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Bonuses and Promotions are Returning in Force: Rating the Good vs. Bad...By Hartley Henderson
Before the passing of the UIGEA, bonuses and promotions were commonplace at sportsbooks and poker rooms. Some books were even allowing patrons to suggest bonuses and if the offer was reasonable the book would honor it. Clearly with the increasing number of gambling establishments, businesses tried to stand out with unique offerings. When the UIGEA passed, however, many sportsbooks closed their U.S. facing businesses and those left faced less competition. Consequently, the need to promote the books declined, and bonuses and promotions (with the exception of sign up bonuses) quickly evaporated. Of course in Europe and jurisdictions that don't predominantly target U.S. customers, bonuses and promotions have always been common.
In recent months, however, more and more books have been increasing the number bonuses and promotions. There really hasn't been an influx of new entrants to the U.S. facing market, but there is a sense that the current Obama regime will seriously consider bills like the one introduced by Barney Frank; and more importantly there is suspicion the U.S. will withdraw its decision to rewrite its WTO commitments. Sources close to the WTO have told me that the current USTR really doesn't want to rewrite commitments that could set a dangerous precedent and are considering other options. As well, given the recent acquisition of TVG by Betfair and hints that they may enter the U.S. market in the near future, the surprising guilty plea of Anurag Dikshitz allowing him to re-enter the United States, the change in plea by David Carruthers and the numerous site upgrades by U.S. facing sportsbooks and poker rooms that currently exist leads one to assume that change may be on the horizon and books want to get ahead of the game before the competition increases. The result is that almost all sites are once again offering bonuses and promotions.
With that in mind, I gathered 5 people in Toronto with accounts at numerous books and who have been playing online for some time to hear what they viewed as interesting and enticing bonuses, and also what they considered duds. The following will examine their perspectives as well as my own viewpoints. Hopefully the article will inform both gambling operators and clients what some bettors are thinking in this area. Obviously 6 people isn't a large sample, but it does give some guidance. It should be noted that specific sportsbooks will not be mentioned in the article, but rather concepts. Readers can decide which bonuses and promotions tend to go with which sportsbooks.
Signup bonuses have been available since the first sportsbook went online. Even when other bonuses dried up, books still understood that an incentive was needed to entice someone to try out their business, so signup bonuses were prevalent. This isn't unique to gambling either. Visa cards that offer air miles always hand out at least 5,000 miles for taking the time to apply. According to the focus group the following indicates a good signup bonus:
- One that doesn't have unreasonable rollover requirements before withdrawal - One that doesn't require additional identification (other than normal identification) to withdraw - One that pays out the entire winnings - One that entices people to keep an account with the book after the bonus is won or lost
The group suggested the absolute worst bonuses are those that force you to win a specified amount to "release the bonus". For example, someone in the group pointed to a sportsbook that provides free money equal to the original deposit as a bonus (the book calls it a 100% match signup bonus), but there is a catch. The book puts the matching bonus money in an account and requires the bettor to roll it over 10 times, at which point the original deposit is released. If the bettor loses the "bonus money" at any time then the original deposit goes into the player's account to use. What makes the bonus so poor, however, is that if the bettor rolls over the free money 10 times then only the matching deposit is put in the player's account. The winnings are forfeited. In better words, if the bettor deposits $500, the book matches it with $500 of "free money". The first $500 the bettor plays with must be rolled into $5,000. If that happens then the $500 of "free money" is released to their account and the other $4,500 they won goes back to the book. If at any time they lose that $500 then only their original $500 is available to them. Needless to say most bettors who are able to achieve that difficult feat feel ripped off when they find out there is only $1,000 in their account after winning $5,000. The group agreed they would rather have 10% of the "free money" available to them than this scheme. To make matters worse, the types of bets allowed to achieve the rollover is limited.
The group also said, unanimously, that requiring identification not originally stipulated to withdraw signup bonus money is a turnoff. If the book states in their rules up front that ID like a driver's license and credit card imprint is necessary to withdraw that's fine, but it is quite frustrating when someone deposits with no problems, being promised free money to try out the place, and then when they try to withdraw the book tells them to send them their life history before they'll process anything.
The group suggested, however, that while the signup bonus is always a nice enticement, what keeps them playing is timely payouts, good lines, numerous betting options and good customer service.
Once someone is with a sportsbook they are often enticed by the book to send more money by offering bonuses on the reloads. Those bonuses were usually the first cut by books after the UIGEA was passed. Many books, however, are now offering them again or have always offered them.
