When the Mid-American Conference finally closed its live data rights deal with Genius Sports, it culminated a sometimes contentious, often confusing yearlong learning process for the conference’s leadership.
Although there were concerns about selling official data to sportsbooks, the 12 schools in the MAC saw the greater benefits of added revenue and more control.getty images
University presidents and athletic directors had dollar signs in their eyes after learning about the value of data rights at the professional level, where the NFL and NBA each collect upward of $100 million annually. That optimism was leveled by the realization that most of the money in any deal would come from selling real-time stats to online sportsbooks, putting the league’s 12 institutions in business with gambling entities.
Ultimately, the anticipated revenue and control that will come from selling the official stats won out over the hand-wringing, and a five-year deal with Genius was finalized earlier this month. Just a week later, the Pac-12 completed a comprehensive multiyear arrangement for San Francisco-based startup Tempus Ex Machina to be the conference’s technology and data solutions partner in a deal that does not — for now — include the right to sell official data to sportsbooks.
This is just the start.
If college conferences can figure out how to pool each school’s data and provide sportsbooks with official stats, it is likely to yield a revenue stream second only to media rights, a proposition that may ease a long-standing aversion to the now increasingly legal sports betting business.
“There’s a big push to try to standardize these things, but they just haven’t happened yet,” said Matthew Holt, president of U.S. Integrity, which screens betting data for impropriety and provides consulting to many schools and conferences. “The one thing that there’s unanimous agreement on is that if someone could take this huge, fractured, massive asset of 128 Division I college football teams or 352 Division I college basketball teams and unify that asset, then it is the most valuable (sports betting data) asset in the United States. It dwarfs the professional leagues. … How do we get there? Easier said than done.”
Some back-of-the-envelope calculations support that premise. College football is the second-most bet-on U.S. property; college basketball the fourth most. And the menu of college games is head spinning: Almost 900 in football, compared to 283 in the NFL, and nearly 6,000 in basketball, compared to about 1,400 in the NBA when including the playoffs.
If pro football and basketball rights are worth almost $250 million annually combined, what might the aggregate be for all sports in the college conferences, March Madness, the College Football Playoff and bowls?
Holt projects that it could approach a combined $500 million, using the professional leagues as comparibles. While he would not discuss specific conferences, other bullish sources suggested that the most bet-on leagues, the SEC and Big Ten, could corral annual takes approaching $50 million if they include marketing assets and live video in the deal.
The obstacle is that there isn’t a one-stop shop in college from which to acquire the live data.
The NCAA, which has a deal with Genius to collect and distribute data at its championships, including March Madness, only controls the rights to those championships, and thus far hasn’t agreed to sell them to sportsbooks. The schools maintain control of data produced from their home games. The conferences hold rights to tournaments and football championship games. The CFP is its own thing entirely.
The Pac-12’s tech and data deal is a likely step to selling to sportsbooks, with more conference deals to come.getty images
In a world that favors one-stop shopping, college sports is an open-air bazaar.
“To the extent that collegiate sports will look to aggregating and distributing its data for commercial purposes, fragmentation will not be its friend,” said Sean Conroy, executive vice president of North America for Genius Sports. “These organizations do not want to integrate with hundreds of different suppliers of sports data. There becomes a point where it is too difficult.”
Unlocking the value from live data is the chief challenge in the highly fragmented college world. In the MAC’s first-mover deal with Genius, which it brokered in consultation with multimedia rights holder JMI Sports, Genius will pay an annual guaranteed fee for near real-time data it will then sell to media outlets and, more lucratively, to sportsbook operators that use that data to set odds and settle bets.
MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said the league is taking a conservative approach to what this deal might produce in new revenue. But he concedes that some of the numbers from the pro leagues “certainly grab your attention,” he said.
The Pac-12’s arrangement with San Francisco-based Tempus Ex Machina looks different. Part of the tech company’s play is to install cameras in each stadium — it already outfits NFL venues — to track player movement and create betting and fan enhancement products.
While university presidents and athletic directors will have the final say over how their data is used, there’s still another conversation to be had with each school’s multimedia rights holders, such as JMI, Learfield and Playfly, which manage the sponsorship rights that many sportsbooks would like to see included in a data package.
The NFL, NBA and MLB all require sportsbooks to buy official data in order to sponsor the league or its teams, and in some cases to advertise during broadcasts, a tactic that has hastened the adoption of official data for all of them, at least among the handful of sportsbooks that now dominate American betting. College conferences may find their data isn’t worth the rates that the pro leagues got if it doesn’t include school logos and other IP.
PointsBet USA Chief Commercial Officer Eric Foote had a deep pedigree in college sports when he joined the Australian-founded, Denver-based sportsbook at the start of 2020, having worked in CBS Sports Interactive’s college group for more than a decade. He engineered the first sportsbook sponsorship of a college program between PointsBet and the University of Colorado that fall, but has seen only three more deals with Power Five programs announced since then.
“We all know most, if not all, conferences are looking at something similar,” Foote said. “Everyone is trying to monetize their data and it seems to be something that a lot of the conferences are starting to circle around. That will help the category grow larger when it comes to sponsorship opportunities.”
While locking arms, and logos, to promote sports betting through a sponsorship is seen as a prickly proposition on many campuses, the sale of a school’s official data — held up as critical for preserving integrity and consumer protection by the pro leagues— could be easier to massage.
As the conferences work to marshal buy-in across campuses, sportsbooks are developing betting products without the use of official stats. When March Madness tipped off last week, all the leading sportsbooks had at least a basic set of live betting offerings on all the games. Which begs the question: If operators can get by now with unofficial stats, will they still buy official stat packages?
“Everyone has a product, and a pretty expansive product — one that you couldn’t run with just human beings,” Holt said. “You have to have data feeds. So how are they doing it? There’s a lot of different options available. … If you said to a conference or schools, ‘It’s the NCAA Tournament and nearly 70 different operators are offering live betting,’ how do you think they’re getting the data to do it? They would have no clue.”
The answer is complicated. With no official data available, data distributors work creatively to make their own streams, using broadcast backhauls that are faster than what a bettor sees at home, repurposing data intended for other uses or dispatching “scouts” to transmit scores from a seat in the stands. The larger data companies typically eschew those practices when a property is willing to sell its official feed.
PointsBet is bullish on an in-play product it is offering for March Madness, powered by multiple data streams that it then uses to create and change its odds on a range of bets, such as who will score next. If that product works as seamlessly as its official NFL and NBA products did, will it be willing to pay a premium for an official feed from the NCAA or a college conference?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Foote said. “We have to see the quality of the data, the latency of the data and the breadth of the data. And then secondly, how will the conference and their official data provider go to market with it? What else will they wrap up into it?”
At a recent meeting of college athletic directors in January, Kyle McDoniel, Sportradar head of strategic partnerships, delivered a data point that floored many, revealing that the average handle for mid-major Georgia State’s football games was $250,000. A game against Auburn, however, generated more than $1 million in legal wagers.
“I think a lot of jaws hit the floor,” said McDoniel, who joined the company in 2020 after lengthy stints at Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports and ESPN. “This is happening. Our view is that if this is happening, it needs to be happening in the light and the schools and conferences need to be participating in the value chain. We all need to be working together to make it a safe and enjoyable and reputable space.”