William Woodhams, Fitzdares CEO

Setting the benchmark – Fitzdares’ William Woodhams on why Ontario is the real deal

From its west London headquarters, Fitzdares’ plans for international growth reached fruition this week as the bookmaker made landfall in Ontario, the fast-growing Canadian province that has captivated the global betting industry.

Home to multiple sports teams, a wealthy and well engaged population, a modern and rapidly expanding economy and under a new regulatory framework, Ontario is setting the standard for betting markets in the eyes of Fitzdares CEO, William Woodhams.

Safe from the start

Looking at Ontario from the lens of a bookmaker in the UK, where a raft of legislative changes are imminent if the government are to be believed, Woodhams had nothing but positive words for the regulatory environment of Canada’s largest province.

“We’re going to see an open market in the US and then see legislation piling in, like with the White Paper coming in the UK,” he said. “Ontario has set the benchmark in the right place. 

“They’re probably going to cancel using sports stars and tweak the model as it matures, but won’t have to do a huge step back like some US states will. Maybe with the exception of Australia 10 years ago, I can’t think of a better place for our business model to work.”

Observing that Canada is the fastest growing economy in the G7, Fitzdares’ CEO assessed that Ontario’s population has long-been sports obsessed, has cash in their pockets and enjoy wagering. 

The catch has been that up until now, online betting in the province was not legal – now that it is, and under a well-crafted legal framework, Ontario has strong potential for international firms and should be used as a benchmark for other regulating jurisdictions.

Woodhams continued: “There is an engaged wealthy audience and a sensible compliance and legislation structure, and the province has invested to make this work. What we’re hopefully going to see is a safe gambling environment from the start.”

Post-regulation, there is a ‘hell of a market’, as the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) successfully transitioned from grey to white, adopted ridgid reporting and engages in open discourse and conversation with operators.

“This will be the benchmark for how states in the US should open, and the rest of the world – such as the Middle East and Asia – should look to the province too,” Woodhams explained. 

“When the province went live in April, there was a push for a first mover advantage, but this advantage wasn’t as big as many thought. The province is now settling and the numbers that came out recently are phenomenal.”

In the build up to its launch, much of Fitzdares’ focus was on ensuring it has been ‘tech ready, such as meeting the AGCO’s geolocation requirements, which has ‘hamstrung’ the bookies traditional telephone and private office services to some extent. 

Almost a year after first securing its licence in Ontario, the stage is now set for Fitzdares, which Woodhams stated is bringing to the market ‘a very bespoke product, with excellent customer service, communication and lots of events’.

The science of starting small

As Fitzdares embarks on the first overseas foray in its 140 year history , the company clearly sees potential in Ontario – potential that Woodhams believes the firm is ideally suited to pursue.

Speaking to SBC Leaders last year, the CEO identified some ‘dire consumer experiences’ in the region, going into further detail in his most recent discussion by describing this as a ‘customer service meltdown’.

To remedy this, Fitzdares will prove ‘customer service done by punters themselves, for want of a better word’, he informed us, with all of the firm’s Ontario agents trained by its experienced UK team.

“Our focus is on starting small and growing, and our Canadian agents are trained by our UK brokers, so they understand gambling,” he said.

“When you contact an operative in Ontario, they have been trained to place up to a half a million pound bet in the UK. Customer service is done by punters themselves, for want of a better word, and we give consumers the benefit of the doubt. 

“There are two types of companies, the one that doesn’t fix the problem and the one that does, and we want to be the company that does. We’ve been doing it for 100 years, and that is why our customer base is so strong in the UK, we have punters who have been betting with us for 10, 20, 30 years – and Canadians will really appreciate that.”

To take on its first international endeavour, Fitzdares is focusing on some core tenets – bringing a bespoke product to the market, communications and customer service and events and entertainment activity.

The concept of ‘starting small’ is permeating all elements of the brand’s approach to Ontario, from customer service to marketing and promotions. Fitzdares will begin by targeting the top 100 wealthiest sports punters in Ontario with its Super Bowl launch party.

“We’re not going in with a CA$500 deposit bonus, doing marketing on the sides of buses or promotions with sports people – it seems like Ontario is going to ban the use of celebrities anyway!” Woodhams explained.

“For us, the focus is on the audience sitting in the good seats of the Toronto Maple Leafs games. In a sense, if you’re launching in Los Angeles, you want the people on the court side of the Lakers as your first 100 customers. In Toronto, it’s the people with the best seats at the Leafs game.

“It’s really the complete opposite of how other bookmakers have launched in Ontario, we want to start with a small bespoke offering focused on customer service.”

By targeting the top 100 bettors, Fitzdares will also avoid any ‘blanket marketing’ efforts, with Woodhams asserting that ‘shoving the message down people’s throats is the reverse of what we want to do’.

Taking premium to the province

With a premium product, a small group of punters is Fitzdares focus – and again, the firm’s CEO argued that Ontario is ideal for this, with the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) being home to 60% of Canada’s total wealth. 

Outside of the city, the Muskoka Lakes township – a popular destination for wealthy Torontoans – will also be an area of activity for Fitzdares, which plans to network and converse as much as possible with its target audience.

Woodhams added: “We’ve been working with three or four influencers in the province who are introducing us to people, which is how the new incarnation of Fitzdares started 15 years ago – just meeting people in London and getting introductions.”

One of the main problems Canadian gamers have faced, in Woodhams view, is that there are ‘a lot of look-a-like brands’, and by coming in with its premium product, Fitzdares will ‘zig where they zag’.

In a UK landscape dominated by highly visible high-street bookmakers and big marketing budget online firms, this focus on premium and luxury betting is what has largely set Fitzdares out from the crowd. 

In Ontario, this approach will be doubled down on, an approach that Woodhams believed will not only find success with Canadians, but will also help avoid regulatory wrath as authorities’ attitudes on topics such as marketing and affordability.

“I’d actually say we’re probably going to go more premium because in the UK, it’s a very crowded market. We’ve been cognisant of not being too snooty in the UK, and we didn’t want to put people off by being too posh. 

“I honestly think Canadians will respond very well to a premium product offering. In a sense, we’re doubling down on that bespoke element. With the way compliance is going I feel like gambling is becoming a luxury pastime. I know that is annoying to a lot of people, but it’s being pushed that way through governments, compliance and the media.”

Offering his predictions for the future of Ontario, Woodhams emphasised the importance of hockey – or ice hockey as its referred to in the UK, much to the annoyance of Canadians everywhere – is ‘the religion’.

The NFL and the megaevent of the Super Bowl, which Fitzdares has based its launch around, will also come into play of course, and Woodhams outlined his hope that one day horse racing could be added into the mix. 

“What we’d love to do eventually is worth more in horse racing over there but that’s going to take time with the integration of the parimutuel product into our app,” he said.

“We always think racing is a great acquisition because if someone’s into racing, they’re normally into punting on other stuff.”

With horse racing currently a parimutuel product only in Canada, the market does lack the constant betting product this sport provides in more established sectors such as the UK.

This, however, can be buoyed by the burgeoning igaming space, which Woodhams predicted will ‘be huge, at least a third of the market’ as the province matures. 

Overall, regardless of any hiccups along the way, Ontario is going to be huge too, he reiterated, with the sporting centre of Toronto at its heart and underpinned by strong regulation.

He concluded: “Coming in as the luxury proposition, Canadian’s have good taste – they’re not flashy but they love quality, and that’s what we offer. Canadians are also the nicest people in the world!

“Toronto is one of the most up and coming and vibrant cities going, all of the sport is a five minute walk, the airport is nearby, there’s a great culture and cuisine. It’s the real deal.”

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