There’s an element of fun to the niche sports Pro League Network (PLN) presented to regulators. But don’t doubt its impact, or PLN’s ability to harvest player attention, writes Cole Rush.
“It’s okay to laugh.”
That’s what Bill Yucatonis, co-founder of PLN tells regulators when he presents niche sports for potential wagering.
“We’re going to talk about mini golf today,” Yucatonis tells them. “It’s okay to laugh.”
With PLN, it’s all fun and games. There’s a serious side, sure – we’re talking about carefully constructed alternative sporting leagues, after all. But Yucatonis and his team don’t shy away from the lightheartedness that permeates PLN sports.
Yucatonis and his partner and co-founder Mike Salvaris concocted PLN almost two years ago. With backgrounds in the gaming and sports industry, they set out to bring “alternative sports” into the mainstream.
“We’ve got 16 leagues in our network and we’re growing,” says Yucatonis. “We look for sports that have some viral components and structures that could stand up to a regulatory committee.”
PLN’s criteria for sports include three key factors.
“One is influencer or celebrity-infused content,” says Yucatonis. “We’ve seen that grow awareness about sports at the team level, league level and beyond.”
Number two is the proliferation of sports betting and the potential revenue stream it generates. “Third, alternative sports are a mega trend because of their accessibility and community.” Nice leagues bring people together and they’re meaningful to the fans and participants just like any other sport.
“PLN sits in the middle of those three factors. We find interesting sports you can relate to, bring them to sports wagering platforms if and when applicable, and infuse them with content that brings excitement, entertainment and relatability.”
Already, PLN has amassed a strong following and a deep well of niche sports.
The PLN portfolio
The PLN umbrella includes more than a dozen sports, but Yucatonis focused on a few of thebiggest ones to paint a picture of the organisation.
First up: World Putting League. PLN created the brand and secured approval from the US ProMini Golf Association, which has been around for more than twenty years.
“Mini golf is so relatable,” Yucatonis says. “World Putting League is a pro-only circuit. We have about 40 golfers and it’s probably furthest along from a wagering perspective among our sports.”
World Putting League is available for betting in 13 states and some international markets.
“We work with most of the usual suspects,” Yucatonis elaborates, citing DraftKings and Bet365 as examples. Bet365 even offered live betting for a handful of World Putting League events.
Strongman Champions has been around for decades. Now, it has the backing of PLN. Yucatonis says they plan to spin out their own events in early 2024.
In a similar vein, PLN recently acquired SlapFIGHT. The league is fully owned and operated by PLN.
“It’s a good sport from a combat standpoint and it resonates well internationally,” Yucatonis says.
When I ask Yucatonis about the next sport, he smiles. “You’re my third conversation about Car-Jitsu today.”
Vik Mikheev invented Car-Jitsu while going to school in Kansas. There’s no major riddle to unravel – it’s essentially jiu-jitsu in a car.
“We launched the brand Car-Jitsu Championship,” Yucatonis says. “We acquired the rule set – it actually falls under Brazilian jiu-jitsu rules.” There are other stipulations related to seat belts and submissions.
“It’s just highly unusual and entertaining,” Yucatonis says.
Finally, Yucatonis touches on Major League Paintball, also known as NXL Paintball. Last month, PLN got the sport approved for wagering.
NXL stands out to Yucatonis. The community around the sport is incredible. “I went to their World Cup in Florida last year,” he recalls. “There must’ve been 15,000 people there, 50-plus vendors and the place was jamming. So high energy.
“Admittedly, I didn’t know much about paintball, but it was easy to pick up the rules and it’s a really cool sport.”
Once sports are involved with PLN – whether via ownership or partnership – the organisation looks to expand the audience.
To the masses
PLN has worked with various broadcasting partners, including Fubo and NBC Sports.
“But primarily,” says Yucatonis, “we drive everything to the public. We have our live stream channel and integrations with sportsbooks if there are lines on a particular event.”
Naturally, broadcasting a niche sport looks different than one of the major leagues. “With the big team sports, you’ve got a lot of intermediaries. There’s the league, the fans and many stops in between those two points.”