According to the group, the best retention bonuses are the ones that offer the following:
- Reasonable rollover requirements (5x rollover or less with no restrictions is deemed to be fair) - One where money is available to bet with immediately, rather than only once the rollover is met - One that is provided without asking
The group seemed to understand that in this day and age a retention bonus is more of a luxury and they have respect for sportsbooks that are willing to thank them for their loyalty by providing free cash for additional deposits. The one complaint the group had, however, was with sportsbooks that require one to request the bonus or enter some sort of emailed code to release the bonus. The reasoning of the group seemed clear - if you are offering a bonus then do so up front rather than forcing someone to jump through hoops to get it. There is no excuse for trying to hide the availability of the bonus.
While not as plentiful as they once were, referral bonuses are still offered in many places. The group only had one criterion they expected from referrals - money up front. Apparently many books will give bonuses to the referrer equal to a percentage of the losses from their referrals. Most in the group found this atrocious. One person said it best, "These are our friends or family we're referring to the place. We don't want to root for them to lose so we can profit."
While bonuses are always nice, promotions are still the main selling point for most sportsbooks. The focus group looked at various promotions over the years and came up with what they considered good and bad promotions. It should be noted that the group looked at concepts rather than specific promotions, although one promotion is still engraved in everyone's mind.
In 2006 Mansion decided to promote their new start-up by offering a bizarre promotion. The company's head line maker believed that Miami would beat Pittsburgh in week 1 of the 2006 season. The company thus offered a promotion requiring people to deposit $1,100 to win $1,000 on Pittsburgh. The amount had to be $1,100 (any less was disqualified) and the bet had to be on Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh covered, the bettor won. But if Miami covered the company would refund the $1,100 back to the bettor's account. The company also put no restrictions on the money, so win or lose one could take back their winnings or post up with no concern. It sounded too good to be true, but a search revealed the company had solid backing. The PR release said that Mansion cut off the promotion when 5,000 people signed up to take advantage; and when Pittsburgh won the game handily Mansion lost $5,000,000. Not surprisingly most bettors took back the winnings in full right after the game. And almost immediately after the failed promotion, the UIGEA was passed and Mansion had to cut off all American bettors. The promotion made absolutely no sense from a marketing or financial point of view. If the company had put a 5x rollover requirement on the winnings they likely would have recouped most of the losses and most bettors still would have taken them up on the offer. As it stood the book was essentially making a $5 million gamble on a team with zero chance of winning money for the sole purpose of trying to get some names of larger bettors. To make things worse, because the software was so poorly designed many bettors used aliases and multiple Yahoo or Hotmail email addresses to enter the promotion several times, so even the 5,000 accounts were not all unique. Of course the company could have paid far less and received the same names from database companies.
Asked if they would like to see a similar promotion in the future, everyone in the group laughed and said "of course," but most said they would be concerned that such a promotion is an act of desperation and could indicate a company is in trouble. Therefore they said they would only send money for such a promotion if they had no questions as to the viability of the sportsbook.
The group suggested that bonuses for specific reasons relating to promotions are always good. For example a promotion of 20% added to an account to wager on football games or a bonus to play a parlay on the house for a deposit is considered a positive. The main criterion that the group focused on, however, was the availability of the money. The group suggested the way WSEX handles their bonuses is ideal. Often at the start of football season, baseball season, March Madness etc. the company will offer a 15% bonus on deposits with a small rollover requirement. As soon as the deposit is made the additional 15% is added to the account. So for a $200 deposit on a 15% bonus, $230 would show up available in a player's account immediately after the deposit. The rollover issue is handled by accounting at the time of withdrawal to see if conditions were met. When promotional bonuses appear out of the blue or for no particular reason (eg. a Groundhog Day bonus) it does raise suspicion.
Free Bet Promotions
The group was fairly positive about free bet promotions provided they are related to the sport being bet on. So, for example, a promotion that states that anyone who wagers $20 on an early football game will get a free $10 bet on the later game is seen as positive. As well, free parlay or teaser offers in exchange for deposit (free bets) on propositions for deposits, etc. were all seen as positive. Unrelated promotions are seen as negatives, but they will be examined in the next section.
Contest promotions led to a split vote. Of the 6 of us in the focus group, 4 liked contest promotions, while 2 didn't. But the 4 that liked contest promotions said they wanted them to be reasonable, not a 1 in 50,000 chance of winning. The group said if they wanted to play the lottery they would do so at Toronto variety stores. An example of a popular, but disliked, promotion is the one where bettors are offered $500,000 for picking a perfect bracket in March madness. Everyone was aware of research that showed the odds of picking a perfect bracket is approximately 9,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1, so the contest is meaningless even if it is free of charge. Having said that, a March Madness contest where someone is awarded money for the best bracket among a group of 100 or so players is seen as fair and interesting. The group wasn't keen on contests that put people in a draw to win trips or various items like iPods, cell phones or worst of all cigars or sports pagers. The group was fairly unanimous in that they'd rather have the dollar equivalent in their accounts.
