Show notes from Mark Thomas Interview
Ryan Knuppel: On today’s show, we sit down with Mark Thomas, the co founder and CEO of ZenSports to talk about his new peer-to-peer betting app. Everywhere you turn, it’s the same old sports talk, the same headlines, the same news and the same boring information. This podcast is here to change all of that. We bring you hot sports takes, winning sports betting strategy and picks, reliable gaming industry news and breaking interviews with some of the biggest names in sports business. My name is Ryan Knuppel. Welcome to the Knup Sports Show.
Ryan Knuppel: All right, welcome to another episode of the Knup Sports Show, I’m your host Ryan Knuppel here with you each and every time. Today I’m joined by another very special guest. I have Mark Thomas, the confounder CEO at ZenSports with me on the line. Mark, are you here?
Mark Thomas: I am here. Ryan, how are you?
Ryan Knuppel: I’m doing well man. I appreciate you joining me. I mean, we’re all just bunkered down, kind of staying low, staying inside here with this sports shutdown on the horizon. But hey, we’re healthy, I’m smiling, I’m working hard. That’s about all there is. So how are you doing out there in sunny California?
Mark Thomas: Pretty good. It is sunny today. Sometimes San Francisco at this time of year is not sunny. But it’s been beautiful all week. Just as you said, hunkered down in our small dense apartments here and looking forward to hopefully having this pass soon, and sports resuming.
Ryan Knuppel: Absolutely. Before we get into ZenSports and some of your background, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the shutdown, and the virus and all of this stuff and how it’s really affecting the sports community in particular. I was curious to get your input on how sports is going to come back, I guess. I mean is it going to come back bigger and better than ever or is it going to be a tough transition back into sports once things kind of get back to normal or will they ever get back to normal? What are your thoughts on some of that before we really dive into the meaty stuff here?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. I think it’s going to be both. I think on one hand you’re going to have the sports leagues resume with no fans in the stands and with people still potentially being, again cooped up at home, they’re going to want to start watching sports again. But they’re not going to be able to do it in person. So, I think because if you kind of combine both things of sports resuming, no fans at the games, and people being cooped up wanting to watch it on TV, I think you’re going to see ratings just soar through the roof. I really do. Then on the flip side with… I mean, where are we at now? 10 million people that have filed unemployment in the last couple of weeks. I think you’re also not going to, on the flip side, see people rushing to spend, three, four, five hundred dollars on a ticket and $12 for a beer when the economy’s not doing as well. So I think you’re going to see TV ratings go through the roof. But I think similarly you’re not going to see people rushing necessarily to the games. Even when they do start allowing fans back into the stands.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah. It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to see what happens. Because I think we’re going to start seeing people kind of start getting used to this… I don’t know if I call it this lifestyle or this way of thinking where, “Man I can just log in from home and watch this.” Or, “I can stream this and that and kind of watch from here.” And I will be curious to see when things get back to normal, if a large majority of people kind of stick to that side of things and keep that convenience, I guess, style going or if we start getting back out there and quickly abandon this whole online only mentality. It will be interesting dynamic.
Mark Thomas: Yeah. I do think most people will start getting back out there just because they’ll have cabin fever like most of us do. To get out there. But I do also think you’ll see some more flexibility for those that may want to work from home a little bit more frequently or whatnot.
Ryan Knuppel: Sure.
Mark Thomas: And if you see that people are able to handle it and still be successful and do their jobs and whatnot, while I don’t think it’s going to be a 100% where you can continue to say, for example, work from home. I mean maybe you’ll be able to do that one day a week or something like that. So yeah. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a mixed bag there, but I do think people are itching to get out.
Ryan Knuppel: So CEO, co-founder at ZenSports. Give us a little bit of a background for those listening. We have a pretty good kind of a business, sports betting business type listenership here on the show. If somebody hasn’t heard, give us a hundred foot view of Zen sports and what it is.
Mark Thomas: Yeah. So ZenSports is a peer-to-peer sports betting marketplace where anybody can come in and create and accept sports bets with anyone else in the world without the need for a bookmaker. So the central premise of this is that we are disintermediating or eliminating the bookmaker. If you kind of look at the landscape of sports betting ever since the beginning of time, there’s always been a bookmaker involved in the process and the bookmaker is really just essentially a middleman who’s not always necessarily providing great value and is charging huge fees. And always has this weird dynamic where they’re only making money when their customers lose. So sometimes from a dispute perspective or rules perspective, they’re not always fair. And we believe that technology, especially marketplace technology can replace a lot of the functionality, or all the functionality of a bookmaker.
