Brett Abarbanel: “In Sports Betting, Women Want the Same Things as Men, Only Packaged a Little Differently”

Brett Abarbanel, the Executive Director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discusses the institute's role in research, education, and innovation in the gambling industry.

Brett Abarbanel is a prominent figure in the US gambling space, and since I launched BettingLadies.com in May of this year, I have seen her name featured in a number of articles and posts. In addition, Brett’s work has broadened lately, following the legalization of sports betting in the US so she is the perfect person for an interview on BettingLadies.com!

Brett heads up the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, so she knows a thing or two about this industry.

Earlier this year you moved into the role of Executive Director at the International Gaming Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Congratulations! What does this role entail? What are you focusing on this year?

Brett. Thank you! UNLV International Gaming Institute (IGI) is such a neat place, housed within an academic institution and with a very applied focus: we want to make sure that everything we do is considered within current cultural, technological, and regulatory frameworks around the globe.

For 30 years, we’ve provided research-based best practices, innovative design concepts, and executive education to the international gambling community. We house several academic centers, initiatives, and programs that each address a key area of the gambling world, including the International Center for Gaming Regulation (ICGR), which we share with UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, our Center for Gaming Innovation, responsible gambling initiatives, leadership development programming, and community outreach. My role is to lead this institute, fostering the incredible work of our faculty, students, and staff.

Like so many organizations, we’re working hard to stabilize our operations after COVID threw a wrench in so many plans. From there, we’re excited for growth in all our existing programs, as well as new concepts that continuously crop up as the gambling world changes. Since 2018, for example, sports betting has become a huge part of our ongoing work. New technologies also drive evolution at IGI, such as our new research programs in applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

I also have my own pet interests for our research, education, and innovation pillars. These include esports, betting-related sports integrity, and investigating how betting might be sustainably leveraged to boost women’s sports. Video games and esports are areas I’ve been involved in for over a decade through research and education, and have long been my main area of study. Many of IGI’s existing programs now incorporate these topics, such as gamification instruction and product development in our Center for Gaming Innovation, and in our regulatory education programs through ICGR.

On the women’s sports front, I am incredibly lucky to have been able to tag along with one of the leading scholars in sports marketing, Dr. Nancy Lough, a fellow UNLV professor who has spent years studying women’s sport marketing and growth. Dr. Lough is truly at the top of her field, the eponymous Lough Award for outstanding work in diversity in sport is granted annually by the Sport Marketing Association.

Dr. Lough and Dr. Ceyda Mumcu of University of New Haven (winner of the first Lough Award) have spent years looking at new models in women’s sports growth, such as their recent report, DisruptHERS. They’ve kindly brought me on board to bring the gambling-side perspective to all of this, and we have some initial research underway now to see how betting firms can play a role in these new market growth models. More to come on that front!

The interest and investment in women’s sports has grown significantly the last few years. What do you think is driving this? At the same time, women players could be earning more. What needs to happen to further increase viewership, sponsorships, and subsequently salaries in the women’s sports arena.

Brett. My first answer to this is a slightly lazy answer on my part, because I’m going to tell everyone to read something that I didn’t write: please check out Drs. Lough and Murmu’s DisruptHERs report! They talk about this extensively, particularly focusing on how many of the traditional sporting models and metrics that have long applied to sport are not the best fit for the growth and promotion of women’s sport. The major disrupters here have been in digital media innovation, value systems that are now hitting their payoff after years of buildup (e.g., investment in player development pipelines), and sponsorship and investment in women’s sport.

And overall, 2023 has been a massive payoff year! I was at the Women’s World Cup in August and it was such an evolution from the football/soccer I knew growing up. I was lucky to hit my youth soccer teenage prime right as the US women started their global football dominance. I watched Brandi Chastain rip off her jersey after her world cup winning goal and I knew that I was going to be the next football superstar (spoiler alert: I absolutely was not. But one of my much more talented teammates went on to play for USWNT!).

In August 2023, an entire stadium of people just like me filled almost every seat for the most highly viewed televised sporting event in Australian TV to date, the WWC semi-final between Australia and England. And for the games I attended, the crowd wasn’t just women and girls, as I largely remember from women’s soccer games of my youth, it was a massively diverse attendance. I saw so many little boys donning Sam Kerr’s jersey and the roar of the crowd at her stunning goal rivaled any

And you’re right, there’s more to be done. Nike faced massive backlash from fans and athletes for not selling Mary Earps’s England keeper jersey, and sales of her replica shirt didn’t even begin until after the final… and her Golden Glove win.

From the betting side of things, an extensive amount of research has shown that betting increases fan engagement in sport. Books have so much opportunity to invest in women’s sports and capitalize on that fan engagement, too. There is still quite limited availability of wagers on various women’s sports. WNBA has picked up pretty well, and there are so many more to offer.

I always recommend books test out a trading desk dedicated to women’s sports. It could be a dedicated expert among existing desks (e.g., someone at the football desk may cover NWSL), or a desk dedicated to trying out odds offers across a variety of women’s sports. And promote the products on offer! After all, you won’t know if these opportunities will be successful unless they’re given a fair shot. As the DistruptHERs report recommends, let the data tell the story and make sure your data captures the most suitable metrics.

And as I always mention when discussing betting investment, this has to be done in a sustainable manner, which means being mindful of consumer protections that are vital for consumer health and welfare, when growing betting products.

Looking ahead, what type of research is missing from the sports and sports gambling industry today? Where do you see the biggest gap of research in your field?

Brett. There are all sorts of massive gaps in the gambling and betting research world today, from age-old human behavior questions to the implications of new technologies.

There’s one huge thing I would love to see represented more in research: influencer culture! We get incredibly excited about the new and innovative technologies that exist out there in the world, and the various ways in which we can use them to create new and innovative products. But as Neil Postman wrote, technology isn’t additive, it’s ecological.

All these cool new toys have completely changed our consumer landscape far beyond the reach of our own betting and gambling world. We’ve changed how we communicate and how we seek out information. I found Betting Ladies via Sports Betting Twitter, for example. And influencers – even if they don’t think they’re influencers! – have great sway in this world.

To name just a few research questions here: how do influencers affect betting lines? What game and betting market integrity implications does this have? Can influencer culture be leveraged to grow women’s sports betting markets? Can it effectively deliver responsible gambling messages? Or is it just best used to entertain us all with ever-changing memes?

One of my favorite things to do is to talk research. If you’re reading this, please check out our latest triennial International Conference on Gambling & Risk Taking program and let me know if anything interests you, and if there’s anything you’d like to see at our next event in 2026!

What do women want in sports betting?

Brett. There are so many different, and still all correct answers to this. I often approach this question in the mindset that women often want many of the same things as men do in sports betting, though perhaps packaged a little differently.

In terms of product: a good game, good value odds, timely payouts, and when needed, excellent customer service. In terms of experience: product, of course, plays a role, as does education, fun, and quite often, community. And for those of us whose occupations are in, or touch into sports betting: a fun working space that’s welcoming to those who don’t fit the mold of the stereotypes around sports betting.

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