My original hunch was that this would be among the best received of the promotions, but in fact there wasn't a lot of excitement about it. And it should be noted that 2 in the focus group bet in excess of $10,000 a month. The reasoning could be that low vig shops are still readily available to Canadians (such as Pinnacle and Betfair), but there was also suggestion that low juice shops never offer low juice on the side you want. Ideally for a football game that usually has -110 on either side of the spread, you would want a reduced vig shop that offers -105 on either side. But almost always the low vig shop will have the line at -110/+100, with the -110 being on the side that most of the public is betting. Furthermore, the low juice is always applied to single games only, and if someone wants to bet parlays or teasers the regular 20 cent lines are used. Still, the group did agree that less juice is better if you can get it and that would be a much bigger incentive for American bettors whose options are currently limited.
Not surprisingly, rebates were deemed as the best promotion by far. Naturally, who wouldn't want a percentage of their losses returned to them at the end of an event or time period? Unfortunately, rebates have almost exclusively been applied to horse racing only after the passing of the UIGEA (and even those are pretty slim). Someone in the group said it best, "rebates are awesome if you can find them, but finding them at reputable shops is almost impossible."
Often times books will offer a promotion whereby if you wager on something in one sport you get a bet on another. These promotions are very popular in Europe. For example, if you bet on the first goal scorer in a soccer match a book will give you a free wager on the winner of a hockey game the next night. The logic behind such a promotion is clear - to get a bettor away from their comfort zone. Obviously, if someone is very sharp with soccer the book would want them wagering on sports they aren't very sharp at. The hope is the free bet would get them focusing on sports they are not familiar with, like hockey or American football. Naturally, because there is no risk to players they are happy to take the free bet, but the focus group found it a bit scuzzy, and more importantly counterproductive. "If I like betting on hockey and football, then give me a free bet on hockey or football. Giving me a free soccer bet in the hopes that I'll see the value of the new sport just won't work and is a big negative to me," one in the focus group stated. Most in the group said that when they are offered these unrelated promotions they don't even bother taking the book up on it.
I recently got a promotional offer from a British sportsbook telling me that if I bet on a specific second string player to score the first goal in a Championship League game and that player doesn't score the first goal, but does score some time during the match, they will refund my wager. To me that is an unwinnable wager. The fact that they chose some obscure player is bad enough, but then to only refund a wager if the player scores another time rather than saying "you win your wager" makes it a very poorly designed promotion. From a North American perspective, that would be equivalent to saying that if a bettor places a wager on Tom Brady at 30/1 to score the first TD, and he doesn't score the first TD but does score a rushing TD later in the game, he will get their bet back. Big deal! How often will Tom Brady score a TD anyway? This, to me, is a clear example of a book wanting me to throw away money by wagering on an unlikely outcome, but will throw a bone my way just in case the unlikely outcome happens at another time during the game. No, thanks. Most of the focus group wasn't familiar with these promotions, but I've received them a few times. Still, the group was familiar with promotions like the perfect March Madness bracket mentioned earlier, and its feeling was if a book was going to offer a promotion on something that was unlikely to happen they're better off not offering it at all.
The final bad promotion someone in the group identified was a "cute promotion" by books that hoped to win over bettors by pretending to be their friends, or by providing them with something unrelated to gambling. For example, the person pointed to a promotion from a sportsbook that said they wanted to pay for their beer and pizza to watch the football game. So if the person wagered a minimum $20 on the Monday night game the sportsbook would reimburse them for a large 3 topping pizza from one of a list of 5 pizza companies, as well as a 6 pack of beer. Apparently the bettors were supposed to save their receipts for purchases of a pizza and a 6 pack that day, scan it and email it to the sportsbook who would then credit their account that amount. "It was so stupid," the person stated. "I asked them why they didn't just credit my account with a $15 free play instead of making me send these receipts and they said they needed it for tax purposes. But this place was in a tax free jurisdiction. They just wanted to make the promotion something they could advertise as a "cute promotion," but then make it as difficult as possible for me to collect."
The group briefly discussed poker promotions and bonuses too, but not in detail. The group liked the idea of free plays for major tournaments as promotions, as well as signup and reload bonuses. They also loved rebate offers such as World Poker Exchange offers, but they detested places that made you accumulate "merit points" that can somehow be cashed out once an obscene amount of money is bet into pots.
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