When ZenSports CEO Mark Thomas walked into the Aug. 19 gathering of the Nevada Gaming Commission, he expected “a 20- to 30-minute meeting” that would result in his California-based company receiving gaming licenses to operate a pair of sportsbooks — one at a rural truck stop — in the Silver State.
Instead, the meeting, like those that had come before it, lasted more than two hours and featured detailed interrogation from Commissioner Rosa Solis-Rainey, who expressed concern about ZenSports’ relatively modest size and financial resources and wound up as the lone dissenter in a 2-1 vote that went in ZenSports’ favor.
“I think she means well and was making sure we check off all the boxes,” Thomas said of Solis-Rainey. “But not everyone is always going to be on board with a newcomer coming into a market that’s more focused on technology, that’s much smaller, that doesn’t have billions of dollars in the bank. There’s just sometimes anxiety around it.
“That being said, we’ve done everything along the way to show that we are more than capable and are looking to grow into a big business just like our competitors. It’s just like when I go fund-raise for the company — not everyone’s going to get it. She’s just doing her job. I want to go back to her in two years and say, ‘Look at all the amazing things we’ve got.'”
Back to Tennessee — then to Wyoming
Among the things that might be considered amazing about the upstart sportsbook operator is its current ability to accept cryptocurrency and offer peer-to-peer betting. Such innovations would be ahead of the curve in just about every state, which is why ZenSports only sought a traditional license in Nevada.
“We wanted to come here and fit into the mold that they’re used to,” Thomas explained. “And we do that anyway. Even with that, there were already a lot of questions. In January or February, we’ll go back and ask for P2P and crypto. Both are technically permissible in Nevada.”
🎉ZenSports is excited to announce that we are now officially licensed in #Nevada!🎉
This is a HUGE milestone for us, as Nevada is one of the largest sports betting markets in the world, and is also one of the most difficult to get licensed in. https://t.co/4DEyPpxThu
— ZenSports (@zensports) August 23, 2021
The Nevada approval process was sufficiently grueling for a company of ZenSports’ size (14 employees) that it quietly opted to put its Tennessee application “on pause” this past spring, Thomas revealed. But he added that ZenSports will be ready to restart that process at the end of this month — and hopes to get licensed in the mobile-only Volunteer State by year’s end.
Thomas said he believes Tennessee will be the first state to approve P2P wagering, but added that if it doesn’t, ZenSports is “covered” because it can “offer a traditional sportsbook as well.” After Tennessee, the company will likely apply for licensing in Wyoming, which has already approved the involvement of cryptocurrency in sports wagering.
“It’s not cheap to go into each state, and we are still a smaller company as of right now,” Thomas said. “You have to go in stages. You can’t just go into 26 or 28 states right off the bat. That’s for any industry — Uber did it city by city. We’ll go into two or three states in the next 12 months, do an amazing job, then get into 10, then 20.”
Dreamers, geniuses … and beef jerky
When asked whether he envisions less emphasis on teller-to-bettor transactions at brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, Thomas replied, “I think the traditional sportsbook as we know it will change. It will turn into probably something more like Circa is doing — more of an entertainment lounge or facility — and less about walking up to a counter and getting a piece of paper or a ticket.
“I don’t think mobile changes whether people want to go into a sportsbook or brick-and-mortar, they just want to go in for different purposes. The notion of ‘we get rid of in-person signups, now nobody will come into the sportsbook,’ that’s just not true. Millennials and Gen Z and Gen Y want a streamlined experience in terms of signing up and doing things, but they still want to do things in person.”
During the Nevada hearing, Commissioner Steven Cohen memorably said to Thomas, “I can’t decide if you’re dreamers or geniuses.” Thomas replied that ZenSports is “both.”
“If you’re only one or the other, that’s probably not good,” he said last week. “You’ve got to be part dreamer and very smart and detail-oriented. ‘Dreamers’ is a positive for what we’re trying to do.”
His first major regulatory hurdle cleared, Thomas is now the proud new operator of a truck-stop casino in tiny Lovelock, Nev. — so Tennessee Bets had to ask him what his favorite gas station snack is.
“That’s an easy one: beef jerky,” he responded. “I can also go for a good nachos or hot dog, but beef jerky’s my go-to.”