By Christina Bossinakis
Xpressbet has established itself as a key player among the nation's Advanced Deposit Wagering platforms since its creation two decades ago and President Ron Luniewski has played a significant part in the companies' expansion. Brought on board by The Stronach Group (previously Magna Entertainment) after his departure from Youbet in 2002, Luniewski has led the company through an era of growth by driving expansion on a host of fronts, including technological infrastructure, informational services and channels of distribution. Moreover, Xpressbet has expanded its reach through the advent of XBTV, an online video platform that provides morning workouts, trainer interviews and handicapping analysis, among a myriad of other features.
In the process of expanding, Xpressbet has become more than just a wagering platform. Supported by the other branches and entities that fall under the far-reaching Stronach umbrella, Xpressbet has extended into new distribution sectors, expanded its informational resources and has also made a significant commitment to the refinement of its technological infrastructure and by extension, its feature and functionality. TDN correspondent Christina Bossinakis sat down with Luniewski to get some insight into Xpressbet, its leader and the future of the interactive wagering business.
TDN: When you started, Youbet did not own the product. Now, however, The Stronach Group which owns Xpressbet, owns its own product, i.e. Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Golden Gate etc. How important is that in terms of what you are able to accomplish?
RL: Frank Stronach has invested heavily in the racing industry, so if you work in The Stronach Group, the idea of 'How do I support racing?' becomes ingrained in your everyday thinking. When you look at it from our perspective, we are trying to transition the audience from 'casual racing observer' to 'racing fan' to 'horseplayer.' Because that culture exists throughout The Stronach Group, it's easy for a company like Xpressbet to support our tracks' initiatives, and it's easy for them to help us, as we all work under the same directive. On the Xpressbet side of things, if you have a customer who goes to the track once a month yet wagers every day from home, we'll invite them to come to the track and partake in an Xpressbet or XBTV event or offer them an experiential reward or a giveaway. When they are on track, we want their wagering experience to be similar to what they are used to at home, but with the added benefit that they can enjoy a day at Santa Anita, Gulfstream, etc.
TDN: XBTV was launched in 2016; what was the inspiration behind XBTV?
RL: Xpressbet learned from both core customers and casual fans that horseplayers want more than past performances and 'picks'–they also want insights. And with XBTV, we're able to deliver that. We have a phenomenal broadcast team that is incredibly horse racing savvy, and they're able to create, package and distribute content that consumers want. By giving bettors access to workouts, expert handicapping previews and live broadcasts, we're looking to arm our viewers with all of the information they need to hit big.
TDN: How is XBTV different than other networks?
RL: At XBTV, we try to deliver as much as possible, as quickly as possible. My father liked to read the newspaper cover-to-cover, but that's just not the way of the world anymore. With everything we do, we try to focus on getting our viewers the information they need, whether it's a workout, editorial or race preview, without taking up their entire day. That's what consumers want, and that's what we're focused on delivering.
TDN: Can you tell us about your background in business prior to getting into horse racing?
RL: Out of college I started with a company called EDS (Electronic Data Systems), as a software developer which was a substantial Information Technology company owned by Ross Perot. I was with EDS for 14 years and ended up building and managing the group that created most of the initial websites for GM, including Chevrolet, Buick and Oldsmobile.
TDN: How did you transition to racing?
RL: The two founders, who are true entrepreneurs, of Youbet.com approached me with a new and groundbreaking concept for horse racing. This was around 1994 when the internet was just getting started; AOL was dominant. The idea was to package everything that went into making a bet–wagering pathways, data, video and insights–into a single website that people could use to bet the races. As a sports fan and a tech buff, I fell in love with the idea instantly. I had always been intrigued by horse racing, and this felt like the right time to leave EDS for a chance to start something from scratch. I was the fifth guy in at Youbet in 1995 and left in 2002 as the CEO. Youbet was purchased by Churchill Downs Incorporated in November of 2009 for $126 million.
TDN: How do you think your experiences prior to entering racing prepared you for the next phase of your career?
RL: I strongly feel that working with EDS during such a pivotal time in technology granted me a wealth of experience and knowledge that I would not have otherwise gained. By building the initial websites for massive international brands like Chevy and Buick, I was also forced to learn about user experience and interfacing, which I still something I lean on today. In the Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) industry, most of what we do is technology-based, from the interface and user experience to the scalability, network throughputs, ability to process secure transactions and creating, building and implementing different features.
TDN: You were a big part of the development of Youbet.com's online pari-mutuel technology: Would you please explain what online the pari-mutuel product looked in 1998 and how has it evolved over the last two decades?
