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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The growth potential in the nascent market for American sports betting is huge. But for now, operators are still losing money — a lot of it.

The big picture: Sports betting is taking a page from the playbook of tech giants like Netflix, Amazon and Twitter, sacrificing profitability in the early days in the hope of ingraining themselves in customers’ lives.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve probably seen or heard the deluge of ads from online sports betting companies offering major financial incentives to use their apps.

What we're watching: This NFL season will go a long way in determining which companies live to fight another day in the ultra-competitive sports betting arena.

  • “This football season is crucial, as more states legalized sports betting going into this season, and football is really the culmination of the U.S. market,” Barry Jonas, equity research analyst at Truist, tells Axios.

Where it stands: The Supreme Court only opened the door to widespread legal, online sports betting in 2018, and the sector is still in its infancy.

  • So far, a total of 21 states, representing 40% of the population, allow online sports betting, according to a Wells Fargo research note. Another 8 states allow in-person betting.

State of play: The weekly fantasy sports operators — FanDuel and DraftKings — have taken the lead with market shares of 33% and 19% respectively, in the first half of 2021, the Wells report says.

  • DraftKings, which went public in 2019, is currently valued at $19 billion.
  • Legacy casino companies are also in the running, most notably MGM’s brand, BetMGM (13%), and Caesars Casino & Sportsbook (4%) which just formally launched in August.

Those companies are shoveling money into marketing and promotions, sometimes including hundreds of dollars of free bets.

  • “DraftKings and FanDuel are really customer acquisition platforms, operating as sports books,” Jed Kelly, equity research analyst at Oppenheimer, tells Axios. 
  • "It's going to be highly promotional right now ... The beginning of football season is the peak in terms of customer acquisitions," Daniel Politzer, senior equity analyst at Wells Fargo, tells Axios.

What's next: The operators are chasing a market that has massive growth potential — Politzer estimates annual U.S. sports betting revenue could grow to $11.3 billion in 2025, compared to $3.8 billion estimated this year.

  • "At some point you have to start to show profit. But we're so early that investors are willing to pay a decent multiple for revenue growth over profit. That's where we're at," Kelly says.

Yes, but: Analysts think consolidation is ultimately the most likely endgame, with 3 to 4 players all but dominating the field.

  • Amy Howe, CEO of FanDuel, last week told the FT (perhaps self-servingly) that the level of marketing spending that’s happening right now is unsustainable, and that many companies won’t make it.

There's a Catch-22 for sports books: Making too little money is obviously bad for business, but if they start making too much money — it may attract the attention of regulators.

  • “Certainly, states don't want to see too much problem gaming and social consequences,” Jonas says.
  • And there are lots of regulators — a gaming commission in each state, as well as potentially the federal government.

The big question: Whether regulators become concerned about the gamification of the old in-person betting process — too easy, too fun, too instantaneous — similar to the scrutiny that Robinhood's received for gamifying stock trading.

Go deeper

Oct 15, 2021 - Axios Twin Cities

Can the Minnesota Wild get over the hump this season?

Kirill Kaprizov is the star Wild fans have been craving for two decades. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild start the 2021 season tonight and fans are hopeful that a new and young core can propel the club deep into the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

Why it matters: Minnesota has made the playoffs seven of the last nine seasons, but has not advanced past the second round for 18 years.

  • This town needs a contender.

Colin Powell dies from COVID complications at 84

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts

Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, died of complications from COVID-19, his family announced Monday. He was 84.

Driving the news: The Powell family said in a statement that he was fully vaccinated. "We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment."

Mike Allen, author of AM
4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP senator calls for senility test for aging leaders

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a physician, told me during an "Axios on HBO" interview that he favors cognition tests for aging leaders of all three branches of government.

Why it matters: Wisdom comes with age. But science also shows that we lose something. And much of the world is now run by old people — including President Biden, 78 ... Speaker Pelosi, 81 ...  Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 70 ... and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 79.