Mark Thomas: And so what we built is a two sided marketplace that matches up makers and takers of bets, similar to like what you might have on a trading exchange of stock, where you’re matching makers and takers of trades. It’s not quite an exchange where you’re trading bets that have been created, but it’s at least closer to that than it is with a bookmaker. And essentially it’s pretty simple. So you can come in, create any kind of sports bet that you want with your own odds, your own terms, your own set maximum amount. And then others in the marketplace can accept those bets. And then our product just matches the two sides up, and then we charge a fee, but it’s a significantly lower fee, 50 to 90% cheaper than what a traditional bookmaker charges.
Ryan Knuppel: That’s really cool. I mean, that seems like a no brainer for players and consumers to want to go that route especially if it’s going to save them money. And they have a lot more flexibility with setting their lines. Right? I mean, and if they see that their lines aren’t good, then nobody’s going to take them. That’s interesting. What gave you this idea, where did it come about? How’d you get started with it?
Mark Thomas: We originally launched a few years ago under a different premise as a meet-up recreational sports app. Helping connect people to meet up to play sports for money and for fun. And what we found was is that the peer-to-peer concept of the people finding others to do sports things with was a real hit. But the recreational sports market’s just really kind of tiny and little bit random and not as big as sports betting. So, a couple of years ago, about 18 months or so ago, we decided, Hey. Let’s take the same peer-to-peer concept and apply it to a much bigger market and apply it to a market that really has a big paying point. Where in this case, we were mentioning bookmakers, and apply it to sports betting. And so that’s what we did and set up to do. And we essentially built our V-1 of our product about 18 months ago, launched it to a few beta customers and then last year, March, 2019 we launched the full blown product of it to everybody outside the United States. So right now we are an international product only and we are working on getting licenses here in the United States after the States that have legalized sports betting.
Ryan Knuppel: Very cool. Very cool. It seems like you’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, which is awesome. That will be a… What kind of hurdles, I guess are you seeing as you try to get into the United States here? I mean are you finding it to be a difficult challenge or what?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I think the one thing that’s a little bit discouraging is if you look at the history so far in the last couple of years, in May, 2018 the Supreme Court struck down PASPA, which was a federal ban on sports betting. That did not just legalize sports spending across the entire country, it basically told states, “Hey. You can legalize sports spending if you want to.” And so about 17 states or so have legalized sports spending in the meantime, but I think the two kind of issues so far have been A, every state has gone about it in a different way in terms of legalizing it with all their different rules, restrictions, licensing requirements, et cetera. And so it’s almost like dealing with 17 different countries in that regard.
Ryan Knuppel: Yup.
Mark Thomas: And then the other aspect of it is, is they’ve all… All the states so far up to this point have catered specifically to just the brick and mortar land based casinos and sports books. So for example, we are a tech product only, a mobile app only. We can’t get a license in the state unless we either own or partner with a physical land-based brick and mortar Sports book. So that makes it a little bit challenging, but we are hopeful that as time goes on that states will begin opening it up to tech products only. Or make it much, much easier to partner with, or get licensed in those states. Just because that’s what consumers really want. They want a mobile betting experience.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah. I was going to say that’s going to kind of become a catch 22 for you guys a little bit because you’re like, on one hand you’re saying, “We think we’re better than just having a sports book. We don’t need the sports book.” But then the United States is saying, “Well you have to be partnered with a sports book.” And so it’s kind of a catch 22 for you guys there when you’re dealing with that.
Mark Thomas: Yeah. But I think the good thing is that a lot of land based sports books and casinos, they don’t necessarily have a technology arm to their business.
Ryan Knuppel: Sure.
Mark Thomas: And so they really can turn to us for that expertise and utilize us for the technology piece. Because I think there’s appetite for both, right? People want to go on vacation, people want to travel and people want to stay overnight in a casino and then bet physically in person at locations. But then, for those that are not traveling or those that are not there, they want to be able to bet mobilly. And so, I think there’s appetite for both. And, and by partnering with a product like ZenSports, these physical brick and mortar locations will actually get much more widespread distribution than they otherwise would get. So, I do think that even though the rules are kind of set in place as they are, I actually see a lot of brick and mortars partnering with technology products like ours simply because they want to get more distribution than they currently have.