RL: When we started, the internet was in its relative infancy. It was dial-up technology, so the network speed simply wasn't there. Live video stopped and buffered repeatedly. We spent a tremendous amount of resources to alleviate that and ended up developing our own proprietary technology for video. Fast forward to today, the technology has advanced so much that it really just isn't an issue. Customers can simultaneously stream multiple HD feeds on their laptop. As a result of the technology 'catching up,' we're now able to devote more time and resources to developing customer-facing 'features' that we were not able to do 15 or even five years ago.
TDN: How has the online wagering customer experience changed over the past 20 years?
RL: What was true 20 years ago is still true today–betting on horse races is a very cerebral game. It's like putting together the pieces of a puzzle where you think you are smarter than other guy. That hasn't fundamentally changed from the beginning of ADW, or even the beginning of pari-mutuel wagering. If you look at the sophistication of an ADW from 1995 to 2005 to 2015, the ability to integrate the necessary components to play the game has become infinitely better for the customer. Everything from the way we display odds to the way we stream multiple videos to the way we can create customer interfaces that cater to individual customers is something we could have only dreamt about decades ago. Simply put, technology has allowed the game to become more entertaining for consumers.
TDN: Rewards have become an important tool for tracks and ADWs looking to attract high-volume players. How does Xpressbet compete in this sphere?
RL: We have a points-based rewards system called XB Rewards that all of our customers are automatically enrolled in. Customers receive points for every bet they make and every day they wager, and we offer bonuses and promotions on certain days so people can accumulate rewards points even faster. Since Xpressbet is a member of The Stronach Group, we wake up every day thinking of ways we can we support live racing, so a lot of our rewards are centered around experiences at the track. Stuff like watching a race with the track announcer, going to the Preakness or Pegasus World Cup, or watching a race from the winner's circle. Fans want these experiences and we try to give them the access. We offer all levels of rewards and at is something all of our regular players can benefit from. As for our higher-volume players, we've found that instead of having the experiential rewards, they would rather have money back, which we are also able to accommodate in our rewards program. To us, rewards and rebates are one in the same.
TDN: What would you say is your target demographic when recruiting new racing fans?
RL: This is an area I'm passionate about. In racing, we always seem to be asking, 'How do we get young people–kids in their teens and early-twenties–into the sport?' And I'll be honest–it's really, really hard, but I give the industry a lot of credit. We're working hard to attract that demographic, but I also believe that there are other groups we need to be targeting. What is wrong with the 50+ crowd that doesn't know racing? They have disposable time and income, which is something the younger audiences often don't. Handicapping horse races is often a time-consuming process and betting the races costs money. Why not try to convert the people we know have both into new fans?
TDN: What have been some of the key factors prompting the evolution of online wagering and technology?
RL: At this point in time, the evolution of online wagering and technology is about leveraging the features and functionality you get when you're betting on your home computer or your Smartphone. We need to find ways to make it more convenient to bet at the track, and bring ADW features to the track. I'm not simply saying that we should make it simpler for a customer to use their personal tablet or phone while they're sitting in a grandstand. In the future, I think we'll start seeing even more sophisticated technology at the track, and The Stronach Group owns a pair of powerful assets–Xpressbet and Amtote–that will continue to allow this to happen.
TDN: Some may not be aware that Xpressbet furnishes American racing internationally: how did this come about and what are some of the markets you distribute to?
RL: At its core, Xpressbet delivers track video, data and wagering pathways to end consumers in the United States. We realized a few years ago that The Stronach Group and Xpressbet were in a great position to increase the distribution of North American content (not just Stronach tracks, but many U.S. and Canadian tracks) outside of North America using those three pathways. We target countries that have racing in its fabric, and if we look at it today, we are in all of the 10,000 bet shops in the United Kingdom and have a relationship with Sky Sports in the U.K. We also have partnerships that take U.S. racing as far east as Turkey and we've built out a substantial distribution network and have begun heavily investing in those channels. Our ultimate goal is to introduce tote betting into those nations to boost our domestic pools.
TDN: Any plans to expand this area?
RL: Our goal is to build as much distribution of North American racing outside of the U.S. as possible, to countries in Europe, Asia, Oceania and beyond. Working for the Stronach family, we are investing in that shareability because it really supports the underlying sport of horse racing. We have invested millions of dollars in distribution and have taken North American racing farther than anyone else. Unfortunately, every new jurisdiction we look to partner in comes with inherent hurdles, like technology, regulatory and consumer preferences.
TDN: Where do you expect to see racing in 10 years and in which areas would you hope to see Xpressbet and its related products expand to meet the challenges of the future?
RL: I think racing is in a really good position for growth. Technology continues to improve and if you look into the future, there are so many ways we can utilize it to make the game even more attractive and fun. I'm eager to continue leading Xpressbet into the future and look forward to seeing what's next for the industry.