In this edition of Scoreboard, we dig into the US sports betting boom that inspired Caesars Entertainment’s £2.9bn deal with UK bookmaker William Hill, explain the thorny politics behind demands that the English Premier League provides £250m to poorer football clubs, discuss the problems caused by an overabundance of US sport on television, and more.

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The US sports betting goldrush - and the European gambling mergers to come

Caesars bids for William Hill: first of many © FT montage

We begin with a special dispatch from the FT’s Leisure Correspondent Alice Hancock.

With Roman skill, Caesars Entertainment fought off rivals for the US assets of UK bookmaker William Hill this week. 

The Nevada-based casino group had its £2.9bn bid recommended by William Hill’s board following a private auction kicked off by an initial approach for the 83-year-old bookie from the US private equity firm Apollo Global Management.

Caesars “effectively snookered” rival bidders, according to Greg Johnson, an analyst at Shore Capital, with a warning it would pull its US joint venture with William Hill should Apollo buy the company. 

Expect the merger to be the first of many inspired by a new American gold rush: sports betting.

Valuations of US gambling operators have soared in recent months as investors realise the size of the opportunity. Sports fixtures may have been off during the initial phase of the pandemic, but their resumption over the summer has been accompanied by a surge in betting on games.

Column chart of  Addressable market by gross win revenues ($bn) showing Big opportunity: US regulated sports betting forecast

When states were initially permitted to legalise sports betting following a US Supreme Court ruling in 2018, many expected the activity to take place in sportsbooks at casinos and racetracks.

The pandemic has proven that the big growth will be online.

Illinois saw 230,000 new sports betting accounts opened in July, while New Jersey reported its best month yet after $668m of wagers were placed in August — 90 per cent online.

Internet focused groups such as DraftKings, which has seen its valuation treble since listing in December last year, are leading the online gambling market, leaving casino operators to hunt out online expertise from those already in the know.

And across the pond, European bookmakers already have years of technical experience in online betting.

Bookmaking deals: roll up, roll up © Getty Images

Analysts suggest that William Hill being picked off by Caesars may prompt the likes of MGM to look twice at its own joint venture partner, Ladbrokes Coral owner, GVC. The gambling technology group Playtech and online gambling company 888 have also been mentioned as possible targets for incumbent US players.

Most states also require incoming operators to have a “market access” agreement with a US company so, as James Kilsby, US managing director of Gambling Compliance puts it, “the European and international operators need the land-based casino operators as much if not even more than the casinos need them.”

Hence why Caesars could use its joint venture to skewer rivals for William Hill to give it the upper hand. And also why more acquisitions of European internet betting groups by US casino operators are on the cards.

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English football’s difficult dance with Britain’s politicians

Premier League: grappling with the pandemic © AP

Across English football, clubs had pinned their financial futures on the partial return of fans to stadiums in order to survive the season. 

That was until Boris Johnson had a costly change of heart last week. The UK Prime Minister decided a resurgence of the coronavirus meant sports stadiums would remain closed to spectators, most likely for six months at least. 

While the government is planning a taxpayer-funded rescue for other British sports bodies, such as those that run rugby, cricket and cycling, there will be no similar support provided to professional football.

Ministers pushed for a restart of the Premier League in June to boost the morale of a football-crazy public, now they don’t want to be seen bailing out multi-millionaire footballers.

Instead, they insist English football’s top division funds a financial rescue of the English Football League, which runs the three divisions beneath it. 

Reflecting the strange political times, a Conservative government is pushing for wealth redistribution among private companies.

Championship clubs: needing hand-me-downs © AP

The money is desperately needed. 

Every month without fans means English football loses out on £100m, disproportionately hurting the EFL, which relies on gate receipts for its income because its clubs do not have the cushion of the £9.2bn in broadcasting contracts earned in the Premier League.

Talks between Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and his EFL counterpart Rick Parry are ongoing. One person close to the Premier League says that covering EFL clubs’ shortfall of £250m caused by the pandemic is too much to stomach. 

© Richard Masters: £250m man?

And yet, some sort of deal is likely due to the intense pressure to act. As one senior executive at a Premier League club said, the government is “hitting us in every which way”.

The enforced closure of stadiums is just one gripe. Just as difficult for some to digest was the backlash that resulted in top division clubs attempting to lean on government furlough schemes. Those who tried — Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur — quickly backtracked.

In March, Health Secretary Matt Hancock demanded top players “take a [pay] cut and play their part”. 

Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United player, has said bringing up the subject of Premier League footballer salaries during the pandemic showed how football was “just an easy target” for politicians. He was among players to make a substantial donation to the National Health Service.

Marcus Rashford: on target © Pool via Reuters

“How much more can we give without getting something back?” asks the Premier League club executive. The answer is a significant bailout to EFL clubs.

