In 2021 is it possible to be a profitable bookmaker without aggressively limiting winning punters?
The answer is yes. But it’s a whole lot harder.
The targeting, profiling, and limiting of winning bettors is getting more brazen each passing year, being a successful bettor has become just as much about your ability to stay under the radar as it is your betting skill.
But, we do still have some shining lights in the industry, here’s an article I wrote detailing the best no-limit bookmakers – No-Limit Bookmakers 2021
Included in this article is the ever-reliable and fast growing TopSport.com.au, I was lucky enough to interview the co-owner and director of TopSport; Tristan Merlehen!
He gave me an inside look into the operation, feasibility, and mentality of running a ‘Winners Welcome’ Bookmaker. Enjoy.
The Origins Of TopSport
TopSport isn’t just another quick startup online bookie, their roots go way back, here’s Tristan on the origins of TopSport:
We started online back in 2005. My dad’s been an on-course bookmaker since 1986. So the Merlehen brand has been bookmaking for 35 years now. When I turned 18, I was working for him on-course and got my license straight away. Back in those days you could only bookmake in person whilst you were actually on the course, so we decided to take the plunge and go online in 2005. I was at university at the time and I saw how many students were betting online (while they should have been studying in class) and it sort of gave me a reason to start things up.
We started quite small. It was just myself and dad running things for a long time. And we offered a limited range of sports and then we’ve slowly grown from a 2 man band to the approximately 30 staff we have now. It feels like a big family now and all our staff trade the markets and are a part of the day-to-day decision making processes.
Bookmakers are usually these nameless faceless entities that very few people understand the inner workings of; But Tristan gave us some insight into how TopSport really functions:
Our whole team works in one big place, we just find that when big bets fly around, or when someone rings up for a sizeable bet, you want to be able to lean over to the person sitting next to you that might be trading the game; or just have a bit of back and forth discussing the right decision to be made in any given situation. Because in the end, there’s never any black and white in an answer or decision. We work together.
There are certain circumstances which determine how you handle a particular book or a particular bet. And to have that collaborative approach where people can talk or where they can assist you is very important. So we have a really close team in the sense that, you know, everyone’s willing to chat to each other and ask for assistance and the senior guys assist with the new boys, we’ve obviously grown the team quite significantly over the last 18 months. So I think that’s very key to our success.
The way bookmakers set their odds might be the least understood variable looking from the outside in, whether it be in-house analysis, copying the intel of bigger bookies or a hybrid. How does TopSport navigate setting odds?
So it depends on the event, we look at whoever is the strongest in the market on a particular sport. So when you’re looking at European soccer, Betfair is so strong and there’s so much liquid money in there that you base your markets around them. Then we have models that price up the derivative markets, so we look at who we would consider to be the market leader on the key sports and use them to derive the initial base markets. For US sports you’re looking at the likes of Pinnacle who are very strong in that aspect. And then once we take bets will then use the Intel that we’ve got from our sharp bettors and look at the market and make tweaks based on that.
Rugby league and AFL we feel are our strengths, we’re Aussie bookies we think we probably go close to leading the market in that and those sort of sports. We will obviously pay respect to the marketplace and we’ll see what the others are offering but we’re not afraid to go out on our own and we’ll price them all manually and do all of that from the get go.
All we are trying to do as a bookmaker is use all the resources we have, both internal and external, to find that true price of the market.
Bookie Ethics: Welcoming Winners
Here we are, the reason I was so drawn to TopSport to begin with, and why it has become my most highly regarded Bookmaker.
I asked Tristan a bit about why he has adopted a ‘Winners Welcome’ policy and how that is implemented across the business:
Simply, any market we put up is fair game to anyone, your first day bettors or your seasoned professionals. That doesn’t mean any amount will be accepted on any market, even Pinnacle can’t be liquid in some markets, but I believe we have the fairest limits in the game and they apply across the board so everyone can have a fair bet.
No matter how big we get we will always hold that stance, and we want to make that clear to everyone who’s reading, listening and our whole user base; from new bettors to those who have been loyal to us for 15 years. For me, I’m proud to be a bookmaker. I’m proud to offer markets and to give everyone a fair bet. And that’s never ever going to change because that’s ingrained in your life. And I think that comes from operating on-course, where you have to look someone in the eye and give them an answer. You tell them straight up, you know, you give them a fair bet, and you deal with them again for the next bet they come up with, that’s always been my mentality, give everyone a fair go.
