Earlier this year, NBA star Draymond Green courted the wrath of female athletes and fans of women’s sports everywhere by suggesting that pro women’s leagues haven’t done enough to court corporate dollars, adding that they can’t complain about the pay gap between men and women’s pro sports until they do. Green’s comments were uninformed, tone-deaf, and earned a quick rebuke from no less than women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Today, the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury showed Green and those who think like him exactly what women’s sports are capable of, announcing an agreement with Bally’s Corporation that a source familiar with the deal told Deadspin is worth $66 million over the next 15 years. The agreement will make Bally’s Corporation, which operates 10 casinos in 14 states in addition to its online betting licenses, the official gaming partner of the Mercury. According to the team, the deal is the first-ever sports betting deal with a pro women’s sports team, and the largest team sponsorship agreement in the history of women’s sports. It also gives Bally’s an entry into sports betting in a 15th state, Arizona.
Soo Kim, Chairman of Bally’s Corporation’s Board of Directors, told Deadspin that this was, above all else, a business deal.
“It makes a lot of sense for us to try to get sports betting access in Arizona, but there’s also an opportunity to sort of bring parity to women’s sports… We make business decisions to make good business decisions, but this is a good business decision that also happens to be trailblazing and more inclusive and has a good societal impact.
“Arizona is a state that happened to tie its sports betting licenses to professional sports teams,” Soo added, “and the first six went to the big men’s sports: men’s basketball, baseball, hockey, football, golf, and NASCAR. We were interested in entering the market, and it was a hand-in-glove fit.”
Soo told Deadspin that no one had asked the question if women’s teams were also eligible for sports betting licenses, adding “there was no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.”
The Mercury believe the deal to be a cutting-edge one in women’s sports. “From our perspective, to see this type of investment and opportunity, something that the Mercury can take advantage of, really is a groundbreaking event,” Jason Rowley, CEO & President of the Mercury and Phoenix Suns, told Deadspin. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for us, but I think there’s also a tremendous opportunity for the state to act as a thought leader in this process.”
Representatives from the Mercury told Deadspin that the team will use the additional revenue from everything to the “player and fan experience to growing their youth basketball program, adding that these are the kinds of deals that narrow the pay gap over time. “The more revenue any team generates, ultimately, that’s going to be to the benefit of the players, as well. These are all long-term issues, “ Rowley said, “but it’s a business and the players are partners in that business. Obviously, the better the teams do and the better the league goes, the better [for the players.]”
In a statement provided exclusively to Deadspin, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “Partners and supporters of the WNBA and its teams have stepped up in an unprecedented way this year, and Bally’s is one of those partners that recognizes the value of the WNBA and supporting women’s sports.” Engelbert added, “Bally’s is stepping up to help drive new fans to our game, and new ways to engage fans, and we look forward to seeing this partnership come to life between the Phoenix Mercury and Bally’s.”
The deal is premised on the Mercury obtaining a mobile sports betting license from the Arizona Department of Gaming. Because of the way Arizona’s sports betting legislation is drafted, sports betting licenses are available to “professional sports franchises operating within the state.” And because Arizona law defines “professional sports” as a sports “conducted at the level league or organizational play for its respective sport and includes baseball, basketball, football, golf, hockey, soccer, and motorsports,” legally, there should be no obstacle to a WNBA team entering the sports betting market.
As women’s sports continue to court a wider audience, sports betting seems like an obvious space for expansion. In the two years since the United States Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992, sports betting has exploded across the United States. Twenty-five states and Washington D.C. have legalized sports betting in some form, with Arizona set to enter the fray on September 9 of this year.
According to Forbes, sports betting generated $1 billion in revenue within the United States, a number that is expected to grow to $6 billion in the next two years. Should sports betting become legal in all 50 states, the gaming industry will grow to an estimated $19 billion per year.
For a women’s pro sports team like the Mercury, the additional revenue is welcome, but the chance to engage a new audience in their team is an even bigger prize. “My thought years ago was that people that want to be betting are betting right now,” Joe Ostrowski, host of the gaming show BetQLDaily told Deadspin. “I was definitely proven wrong. I can’t believe how many people have started to bet on sports legally that had no interest in doing so in the past.”
With a larger betting pool comes the possibility of a larger fan base and more engagement from a new audience. “The tie-in to sports betting and the level of engagement that brings is certainly a critical thing for us,” said Rowley. “But while we do think it will help us tap into additional audiences, it’s also important from the perspective of equal representation, equal access.”
“Let’s say you have someone who isn’t a sports bettor,” said Ostrowski. “It opens the door. You’re at the game anyway, you have a rooting interest, you want to see your team win. When you’re getting a hot dog and popcorn for your son, maybe the betting window is right there. You say ‘Oh well, I’ll throw five bucks on this to happen.’ That’s what they’re going after.”
While the physical logistics remain in flux (the Suns already have a deal with FanDuel that involves opening a sportsbook inside Suns Arena, where the Mercury also play), the deal includes Bally’s setting up a sportsbook in the vicinity of Suns Arena and promoting its business in connection with Mercury games.
Sports betting brings a level of interest and engagement to any game, but especially to those that aren’t quite as captivating, Rowley told Deadspin. “A game on a Monday night against an opponent that isn’t all that attractive, or has a less than winning record, might not get the same engagement as a Friday night game against a team that’s headed to the playoffs. It gives you the opportunity with the mobile platform to be able to engage, not just in the arena, but anywhere you are in the state. That connection point with fans, aside from just when your game is televised or just when you’re in the arena watching the game, gives us a much broader reach.”
From a business standpoint, the WNBA has never been hotter. ESPN reported that viewership for the games it broadcast was up 74 percent after the first five games of the 2021 season, and anyone on Sports Twitter has seen a sharp uptick in fans commenting on games.
David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, believes there is a tremendous amount of growth opportunity in women’s sports. “A study recently came out saying that Olympic audiences are just as likely to watch women play sports as they are to watch men play sports. That, to me, tells me that when the audience knows what they’re rooting interest is, they don’t care whether it’s men or women playing,” Berri told Deadspin. “The problem is that women’s sports are too young for anyone to know what their rooting interest is… In the future, women’s sports are going to be huge, which means the time to invest is now.”
And Ostrowski agrees that there’s a lot of unacknowledged opportunity in women’s sports betting. “This may surprise you,” he said, “but many of the sharpest betting professionals, their favorite sport to bet on is the WNBA.”