“In a way, fan engagement is really far removed from the actual place where the sport is happening. It’s hard to engage directly,” Yucatonis says.
PLN doesn’t want its fans and sports to be on opposite ends of a spectrum. “For us, the fans are the centre. We take the content, push it to different communities and stream it live.”
The broadcasts from PLN often include watch-alongs with influencers or other second-screen experiences.
“The fan is always at the heart of it and we’re providing them easy access to the sport,” Yucatonis says. “Then we offer peripheral components like merchandise.”
Thus far, the approach has worked. Yucatonis notes that PLN has seen incredible growth in the double digits and it gets better with each event they broadcast.
Part of the reason for that engagement is the quick-hit nature of many PLN sports. “It’s a short format,” he says. “You don’t have to sit there for six hours on a Saturday or Sunday to catch everything. Plus, it’s delivered at a time of day that is opportune for the fans.”
Yucatonis cites a World Putting League event as a prime example. “One of our first events, we aired it on a Monday or Tuesday around lunchtime. We did it intentionally to hit the work-from-home second-screen crowd.
“Several people said to us it felt like the first days of March Madness for them. They could pay attention to the sport while they were working; it added some excitement to their day.”
A new kind of sports fan
The PLN approach extends well beyond the broadcasting strategy. It comes down to the sports themselves and drawing a new crowd.
The glory of PLN’s sports is that they work on two levels. Fans of major sports might find a PLN league when their typical favourites aren’t in season. Meanwhile, dedicated fans of niche sports now have amped-up access to their preferred events.
“The fan base for all sports is thick,” Yucatonis says. “And it’s rabid.” That description encapsulates every type of sports fan.
“One sport we filmed recently was Pro Carrom – it can be described as ‘finger billiards’. It’s massive for the Southeast Asian Community.”
Yucatonis and PLN revved up the production engines, put the event in a slick venue and the fans did the rest.
“Some of our sports might compete with the big four,” he says. “But for some, it’s just about engaging the existing fans and giving them a high-quality event they can watch from anywhere.”
It all comes back to the fans. Bring them the sports they love and the rest will fall into place. Sometimes, new fans join along the way.
Bringing niche sports to betting markets, though? A much bigger challenge.
Making niche sports bettable
“The first thing we tell commissions,” says Yucatonis, “is that we’re not going to bring a sport to you until we know it’s ready.”
The first meeting is almost always in person – which Yucatonis insists is key – and in some cases sponsored by an operator (some states require operators to submit sports for betting consideration, rather than the leagues).
“We want to look them in the eye,” he continues. “We want to talk through all the hard work that we put in behind the scenes. The rules have to be battle-tested and airtight. We bring the history of the players, teams and officials.
“We have a strong baseline of data to call out any potential abnormalities from an integrity perspective.”
That last point is driven home by PLN’s partnership with US Integrity – the organisation evaluates all of PLN’s sports and leagues. Sometimes it takes multiple years for PLN to even consider bringing a sport to commissions for betting consideration. For some events, Yucatonis doesn’t see betting as part of the equation at all.
“Some of our sports are just great content,” he says. “It’s a good feeder for audience growth and that’s okay, too, if it fits within our portfolio but doesn’t slot into the betting world.”
Working with operators is a necessary step along the way, although the timing of their involvement may differ.
“I can’t think of one operator that has said they wouldn’t be interested in our content,” Yucatonis says. “Some have passed for now because of technical needs while others have adopted PLN with open arms.”
Once a PLN sport is on a sportsbook, it’s seldom going to be a game-changer, handle-wise.
“Instead, it’ll drive retention, drive shareholders and draw new people to the platform,” says Yucatonis.
The fact that PLN owns and/or operates its sports gives the business a lot of flexibility.
“We can be very customised for the operator’s needs,” Yucatonis says. “We can work through broadcast times, sponsorships, collaborations, exclusivity and more in-house.”
When asked about working with sportsbook companies, Yucatonis concludes with a single line: “The books have been great partners.”