I just can’t stand for the fact that you can put a price up on the board and certain people can’t come up and take that price. Can you imagine being on-course, and having a price up there and a bloke comes out of the pub to put $500 on it and you tell him ‘sorry this price isn’t for you it’s for the 60 blokes behind you’ – I can’t stand for that.
Tristan on how he instills the same ethics in the TopSport staff:
We set an environment of everyone working together in one place with the same goal. Everyone can sort of see what you’re doing. And I think that’s a positive and I know for a fact that everyone wants to have the best outcome for our team. And obviously, as weird as it sounds, the best outcome for the team is the best outcome for the punters, because we thrive on being fair to everyone.
I feel that’s probably one of the reasons some of the bigger operators don’t operate as fairly as we do at times, because you don’t have the accountability to customers at those bigger places, where you can reject a bet or just take $5 on a bet and that customer is not going to ring and speak to you. They’re going to be speaking to some support staff who are going to cop a barrel-full and you don’t have anything to do with it. Whereas at our end, every decision we make, we have to be able to justify it to the customer if they ring up. It’s a small office, if someone’s copping a grilling on the back of a decision, the guy that made that call isn’t going to feel good. So I think that’s something that really works well and really enhances how fairly we try and treat all of our customers.
The Challenges Of Being a No-Limit Bookie
There’s a reason the overwhelming majority of bookmakers limit winning players, you make more money. Taking the ethical route is harder, I asked Tristan what some of the challenges are:
Yeah, for sure, we could easily heavily restrict customers or switch peoples accounts off or only operate with strict bet limits. No question we would make more margin doing it that way. But it’s just not something we’d ever do.
The flip side of that as well is that there are a small number of punters that are full-time professionals, but I think there’s many more in the marketplace than what people understand. Now, there were some really minor figures bandied around a while back, which were completely false. We have a lot of winning punters that bet with us, there is obviously a big difference between being a winning punter and a professional punter, many win on the punt but obviously can’t live off it and make it a full-time profession. So there is a significant difference, but there are a lot of winning customers and with the amount of fees that are associated with bookmaking these days in Australia, like if someone’s not losing at over 5% they genuinely are no viable customer from a bookmakers point of view. I don’t like the fact that those winning customers are, I suppose just written off or forced to bet with tiny limits, like it’s not great.
Having said that, I’m not trying to throw any of the bigger operators under the bus here, I’ve always maintained the same stance on this, that the racing and the sporting industry have a lot of the culpability here with the fees they impose on us bookmakers. The fees are so extreme right now, to put it in perspective, last year we had our highest ever gross revenue year in our history, yet we had a losing net profit year, like, we lost money despite having the biggest ever gross revenue year because the fees were astronomical. And this was before we spent a cent on advertising. So in my mind, there needs to be an encouragement for bookmakers to operate in a more fair fashion and that starts at the top.
If we changed our model substantially, we probably would have run at a much bigger margin. But from an integrity point of view this has been how our business has run for 15 years and as an industry we wan’t to encourage this more fair model. There aren’t many out there that do it, Pinnacle is well renowned for doing it worldwide. I think their model is brilliant, you know, they do have the luxury of not having to pay these high taxes. In saying that, I fully subscribe to the fact we need to be paying something back to the industry and the sporting bodies, I don’t hide behind that at all. I think it’s very important for racing to be generating big prize money to keep the quality of racing strong and sport to get something out of it, but, the current figures are just higher than what they need to be. Pinnacle’s lucky that they don’t really have to pay for any of that. So they can offer these really fine margins. And I mean, Pinnacle pulled out of Australia because of the high fees, it’s not good for anyone when you’ve got the biggest operator in the world and the smartest operator in the world that can’t make it work here betting the way they do, and we basically do the same thing and we’re just getting by. Unfortunately, what happens when fair bookmakers aren’t able to stay up, the betting goes underground to unlicensed bookies. Then the sporting bodies get nothing out of it. That’s when the integrity issues really start to come to the forefront.
The Betting Industry
If you could change anything about the betting industry in Australia, what would it be and why?
Taxes, if we change the Taxes to a fair rate, everything improves as long as there’s a flip side where bookmakers need to do something to receive that tax break. Like mandating higher limits or allowing winning punters to have a bet. We need to find that middle ground. If you change that, adjust the taxes to a fair rate and come to a deal with bookmakers; you will fix a lot of the issues that have arrived over the last five years. And I think people that are willing to start listening and talking to fix that, then everything improves and it’s better for everyone.
