Carlton Saffa, chief market officer at Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, said the casino is ready to launch a mobile sports betting app in time for the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Saracen is one of three casinos in Arkansas. The others are in West Memphis and Hot Springs.
After Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said last year he would support off-site mobile Arkansas sports betting, Saffa and the other Arkansas casino operators sought to change a Racing Commission rule prohibiting statewide mobile wagering.
In recent months, the Racing Commission and a legislative committee approved a rule change legalizing mobile sports betting across the state.
The new rule gives each Arkansas casino two mobile platforms, called “skins,” to use under their own brand or in partnering with a national online bookmaker such as DraftKings and FanDuel.
The rule grants local casinos 51% of profits when partnering with a national online bookmaker. These bookmakers typically share 10-15% in other states.
In public hearings on the rule change, the bookmakers argued that profit-sharing arrangements should be negotiated between themselves and their casino partners, not set by the government. No other state has a government rule establishing profit-sharing percentages.
The casinos countered that the majority of profits should remain in-state, where the resorts employ thousands of workers and contribute millions in state and local taxes.
The rule allowing mobile waging in Arkansas received final legislative approval on Feb. 22, with the 51% profit-sharing provision intact.
Early March Launch Date?
After a mandatory 10-day filing period at the secretary of state’s office, mobile sports betting can begin as soon as the skins are available for bettors to download.
Saffa said on Feb. 24 that his company's mobile app might be ready to use on March 4.
That would have the app up and running in time for the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament, which is March 9-13 in Tampa, and the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, beginning March 15 at different sites around the country. The men’s Final Four matchups are April 2-4 at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.
Betting on the Arkansas Razorbacks is expected to be popular in the state once tournament basketball begins.
After the Feb. 22 vote legalizing mobile wagering in Arkansas, Saffa answered questions from BetArkansas.
BetArkansas: When will your mobile app be available for bettors in Arkansas?
Carlton Saffa: It won’t be legal until the March 4 per the Arkansas Administrative Procedures Act. Once a rule is through legislative review/approval, there is a 10-day period before the rule goes into effect.
So that means March 4 is the earliest possible date, legally.
For BetSaracen, we’re ready, but we’re also dependent on integration with compliance departments in things like payment processing and app-stores due diligence. Our timeline is dependent on these external factors, but we are proceeding with a sense of urgency.
Shorter answer: BetSaracen could launch as early as March 4, but will definitely be live for March Madness.
Reaching Across State Lines
BetArkansas: In addition to reaching out to people in Arkansas, will your advertising target bettors in neighboring states that don’t have mobile wagering — Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Missouri?
CS: The Arkansas media market is interesting in that we have a lot of interstate overlap.
For example, I did a television interview with a Fort Smith, Arkansas-based television station. In addition to being the news source for their immediate Arkansas market, this station is also “local” to eastern Oklahoma.
The same is true of the Jonesboro, Arkansas, market, with a media footprint that overlays the boot heel of Missouri.
The inverse is true as well: Getting your message to parts of North Arkansas means advertising in the Springfield, Missouri, market with its spillover into our state.
Perhaps the most obvious case is Texarkana, a city bisected by a road, appropriately named State Line Avenue. In this market any advertising is effective on both sides of that road and in both Arkansas and Texas.
We’re excited to see GeoComply’s pin dot map for our launch, as there will likely be a lot of action in Arkansas’ border cities.
By the way, this sort of border city activity isn’t unique to sports wagering.
As an aside, for many years Arkansas had a lottery and Mississippi did not. Lake Village, Arkansas, a border city in Southeast Arkansas, was a hotspot for Mississippians coming across the river to buy lottery tickets. The same will happen with sports wagering.
National Dance Partner?
BetArkansas: Will you use either skin to partner with a national online bookmaker?
CS: I’ve found that in life it’s a bad idea to use the words “always” and “never.” To that end, while we have no immediate plans to ask the Arkansas Racing Commission for access to the second skin nor a plan to partner with a national brand, you should never say never.
BetArkansas: Would you ever support lowering the profit-sharing percentage to give national online bookmakers more than 49% of profits?
CS: Just like I said above, “never” is a word to avoid.
That being said, the Arkansas Racing Commission got this right with their rule and the unanimous vote approving it.
Of course the constitutionally authorized casinos should be required to maintain a majority profit position in bets booked under their license.
BetArkansas: Will other states adopt a measure like Arkansas’ 51% profit-sharing provision?
CS: That’s yet to be seen. I’ve already heard from gaming executives and policymakers in other states. (See the BetArkansas.com timeline of sports betting.)
I believe the coming years may yield some changes in sports wagering, and the topics run the gamut from Colorado’s current conversations about advertising to Virginia’s look at promotional play.
BetArkansas: What do you say to those who are worried about minors and people outside Arkansas using mobile apps to wager in the state?
CS: Like all products in gaming, there are appropriate controls and regulatory provisions in place.
For example, GLI testing of our platform, ID validation, geolocation technology and more gives me comfort that our systems work.
None of these are unique concerns for Arkansas, as they are priority compliance matters for every operator in every state live in the mobile sports-wagering space.