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After a famine, it's feast time for US sports

LeBron James: facing the Heat—and the NFL— in the finals © AP

Americans have a problem: there are too many sports on television.

The pandemic-delayed restarts of US leagues has resulted in a jam-packed schedule that will pit LeBron James and the National Basketball Association finals against the traditionally higher-rated Sunday night National Football League game this weekend, featuring the Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco 49ers.

For the first time, US viewers last month could watch the NBA, NFL, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, Women's National Basketball Association, and Major League Soccer on the same day, according to media analysts MoffettNathanson

US sports: too much of a good thing © AP

The confluence of events is splintering ratings, making it trickier for networks — and advertisers — to effectively target viewers.

It's also impacting another autumn contest: the US presidential election. 

Not only are debates facing off against playoff baseball (though at the time of writing, it is unclear if further presidential debates will take place after Donald Trump tested positive for coronavirus), sports are a prime draw for campaign advertisements. 

Data for 2020 are still being collected, but early filings show campaigns are spending more on games aired on subscription cable, rather than free-to-air broadcast networks which typically draw more viewers, said Lauren Williams of Advertising Analytics.

The trend indicates that with still-shifting sports schedules — the NFL postponed its first game because of a Covid-19 outbreak this week — campaigns are less certain of where they can target the most eyeballs.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Stanley Cup winners. Ratings losers © AP

The cornucopia of sports programming is having the deepest impact on the NBA and NHL, whose playoffs have moved to autumn from their traditional schedule in the spring, when US television viewership is higher overall. Viewership for both leagues' playoffs declined 35 per cent and 61 per cent, respectively.

Such severe ratings declines may pose a huge blow to future ad sales, particularly if season schedules continue to be disrupted.

Media analysts estimate the NBA generated more than $900m in advertisements during the 2019 post-season alone.

Jeff Van Gundy, a basketball analyst for ESPN, said there is a disconnect between what is happening inside the pandemic-enforced "bubble" where NBA games are taking place, and what's shown on TV.

"For the players, it's hard", he said. "They're at the pinnacle, and when they come on the court, it's absolutely dead in the arena. It's just like there's no atmosphere."

The NBA has been widely praised for maximizing safety through the bubble, but with scheduling of the 2021 season still up in the air, the league will certainly be considering how they can maximize ratings, too.

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Red Bull’s supplier Honda leaves F1: end of the road © Pool via Reuters
  • Honda will pull out of Formula One at the end of the 2021 season. Japan’s third-largest carmaker, which supplies engines to Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri, is diverting resources into electric and fuel-cell vehicles, raising difficult questions for the world’s biggest motorsport and its owner Liberty Media.

  • Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala has taken a stake in Silver Lake, the US private equity firm which last year made a $500m bet on Manchester City’s parent company. The FT’s Due Diligence team explains how mutual back-scratching has brought together Mubadala chief Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who chairs City Football Group, and Silver Lake co-CEO Egon Durban.

  • The National Football League had its first Covid-19 outbreak this week, forcing the postponement of a game between the affected Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • The Ladies European Tour has agreed a deal with Saudi Arabia to host two golf tournaments in Jeddah with $1.5m of prize money up for grabs. The gulf kingdom’s sporting ambitions are at odds with its treatment of Saudi women’s rights activists, Amnesty International’s Kate Allen told the Guardian.

  • Major League Baseball is set to lose $3bn this year as a result of disputes with players and the pandemic, commissioner Rob Manfred told the Wall Street Journal, warning that it would be “devastating” if fans can’t return in 2021.

  • Uefa, European football’s governing body, said it will allow clubs and national teams to welcome fans back into their stadiums, at up to 30 per cent capacity, if supported by local authorities.

Final whistle

Ricardo Quaresma: how to make an entrance © Twitter @VitoriaSC1922

Newly-signed football players were once presented to a club’s fans with little more than a handshake with the manager. As we approach the closure of European football’s transfer window on Monday, we welcome the social media era in which clubs are producing short videos — ranging from the absurd to the epic — revealing new signings to supporters. 

Recent examples include; new Sampdoria winger Antonio Candreva offering perfect service to club captain Fabio Quagliarella; Bologna’s low-budget, Loch Ness Monster-inspired presentation of Scottish defender Aaron Hickey; lifelong Arsenal fan Matt Doherty cleaning up his Twitter feed after signing for arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur; and Ricardo Quaresma signing for Portugal’s Vitória de Guimarães and then, for no apparent reason other than looking cool, riding a white horse

Scoreboard is written by Samuel Agini, Murad Ahmed and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team. This week’s edition included a special dispatch from Alice Hancock in London.

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