Wanna bet?

Feb. 2019

The Australia-bred Johnny Aitken tells you this and at first you don’t believe him, but then he swears he’s not just saying this, and he says it in this irresistibly convincing Aussie lilt, and then you sort of do believe him: He loves the Denver Nuggets.

Aitken has loved the Nuggets since he was a kid in Melbourne, growing up on the other side of the planet, watching on TV as Alex English & Co. dropped in buckets and pulled down rebounds and burnished the persona of an unselfish, hard-working sort of team. (To be fair, Aitken also was a Patrick Ewing fan.)

This proclamation of local sports loyalty is apt given that in December Aitken was preparing to move his family and his business to Denver in order to bring Colorado sports fans the ability to legally place bets on sports action.

Aitken is the CEO of PointsBet, an up-and-coming sports betting provider that’s stepping onto the playing field as Coloradans, thanks to passage of a November 2019 ballot measure, get to put money on the Broncos, Nuggets and just about any other professional sports team or game or point spread.

PointsBet is a rising star on a scene where titans FanDuel Inc. and DraftKings Inc. reign. All three are in the business of accepting “action” – bets to you and to me – on sports. Mostly, that happens over smartphones: Aitken projects more than 90 percent of the bets PointsBet will handle in Colorado will come from mobile transactions over PointsBet’s proprietary digital application. The remainder will be placed live and in-person at a brick-and-mortar “sportsbook” being built by the retail partner Double Eagle Hotel and Casino in Cripple Creek. The resort is one of the handful of licensed Colorado casino operators, out of a pool of 33, that will take the plunge into sports betting starting in May.

Setting odds, accepting bets and making payouts is just one part of the PointsBet role in the state. There’s also a significant job angle, as PointsBet is doubling down on its Colorado influence by moving its western U.S. headquarters to an office building at 17th St. and Market St., where eventually Aitken expects to hire close to 200 people. The fact that PointsBet is arriving on the LoDo outskirts with lots of job openings – many of them for high-salary software developers – has made the company a darling of Colorado’s eco-development scene. Plaudits have come from the likes of Sam Bailey, executive director of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, who said in a statement that PointsBet’s innovation pedigree and the jobs it’s creating “make it a perfect fit for the Metro Denver region.”

Aitken says the enthusiasm for Colorado is genuine. The company had whittled its list of contender locations to two: Austin, Texas and Denver. An internal committee ultimately recommended Denver in part for its educated, tech-savvy workforce and an active, youthful, outdoorsy sort of ethos. It didn’t hurt that Denver claims teams in each of the Big 4 professional leagues. “It’s a state where people are happy and healthy,” Aitken says. “Who wouldn’t want to be around that?”

The  rationale that helped sway a narrow victory for Proposition DD revolved around a few core arguments: that we’re decriminalizing an activity which is already happening; that a big chunk of the money goes to fund a long-stalled Colorado water initiative; and that there’s a built-in guardrail in the form of a support program for compulsive gamblers who could be tempted to cross a troubling line, potentially risking the kid’s college fund on the Broncos-Chiefs over/under.

The hope among casino operators is that sports betting can provoke a modest increase in state gaming revenues that have been flat lately at around $155 million per year, according to the Colorado Division of Gaming.  But few expect a windfall. “I think sports betting in general is one more amenity, one more reason to visit,” says Sean Demeule, general manager of the Ameristar Casino in Black Hawk, where work is under way on a new sportsbook that will open in May.

Aitken, who previously worked in senior management positions for the large overseas bookmakers Tom Waterhouse and William Hill, points out that if traditional patterns hold we should a betting bias toward the Broncos and other local teams.

One big differentiator for PointsBet is an insistence on developing and controlling its own digital applications rather than licensing third-party software (hence the need to hire lots of developers here in Colorado). That gives PointsBet more agility in offering creative bets, and in introducing novel concepts like “Good Karma” payouts that award players when weird things happen to sway outcomes. An example: the infamous sneaker blowout that took Duke University basketball star Zion Williamson off the court after just 33 seconds in a February 2019 game against the University of North Carolina.  Aitken’s counting on these sorts of innovations to carry the day in a hotly competitive field. But away from the mobile phones, he’s also promising a big-time, Vegas-esque live experience at the Double Eagle in Cripple Creek, where gigantic video screens, flowing beverages and lots of fan camaraderie are sure to enliven the vibe – even when you’re the victim of a bad beat.  

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