Ryan Knuppel: Sure. So from an app perspective or from I guess an app perspective, during this shutdown, what is ZenSports doing to stay alive? I mean, there’s no sports to bet on. I mean very few sports to bet on. I’m curious what you guys… A lot of people are pivoting to casino and e-sports and a lot of different things. I’m curious what ZenSports is doing to kind of, I don’t know, keep the lights on or keep the traction going during this time.
Mark Thomas: Right. So the good thing is, is we just closed a little bit of additional funding in February. Closed another 770,000. So that sees us through for the next 12 to 15 months. So assuming we can get some sports going this summer, maybe at the very, very latest the NFL getting back into the swing of things in September, we should be fine. That being said, we’re not just sitting around waiting for that to happen. So, this is actually I think huge opportunity for e-sports as you just mentioned.
Ryan Knuppel: Yup.
Mark Thomas: I think this is probably the birth of it and the dawning of it where e-sports and betting on e-sports specifically is going to really see a huge uptick. It already has and so we are launching e-sports in ZenSports.
Ryan Knuppel: Cool.
Mark Thomas: Within ZenSports in a couple of weeks. So it’s a big initiative for us.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah.
Mark Thomas: It’s very important. Also, we’re pretty confident that MMA will start to come back, probably sooner. Golf as well.
Ryan Knuppel: Yup.
Mark Thomas: You know, some of these, maybe NASCAR. Some of these sports that have more social distancing already baked into them. Because it’s one or two people and they’re not really like right up against each other like tackling each other or whatnot.
Ryan Knuppel: Sure.
Mark Thomas: So, I don’t think it’s going to be that bad. And I actually also think that the major sports leagues are going to resume at some point this summer. I think even if it’s just the playoffs, the NBA and NHL will come back towards the end of June, early July. I definitely think the NFL is going to kick off their season when they’re supposed to do. So I’m not really that concerned. I mean, I suppose if we’re sitting here at the end of December with still no sports going on. That’s a little different. Then we may have to revisit things. But I think taking the approaches that we’re taking right now are sufficient and then we’ll revisit them this summer if there’s still a problem.
Ryan Knuppel: That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s kind of what I was after. I was curious if you guys were jumping into the e-sports space and it sounds like you are. I’m sure that’s a big challenge for you guys. But at the end of the day if you look at the silver linings of all of this, it’s forcing some companies like yourself to maybe jump into something that they didn’t have plans to jump into until maybe next year or something like that. Jump in a little sooner.
Mark Thomas: Right.
Ryan Knuppel: Then sports comes back and all of a sudden you’ve got another product line, or another branch of the system going on.
Mark Thomas: Yeah. One of the things we’re-
Ryan Knuppel: You can always look at the positives, right?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. One other thing that we’re doing too is, up to this point, we’ve entirely been B to C focused directly to consumer. We are actually going to be creating a white label product, an API for our product, and also white labeling our cryptocurrency token as well for loyalty and rewards programs for other businesses. So we’re definitely branching out and as you said, kind of expanding some product lines that we may have punted on until next year or the year after. Just because of this.
Ryan Knuppel: You mention your cryptocurrency and the tokens and all that. That’s something we haven’t really touched on here. But you guys kind of have a little unique angle that plays in that space. Can you explain a little further how you guys use crypto within ZenSports?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. We believe that one of the other big paying points within sports betting or any kind of betting or gaming or gambling products is payments and the movement of money. So for example, like if you’re going on some other sports betting product and you try to use your debit card or whatnot to make a deposit, there’s probably a 50% chance that your bank will decline that transaction. Just because they don’t want to transact with bedding products. And so that becomes a real sticking point. And so cryptocurrencies which have no intermediary bank or financial institution [inaudible 00:14:17] the process is just blockchain technology where the transfer goes from one party to the other. Really streamlines that entire process and removes all that friction for payments entirely.
