Deal Or No Deal: How M&A Could Shape US Sports Betting In 2021

The US sports betting market is still in its early days but has already played host to some spectacular deals since 2018.

  • Penn National’s acquisition of Barstool has received praise for the way it transformed the company.
  • Flutter has seen the value of FanDuel increase 20-fold since its initial investment (although that first valuation is being disputed in court.)
  • DraftKings’ acquisition of SBTech paved the way for a spectacular stock market run.

The deal-making in the sports betting industry shows no sign of slowing down.

“Everyone is talking to everyone” said Simon French, the co-founder of advisory firm Bixteth Partners. “There’s a lot of motivation to do deals, from valuation arbitrage to technology plays. There are still a lot of big guns yet to fire bullets.”

So what sort of transactions could we see in 2021?

SPAC attack in US sports betting

For starters, more companies are likely to going public. Jefferies analyst David Katz said demand for sports betting opportunities among institutional investors was “unbelievable.”

“The volume of calls we get, the readership of notes, it’s been amazing,” Katz said. “There is certainly a gold rush feeling here.”

At present that demand is seemingly funneled into two high-profile sports betting stocks: Penn and DraftKings. But the markets have a way of leveling themselves, and more supply is on the way via SPACs.

More opportunities coming?

It helps that SPACs involving DraftKings, Golden Nugget, Rush Street and Genius Sports have all been well received. And there are several more funded SPACs looking for targets within gaming.

Like any gold rush, there’s plenty of money available for those providing the picks and shovels. As one Wall Street source put it:

“If you provide anything to this industry and you’re not trying to take advantage of the multiples available in public markets, you’re not doing your job. If people are willing to hand out money at astronomical valuations, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?”

SPACs are a simple solution to speed up that passage to the public markets, so expect more of the same in 2021. The impact of that glut of supply on valuations? Well, that is its own question.

Another deal for DraftKings?

Aside from the external interest in the sector, there’s plenty of appetite for deal-making within it. DraftKings is an obvious candidate to be at the heart of any wheeling and dealing. At its recent Q3 results, DK had $1.3 billion on the balance sheet, which CEO Jason Robins said could be earmarked for M&A.

The company has been linked in the past with media outlets like Bleacher Report, but could feasibly have a bigger target in mind.

“DraftKings acquiring a European operator in stock would make sense in theory,” said Will Hershey, CEO of RoundHill Investments. “That would be immediately accretive to earnings.”

Such a deal would make the most of DKNG’s lofty valuation, especially if a similar multiple were applied to any European revenues it acquired.

Bolt-on M&A options

Content is also still highly sought after, according to the banker. To that end, operators are looking at names like The Athletic, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated and Action Network.

Companies are also looking at daily fantasy sports. We saw two sportsbook investments in fantasy companies in one day this week, and expect more of the same.

Fantasy operators can build customer databases in not-yet legal betting states like California, and take sign-ups three years earlier than sportsbooks with a legal age of 18 years old. (Of course, DraftKings and FanDuel are already doing this as well.)

Why DFS makes sense

For a sportsbook, having a fantasy option in-house helps capture a higher share of a player’s wallet. At present, a William Hill customer (for example) needs to go to FanDuel/DraftKings to play fantasy, from where they might never return.

Or how about a deal focused on in-play betting? In-play is one of the fastest-growing areas of US sports betting, but the product is certainly not perfect yet. In fact, some argue it is “broken” thanks to delays, heavy vig and not enough uptime.

It’s the type of niche technology problem that could be solved by a startup rather than a legacy operator. A company like SimpleBet has made some progress on this front with a free-to-play micro-prediction game gaining traction over at FanDuel.

Best opportunities outside US sports betting?

In fact, B2B technology as a whole is a hot sector given the success of DraftKings/SBTech and more recently Bally’s and Bet.Works.

“We’ve been surprised by the number of US betting operators wanting their own tech stack,” French said.

That could make privately-owned software names like FSB and Amelco attractive for US casino chains.

iGaming as well

It’s a similar story in online casino; a relatively unloved market at present, but one with more value still to be unlocked.

French noted Playtech as an option for US operators looking to own their casino technology. Indeed, earlier this year Playtech shareholder Jason Ader argued the company would be an ideal target for DraftKings.

On that note, Ader told LSR he expected to see more US land-based giants acquiring European online operators like the Caesars/William Hill deal.

If they don’t, they risk going out of business,” Ader said. “If you’re a retailer that didn’t move online, you don’t exist anymore. Who’s thriving against Amazon? Wal-Mart. They built an amazing online business to complement their stores. MGM, Caesars, Wynn. They have a choice to be like Wal-Mart or disappear.”

In short, there’s a palpable sense of an ongoing gold rush in US sports betting, and 2021 looks set be a year of blockbusters.

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