to call it, repatriate is the word we like to use, basically convince those sports gamblers that have been gambling in the grey market with grey market operators, which is now kind of the black market,trying to convince them that it’s better to come and play with a white market operator like PointsBet. Because ultimately we have better consumer protections. We have better products. We have better live betting products, which is the future of North American sports gambling. Those are the types of things that I think, to your point, are the challenges for this market as a whole is convincing those black market sports bettors that, hey, there’s a lot of benefit around transitioning into the white market with an operator like PointsBet.
VM: Definitely. And I think whether it’s data or different innovations and technologies, what’s next for PointsBet Canada? And what do you hope to see in the next five years in the online gaming industry of Canada?
NS: Well, I think that the question there is, I think about five years from now, I draw a correlation to the cannabis industry that we witnessed in Ontario. Now, when it launched, similar to the way iGaming launched, there was a ton of noise, there were dozens of companies out there, there was a lot of money in the space. Fast forward four to five years, three to five years, there was consolidation. Right now, when you look at the cannabis sector in Ontario, there’s really three to five relevant players. So when we fast forward five years, I believe PointsBet is going to be one of the top five, the last standing relevant operators within the Ontario-Canadian iGaming market. So everything that we do is about providing us the foundation to grow both from a technology and innovation and product perspective, and also from a brand, marketing, and partnership perspective to be able to create the best experience for the Ontario, and hopefully future Canadian, sports fan. Right. If we can build the best voice, the most authentic connection to that Canadian sports fan at the same time as providing them the best product in the market, well, now all of a sudden, it gives us a launchpad to be a true market leader five years from now. So where I see PointsBet Canada being five years from now is being a top tier, household brand name iGaming operator in every province that sports and iGaming is legal and regulated across the country, period.
VM: Right. And I think that’s the best way to end the episode. I really want to thank you because from a content creator to being involved in fantasy sports and transitioning into this, you have a really rich sort of history with you, and I think it’s so great to know that you’re into music and all these different things. So thank you so much for speaking with me, and I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much
NS: Varad, my pleasure. And I’ll leave you with one more Josh Homme musical tip. There is a collective that he puts together called The Desert Sessions. Now, The Desert Sessions, there are two volumes. Basically, he brought a bunch of people to the Palm Desert and they just recorded music together. Like, Les Claypool from Primus,Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and I think Alison Mosshart from The Kills, like, just so much fun. So Kyuss, The Desert Sessions. And of course, you’ve heard Them Crooked Vultures. You should check out the soundtrack. So Dave Grohl did a documentary called Music City, which is about a studio. So the soundtrack of that. So there’s an amazing song called Mantra. That’s right. Him and Homme and Trent Reznor. Talk about musical geniuses. Anyway, so there you go. We started with music. We ended with music.
VM: It’s perfect. Universal connection with everyone.
NS: Music and sports, brother. Music and sports.
VM: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Have a good day.
NS: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
VM: From entering a new market, to obtaining licenses, incorporating technologies, making a customer acquisition strategy, and then executing the game plan, merchants put in a lot of work when they move into a newly regulated iGaming market. I want to thank Nic Sulsky, the Chief Commercial Officer at PointsBet Canada, for joining us today and providing his expertise. If you enjoyed today’s episode, then please don’t forget to, like, share and subscribe to our YouTube channel. If you have any questions for us or Nic, then please comment them down below. Thank you so much for tuning into The iGaming Show, presented by Paramount Commerce. I’m your host, Varad Mehta. And until next time, keep gaming.