Mark Thomas: And so we launched our own branded cryptocurrency token called Sports last July. And even though we often needed the ability to bet in dollars within our app, almost all the bets in our app take place using our token. And we’ve actually built this really cool loyalty and rewards program around our token where you can get discounted betting fees and cash back bonuses, other bonuses and perks just by using our token. And we’ve found that people really gravitate towards it. It’s just like money except it’s more fun. It’s a more gamified experience and it’s cool. So, we do believe that cryptocurrencies are going to be playing a huge, huge role in the future of all kinds of betting actually.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah, I agree with you. I definitely think you’re onto something there. And I think that’s a kind of a unique angle that you’re taking with this. So, give you guys props for that. It’s pretty cool. Hey. On a different note. I see you have a little Milwaukee background in you. Got a little Bucks, a little Brewers fan, little Packers fan in you. I was looking at your LinkedIn, looks like a little Milwaukee background in you, huh?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. So I’m originally from Wisconsin, grew up in suburbs in Milwaukee, moved out to San Francisco back in 2001. So I’ve been here for a while, but I’ve been a Bucks and Brewers fan since the late ’80’s, Packers fan since early ’90’s. Diehard sports fan, was never thinking of ever switching allegiances when I moved. And so yeah. I’m as diehard as they get. I trash talk with the best of them on Twitter. And for example, when I went back to Wisconsin to visit family for the holidays and I bought all my family tickets to the Bucks, Lakers game.
Ryan Knuppel: Nice.
Mark Thomas: I did it in December when both teams were 24 and four. Fiserve Forum was super juiced. Great, great atmosphere, lots of fun. I mean that for me personally is, I mean certainly, we’re in a tragedy right now, but from a sports perspective, I mean the Bucks were rolling and looking like title contenders. And I’m like, the only thing that can stop them at this point is apparently a virus.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah.
Mark Thomas: Which unfortunately happened. Hopefully they can get at least the playoffs resumed and get that going. Because I think they still got a great chance to win it all.
Ryan Knuppel: That’s crazy. So we probably have one thing in common then, because I’m a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan. You’re a big Brewers fan. I’m guessing we both hate the Cubs, right? Uh Oh. You still there, Mark?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. Don’t even get me-
Ryan Knuppel: Oh.
Mark Thomas: Yeah. I’m here. Sorry. Was I cutting out? Sorry about that.
Ryan Knuppel: Oh it’s all right, I think you cut out. Yeah. Yeah. It cut out a little bit.
Mark Thomas: No worries. No worries. Yeah, I can’t stand the Cubs. Now I have to say, I have to say I can stand the Cubs more than I can the Vikings. But, it’s amazing. I just, I’m surprised at how much Chicago fans like to trash-talk. They’re bad, but I actually think Vikings fans are worse.
Ryan Knuppel: Wow. Yeah. It’s fun. It’s always fun to trash talk as part of sports. I think that’s what we all kind of thrive on a little bit as well. Pretty cool. Pretty cool. Well Mark, tell the listeners, I guess where they can hear more from you, where they can get ahold of you. How they learn more about ZenSports?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. So you can check out ZenSports, pretty straightforward, ZenSports.com. We have a mobile app, both on the app store for iOS, and you can download the Android app from our website. And then obviously everywhere on social media. We’re on Twitter @ZenSports, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Facebook groups, pretty much everywhere you can find us. Yeah. So that’s more about us.
Ryan Knuppel: Amazing. I’ll put all of that in the show notes of this show so nobody has to remember the links as well. We’ll put them all out there, have links to all this. But Mark, I won’t keep you any longer. I know you’re a super busy man and I think there must be like 5 million people on Zoom right now because it’s like wanting to kick me off, or my internet connection’s bad or something.
Mark Thomas: It’s been rough. It’s been rough. I know the problem is that everybody is clogging up the same WiFi’s right now.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah.
Mark Thomas: And so it’s just a tough thing. I mean it’s not… Because you go, when you’re in the office, you have way more bandwidth on all these more high-speed connections. And when everyone’s on these… When everyone’s at home and they’re all clogging up the same ones, it’s rough.
Ryan Knuppel: Yeah. Yeah. But hey, we made it through this. I think it’s going to come out all right.
Mark Thomas: Sure. Sorry about that.
Ryan Knuppel: No. I think it’s on my end. So I definitely appreciate you joining me, Mark.
Mark Thomas: Yeah. No problem.
Ryan Knuppel: I wish ZenSports and everything you guys do all the luck in the world. And I urge everybody listening here to take a look. How do they sign up? I mean just go out to the app, sign up a pretty easy, huh?
Mark Thomas: Yeah. So that’s our whole thing is making the customer experience super easy. So you can download the app from the app store or on Android from our website. You can sign up in about 30 seconds, super easy. And then once sports are back up, you can create and accept sports bets within a matter of minutes.
Ryan Knuppel: Nice. Awesome Mark. Well I appreciate it. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to reach out. This is Mark Thomas, CEO co-founder of ZenSports. I appreciate you being here Mark, and have a great day.
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