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Saracen hails its betting app

by Byron Tate | April 23, 2023 at 4:49 a.m.
A promotional photograph shows Saracen's mobile sports betting app. (Special to The Commercial)

Saracen Casino Resort has seen exponential growth in its new mobile sports betting service, which now far outpaces its competitors at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Hotel in West Memphis.

For the first quarter of 2023, Oaklawn reported a sportsbook mobile handle of about $8.6 million while Southland reported $21.1 million. Saracen, which started offering mobile sports betting in May, reported $53.2 million for the same time period, according to state Racing Commission figures.

Carlton Saffa, chief market officer at Saracen, said the results are a testament to the methodical approach to getting right all of the aspects of providing mobile sports betting.

"We are proud to brand ourselves as Arkansas' favorite sportsbook, and the numbers back that up," Saffa said.

Last year, Saracen tried to get its app, called Bet Saracen, going before March Madness, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. That did not work out. Some of the problems were out of Saracen's control, but Saffa said another reason was because the casino was laser-focused on making sure the pay interface was working properly and the overall user experience was excellent.

"If you have a store and people can't check out, you don't have much of a store," he said. "If you can't get money onto our app, you can't wager."

Finding the right company to create the app took a year of due diligence work, Saffa said.

"We checked everyone and everywhere," he said. "We finally settled on Amelco, which is a British company. We are very happy with the platform they created for us, and our customers are as well. I think the numbers don't lie."

Part of that platform allows a customer's account to be funded through a variety of means.

"We hired outside counsel to make sure we were operating properly in this new digital space," Saffa said. "You can apply money to your account with a debit card, with Venmo, with PayPal, Apple Cash, Google Pay, everything short of barter."

Once the technical details were worked out, it was time to advertise and market the device, Saffa said, and the casino has worked hard in those spaces to make its app the most desired.

The Saracen name is prominent at Baum-Walker Stadium and Bud Walton Arena, where the University of Arkansas Razorbacks play baseball and basketball, respectively.

There are also TV and radio ads, Saffa said, and someone leaving the Northwest Arkansas National Airport sees billboards calling attention to the mobile app.

The marketing effort has been aimed at connecting with sports fans. That translated to providing content to which only someone from Arkansas might relate.

Saffa said Saracen recruited Pat Bradley, who played basketball for Nolan Richardson in the late 1990s and set the Southeastern Conference record for three-point goals; Joe Kleine, who played for the Razorbacks in the mid-1980s and who went on to have a successful NBA career, winning a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics as a member of Team USA; and U.S. Reed, a Pine Bluff High School graduate who found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the University of Arkansas where he is probably best known for hitting a half-court shot at the buzzer during the 1981 NCAA tournament to beat the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals. The three, who span different eras in Arkansas basketball lore, are prominent in Saracen's efforts to help it bring attention to its app.

On top of employing former Razorback stars, Saracen also uses radio personalities Tommy Smith, who was lured out of retirement, and Randy Rainwater, who puts together mostly Arkansas-related sports bets. One bet, Saffa said, was whether a certain NFL kicker who had missed several extra points would miss another one. He did. And another was whether an Arkansas player would hit a home run against the University of Central Arkansas. The player didn't.

"We are very into localized content," Saffa said, "All sorts of fun things. We are obsessed with local."

If name recognition is an indicator, the push has been successful.

"We are proud to have two great competitors in West Memphis and Hot Springs," Saffa said. "Both are excellent operators. But our goal has been to be the go-to source for online betting, and we have accomplished that. People don't ask, 'What's the line on the game tonight?' They ask, "What's Saracen have on the game tonight?' When Hogs Illustrated gives game previews, they say, 'According to Saracen, the line is X.' When we saw that, we knew we had become eponymous with sports betting."

Sports betting amounts to about 20% of Saracen's overall handle, but takes much more than 20% of Saffa's time, he said. That's because revenue from the app -- which, by federal law, can only be used if one is physically in the state of Arkansas -- is expected to continue to grow rapidly as more people become accustomed to sports betting. In the early months of the app, $4 million or so was the handle. Now, it is five times that.

Beyond the sportsbook handle, the overall casino operations are doing well, Saffa said. The first three months of the year are "essentially Christmas for us" because customers have more disposable income from their tax refunds.

Such seasonality has been part of the economic landscape for decades.

"There's no mystery to it that the early part of the year is crucial to a lot of businesses," Saffa said. "And we compete for that disposable income. We compete with shopping trips, Dillard's, Amazon, Walmart, Putt-Putt – whatever 'fun money' people have."

Now that the pandemic appears to be firmly in the rear-view mirror, it was perhaps not surprising that March was the biggest month for Saracen since it's been open. The total in taxes paid out was about $2.35 million. The last time the tax figure topped $2 million was in April 2021, when a masked mandate was relaxed and people were collecting stimulus checks. Saffa said he had feared that April's big numbers were a "one off" because of the external factors that were occurring at the time.

"So this March was very validating for us," he said. "We are still hitting some headwinds. Inflation is still high. People are paying more at the grocery store. And gas is still high. But even with those factors against us, these numbers make us feel good."

And the better Saracen does, the richer the pot for the city of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. Out of the overall taxes paid, the state of Arkansas gets 55%; 17.5% goes to the state Racing Commission to support live racing purses. Because Southland no longer races greyhounds, that money essentially goes to Oaklawn to support horse racing purses; 19.5% goes to Pine Bluff; and 8% goes to Jefferson County.

As for the mobile sports handle, all of that betting revenue returns to Saracen to be taxed locally.

"For that reason, someone in Paragould is just as attractive as someone in Dumas," Saffa said. "And the revenues come back to Pine Bluff."

  photo  Saracen Casino's sports betting app, Bet Saracen, is tops in the state for betting handle, according to state Racing Commission figures. (Special to The Commercial)

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