Gambling addiction is a topic that often raises more questions than answers. Do you think bookies and government bodies have a responsibility to protect problem gamblers from themselves?
Sure. Like I said, I love the game. I love being a bookie. And the last thing I ever want to see is people really hurt negatively on the back of what we do. I’m not naive enough to think that it doesn’t ever happen. Unfortunately, there are people that have issues with the punt, and we want to avoid facilitating that as much as we can. I think there’s been some really big strides made in the last 18 months with the National Consumer Protection Framework, which is only halfway through being finalised, but it’s certainly very much a step in the right direction, where everyone has to set a deposit limit when they open an account. I think a key one to have in place would be that if you put a block on your account with us, you can’t go and open an account with Sportsbet or another bookie, I think that’s a key one because unfortunately, where I see a lot of issues, if someone closes down with one bookie, they can just bounce to the next one and do the same there. Using those kind of frameworks to limit the damage will be a big plus. I’m proud of the way the industry has actually moved in the right direction, in that capacity, and hopefully it continues because it’s such an important thing, particularly in the times we’re in at the moment.
In terms of what we do, all of our guys are trained and I think everyone, as I said, we’re a family business, we try to do the right things. We have a number of alerts in place so when people open an account with similar details to a closed account, we’ll shut it down we are quite stringent and that can occasionally cause some blow ups with customers, because, well, they’re trying to circumvent the rules. But we know over time, we are doing the right thing to protect them. And unfortunately you’re not going to get that right all the time, there’s going to be some that slip through the cracks. But we do as much as humanly possible that we can to make sure that people are betting with us responsibly, and they’re betting well within their means.
From a business perspective as well a lot of our customers have been with us for 10 or 15 years, in the end we’re not after those guys that bet with us for one or two days and lose their bankroll and disappear. That doesn’t work for us. We want people coming back every week, betting with what they’re comfortable using; win, lose, or draw.
The Future Of TopSport
So what does the future of TopSport look like?
(From where I’m standing: very bright)
We don’t have our heads in the clouds, we’re realistic of our standing in the industry. We have a really loyal follower base, we’ve got respect in the industry, which I’m proud of, and we are growing. We’ve rebranded our site over the last few months. We’ve needed to add a few bells and whistles to the site to be competitive with the bigger operators. I personally feel, and I’m obviously a little bit biased, but I genuinely feel we’ve got the best product in Australia in terms of purely having a bet. We are bookmakers, there’s not many out there anymore that are, a lot are more marketing companies than they are bookmakers. they do it very well, there’s some really, really smart operators out there, there’s some people that have got big leads on us. But long term down the line I see us competing, or at least putting our best foot forward and constantly improving our product and following.
We don’t know how long it will take to be competing with the big guys. I know in six months, we’re still going to be nowhere near the bigger operators. But we’re going to hopefully be closing the gap every day as we’re adding more to the site. And we’re going to make our offering bigger and better for all of our customers. Simply we’re just going to try to let a few people know about what we do; before the last few months we had done barely any advertising, but since we’ve started dipping our toes in the water we’ve grown enormously. We haven’t had to change anything, all we’ve been doing is telling people about what we’ve done for the last 10 years. Every punter out there wants to get the best price and they don’t want to have to worry about their account getting shut down or closed the day after a big win. We have the biggest limits and the most aggressive prices, that will hold us in good stead going forwards
As mentioned above, TopSport had a losing year last year despite the biggest ever turnover. Given the way the TopSport Model operates and Australia’s ongoing and unpredictable fees; is there a chance the TopSport model can’t be maintained here in Australia?
For sure, there’s absolutely no guarantee that our model does work. The reality for us as I understand it is that we need to get to scale. In order for us to make our model work, we need to get more and more punters to TopSport. Given our model we’ve got every professional bettor under the sun using us. You can’t beat them, you know, they’re too good. But we use them to shape our models, what we need is to make sure that when we get our market to that optimal point, we’ve got a good chunk of money flying both ways. And that’s where we can make our margin, we’ve just got to get to that point a bit quicker. And we’ve got to spend some money in the advertising side of things. We’ve got to ramp things up to try to make people more aware of our product. But as it stands, yeah, like if things don’t change, or the fees go up, it’s going to be tough. But as I said, we’re not going to change our attitude. I have always had the mentality that this is the only way to bookmake. Well, no, it’s not the only way to bookmake, there’re plenty of others doing it the other way, but it’s the only way we are ever going to bookmake.
