Having followed his dad around every race track in Victoria, Johnny Aitken was destined for a career in sports betting. Now, just over a year after moving to the US, he has put PointsBet right at the heart of the country’s biggest online market.
Aitken’s entry into the operators side of sports betting coincided with the start of digital wagering in Australia around the late 2000’s, with new start-ups, on-track bookmakers and European entities entering the space to challenge the then monopoly operator (TAB).
During this time he explained that he thought he was “extremely fortunate” to be introduced to Tom Waterhouse, whom he then worked for from the launch of his dot com digital sports betting business which soon became one of the Australian markets’ biggest brands.
Aitken then moved to William Hill as Head of Risk when the sportsbook acquired the dot com business along with Sportingbet and Centrebet for just under $1bn collectively. Following this, Aitken eventually progressed and ran the Trading and Operations departments, reporting into the CEO and overseeing 150 people within Trading, Service, Quantitative Analytics and Content teams.
However, this was just the start of his PointsBet story. Having seen the substantial advantage it had through owning its own technology, he admits the lure of reconnecting with Swanell, who was the first employee hired to TomWaterhouse.com, in September 2018 to head up the company’s US division was too strong.
Just over a year on, he has grown the PointsBet US team to 50 employees based in Jersey City and managed its launch in both New Jersey (NJ) and Iowa, with more states to come.
We took a few steps back to ask him how his industry journey began, the challenges he faced on his path to the PointsBet hotseat, and what the next 12-18 months hold for one of the most disruptive operators to emerge in the US post PASPA.
SBC: How did you come to be involved in the gambling industry?
JA: Growing up 400 metres from the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), I was destined from an early stage in life to be involved in sports in some facet.
Of course, originally I harboured ambitions of playing AFL (Australian Rules Football) but every weekend since I was young was spent following my Dad along to pretty much every crevice of the state of Victoria to a horse, harness or greyhound race track.
My task was to capture the opening prices from the on-course bookmakers and report back to Dad the book percentage being offered in the betting ring.
This love of racing and sports flowed into a career path in wagering that I haven’t deviated from since I left university in Melbourne in my early 20’s.
SBC: What key takeaways did you take from previous roles to PointsBet?
JA: Modern sports betting is ultimately a technology business. To not have full control of your technology will never truly allow a business to build and maintain competitive advantages in such a competitive space like sports betting, an area PointsBet has focussed on from day one. PointsBet owns and controls its technology in-house, as well as managing its own trading and risk in-house.
I fully understood the power of these pillars PointsBet had setup which gave me ultimate confidence we would win our first deal in the US despite a high level competition from all other global bookmakers, launch with a bang in New Jersey and expand our national footprint by getting further opportunities for new market growth.
We’ve been able to know when to use the price, product and promotion levers to full effect. Those learnings come from 10+ years in the digital wagering space in Australia.
Bringing this to life, you need to have the best people. That is the major learning from all my previous roles, with the wrong group in the van, you can’t achieve real success. Our teams support and challenge each other. To clarify what I mean, we’re not challenging ourselves to make each other feel vulnerable but we’re challenging each other to continuously improve, as individuals and as a group.
This is at the centre of PointsBet’s DNA; that our people are prepared to go above and beyond to help all members of PointsBet be successful and in turn, deliver a premier betting experience to our clients.
SBC: What are the biggest challenges you’ve had in climbing the ladder to CEO?
JA: Learning that you don’t need to monitor every decision made by my team members. For too long early in my career, I was prone to micro-manage to ensure military precision with operational performance of business areas I managed. This stems from managing a sizeable trading P&L. You quickly realize that isn’t the long term winning formula.
Our focus at PointsBet is on bringing in A-grade talent into the team, shaping the strategy with them but providing them the autonomy to do what they have been hired to do, execute our customer-first strategy.
I sit in on all final interviews, to ensure there is both a cultural fit and also to be transparent on what a career at PointsBet is like – always challenging yourself and others to be better.
SBC: What were the most memorable moments in your first year with PointsBet?
JA: Getting our technology platform tested and approved by the NJDGE by December 2018 to allow us to launch in New Jersey was a momentous occasion for the company and showed that we can match our lofty ambitions with delivering to schedule.
The assistance provided throughout the licensing and platform testing by the NJDGE was excellent; they are forward thinkers and have set the ideal commercial model for sports betting that new states should mimic.
One of the first bets we struck in NJ was a PointsBetting bet, on the time of first three point shot in seconds being made in an NBA game between Indiana and Atlanta, with a client having $20 per second on the under 100 seconds.
Luckily for PointsBet, Trae Young danced down the court and swished a three at the 20 second mark. Although the client lost $1600 on the bet ($20 x 80 seconds), he said after he’d never watched a game with that much heightened engagement that such a unique bet like that can generate. You can only make PointsBetting bets at PointsBet.
But most of all, I’m proud of our people. Both in AUS and the team we have grown in the US, they all fit the PointsBet mould of being customer-oriented, collaborative and always driving the business forward.
All the learnings we have captured this year in NJ will spark consistent enhancements to our product offering to match the wants of our clients.
SBC: What does the next 12-18 months hold for PointsBet?
JA: Our strategy to the US sport betting opportunity has always been that of complete focus. We don’t have to worry about FOBT restrictions in the UK or nuances of the Nordic betting market, we are solely fixated on the US sports betting opportunity.
The business was setup from day one with the US in mind, with our pedigree in technology, product, marketing to compliment our obsession with US sports. That won’t change in the future. Via our most recently announced deal with Penn National Gaming, we know have market access in up to 10 states and deliver on another promise we have made to our board, to have a national footprint in the US.
We have just launched our first retail sportsbook in Burlington, Iowa at the Catfish Bend Casino. Seeing our branding and our people manage a venue of that calibre with sports on wall to wall definitely is a proud moment for the PointsBet team.
Our focus will be to expand on the advantages we possess owing our entire technology platform by establishing a second US operating location in Denver from October, that will act as our primary hub and innovation centre for our technology and product teams.