Max Bichsel: Ohio can be a top five US sports betting state

Max Bichsel, Vice President of Sports at Group, reflects on Ohio’s sports betting market launch and its future potential.
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Max Bichsel, Vice President of Sports at Group

The Ohio sports betting market is already off to a strong start following its launch at the beginning of the year, but what is the market’s potential? Could the Buckeye State become one of the major sports wagering states in the US?

Max Bichsel, Vice President of Sports at Group, reflected on Ohio’s market potential, its early figures so far, why so many operators are receiving fines, and if its performance could influence other US states to explore sports betting.

Ohio sports betting has top five potential

Ohio launched its sports betting market on Jan. 1 at 12am, and just as the state went live, the Ohio State Buckeyes missed a game-winning field goal in the Peach Bowl against the Georgia Bulldogs that would have sent them to the College Football National Championship game.

Bichsel believes that if the Buckeye State had launched its sports betting market a week earlier, it may have found it easier to capture a strong start given wagering would have been available on the college bowl game.

“If the market launched a little bit sooner, maybe a week earlier, I think you’ll see a lot more inertia and momentum in Ohio,” he said.

“You’d still have a significant amount, but if they were able to capture the Ohio State playoff game against the University of Georgia, they would have had a significant piece of that revenue.”

Nevertheless, Bichsel expects Ohio to “steadily grow” over the next few months as more sporting events arise on the calendar, including the NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl, and March Madness. He believes that by the halfway point of the year, the state will start to look like a top-five market.

“By April or May, you’ll have a very good understanding of how strong the Ohio market is, and I do suspect that Ohio will be a top-five state in the US. It will just be predicated upon how much traffic previously was leaving Ohio.

“If we look at a map of the US, Ohio was kind of the missing piece in the Midwest with all of its neighboring states having online sports betting, and Ohio was the only one that didn’t. You’d have people that were in a border city, perhaps in Cincinnati, that would drive across the border to place a legal sports bet, now can stay in the comfort of their home or wherever they are to place bets. 

“That will have an impact as other states will lose revenue, in some cases, because they’re not getting traffic from Ohio and will grow because they’re keeping the endemic residents that are already there. That’s one very important piece that I think will be helpful for Ohio to be a much more important state than maybe people expect but I think the expectations for Ohio are significant.”

Strong start to operations

Despite launching when it did, Ohio did record a strong start to sports betting operations, as the state had 11.3m geolocation transactions over New Year’s weekend according to GeoComply, outperforming New York during the same period by 2m. The market even had 234,000 geolocation transactions during its first hour on New Year’s Day.

Bichsel noted that the numbers generated by the Buckeye State were expected, but more data from the Ohio Casino Control Commission (OCCC) is required to determine exactly where the state sits compared to others.

He commented: “You had the anticipation, you had the exact day of when the market was going to open, you had the exact time the market was going to open in comparison to some other states where you don’t get that understanding until several days before the market goes launch.

“We’ve known, based on how the statutes are written, that policymakers said this market has to be opened by Jan. 1 at 12am. Every operator met at the starting line and was able to open the market.

“For us, it definitely met our expectations, and we had high lofty expectations about the Ohio market, so it’s definitely been successful. 

“The trouble is we don’t have that much data from the operators yet because they report on a monthly basis through the regulator – the OCCC – and we won’t have direct numbers until then, but GeoComply’s transaction numbers do give you a hint on how successful, how popular, how much activity there was, how much engagement, which was substantial from our perspective. 

“That being said, you won’t know until you get the publicly released figures from the operator.”

Ohio is a unique state in the sports betting landscape, as it has a strong presence in both professional sports – eight teams across the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS – and collegiate sports – 12 NCAA Division I universities. 

Bichsel still expects most of the betting interest from the public to be in professional sports, but he doesn’t think college sports will be too far behind in wagering appeal.

“If you look at the overall wagering on a yearly basis, you’ll probably see more volume on professional sports,” noted Bichsel. 

“I don’t suspect that the collegiate programs will be too far behind because of one, the frequency and the amount of games college teams play, but also the number of college students that are in the mix, coupled with how many sports are able to play, so it’s basketball and football, whereas the major league teams have football, baseball, basketball, NHL. 

“Professional teams generally outweigh collegiate sports in most metrics, but it is dependent on what metric you’re specifically looking at.”

Early fines handed to operators

Even though Ohio’s sports betting market has been live for less than a month, several operators have already received fines from the OCCC for advertising and marketing violations.

While the OCCC has almost already levied $1m in fines, Bichsel pins this down to the regulator protecting the consumer, making sure all operators abide by the rules and “growing pains” for a new market launch.

Bichsel stated: “In Ohio, it’s grabbed headlines because the market is new, but you have regulators policing operators in every market in every US state across the board. If you look at it from a larger perspective, from a 40,000-foot view, it’s the regulator doing its job.

“Operators are not perfect, everyone makes mistakes … the penalties are not harsh enough to where they’re revoking licenses. The regulator is doing the right thing by trying to protect the consumer and making sure that all the operators are playing by the rules against each other.

“They don’t want to give preferential treatment to DraftKings or FanDuel over Caesars or MGM, so they’re policing everyone the same, and that’s the difficult part.”

He continued: “As long as they get climatized and understand how the market is supposed to work, how the regulator is going to police them and protect the consumer, I suspect you’ll see the frequency of fines to diminish, but that’s yet to be seen.”

Future influence

Alongside retail and online, Ohio is delivering sports betting via kiosks in establishments such as grocery stores and bars. Bichsel believes this is the next iteration of US sports betting – “meeting customers where they physically already are,” and “place a responsible sports bet, wherever they are.”

Looking ahead, Bichsel believes Ohio’s potential success in its opening months could be a strong indicator for other states to explore sports betting as a “viable business”, one that can generate tax revenue and protect the consumer with a safe experience to wager responsibly.

“This is something I think, in Ohio, people have been waiting for, not only for the past six months because they knew exactly when it would be available, but also looking back on the past couple of years … since July 2018 when sports betting launched in New Jersey.

“I think there have probably been some feelings of missing out from people in Ohio for many years and now they’re on par with, not only their neighboring states but other states around the country that allow for online regulated sports betting.”