We aren’t going to become an unfair bookie, we’re not going to pull promos off people, we’re not going to set ridiculous limits, we’re going to do things the right way. And if we can’t make it work, then we’ll fall on our sword. But we’re going to give it every single opportunity we can to make it work.
The TopSport Files
I had a few curiosities I wanted answered and Tristan was good enough to indulge me.
Biggest bet ever accepted?
Our biggest bet ever accepted in terms of payout was someone who had $200,000 on Kansas to win the Super Bowl at $7 50. We’ve taken a few million dollar bets on individual games and such, they will generally be on really liquid markets and we often may manage that by laying with Betfair or something similar.
Biggest betting week of the year?
It’s easily Melbourne Cup week and was probably even bigger this year with the NRL State of Origin jammed in the middle of it. But it’s amazing how some other weeks pop up and you can get a couple of big customers that get heavily involved and the turnover figures will shoot up. And I think that’s a difference between us and a few of the other bookies. I’m not sure where we sit in terms of market share or whatever, it doesn’t really bother me. But I know we would be up the top in terms of average ticket size. We’ve got a number of bigger customers that come to us because we’re really one of the only places they can still place a bet, and they can turn a very normal week into a very busy week very quickly.
The Australian betting landscape is becoming more and more monopolised every year, have any of the bigger bookies tried to buy you out?
We’ve had plenty of offers, but the reality is we don’t want to operate in a way that I feel would be feasible for them going forward. We are very proud of what we do. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we’re never ever going to sell because I hate making promises I can’t back up. But what I will say is that we’ve had many, many opportunities to take the money and run if we wanted to. We haven’t. We want to operate in a fair fashion, which when you get shareholders, it’s difficult, like can you imagine the shareholders reaction to having a losing year like we had last year, it’s not gonna work. So all I can say is, if something ever did happen many years down the line. It would be a benefit to the punters; because the three things we look at is that, obviously we need to be in a good position, our punters would need to be better off and our staff would need to be better off. In that sense we’ve never had an offer close to that and worth at all considering.
And to be honest, I really don’t see it at all happening in the near future. We’re making such good strides and we’ve been building to this point and been able to grow the brand ourselves for a number of years. So we’re certainly not going to jump off the ship when it’s hitting exactly where we want it to be. So we do want to compete with the big guys, we want to do it as an Australian bookmaker, and we want to do our best to make sure we’re proud of the product we’re putting out there.
We’re a bookmaking family, I mean, I haven’t got any other skills, what are we going to do if we sell it, like, I’ll be useless and everything else. So we’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing. And we’re proud of that.
Advice From Tristan (For Bookies And Punters)
Advice for punters who want to improve their betting game and become consistently profitable:
My biggest piece of advice is that you’ve got to be regimented in what you do. You’ve got to sit down away from any bets or bookmakers and map out a plan, you need to put a plan in place that you feel is going to work, you need to test it, you need to be strategic about it. And you need to really manage your bankroll, managing that bankroll is so key. And if you have a couple of bad days early, but you’ve done the due diligence, you’ve made sure that you’re happy with the plan of attack you put out if you have a couple of bad days, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and stick with it. Decide on a period or 7 days or 14 days and if it hasn’t turned, then you’ve got to sit back and reassess. But you’ve just got to be really strategic, you’ve got to make sure your bankroll management is key, you’ve got to have options.
As much as I’d love everyone just to bet with TopSport you should have a number of accounts with as many bookies as possible. Securing that price is so key, our most successful punters turn over a lot of money, but they might win at just 2 or 3 percent. If you’re getting $1.95 on one bet instead of taking that $1.90 somewhere else, that’s going to turn a lot of people from breakeven punters to winning punters, or small losing punters to breakeven punters, and I think that’s key.
So that would be the bet of advice that I would give just to have as many options as you can and just to utilise and be smart about what you do and don’t chase make sure that if you’ve had a ordinary day you say well I’m not gonna win here, i’m not gonna have a bet in that last race just because i’m behind, shut the computer down come back the next day and start afresh. That’s probably the two biggest bits of advice, be patient, there’s always another day, there’s always another race and another footy event. And yeah, most successful punters, they stick to a plan. And no matter what happens throughout the day, no matter have had bad luck or a bad day, they don’t deviate.
Tristan’s advice for other bookies looking to break their way into the market:
Yeah, learn, like every single day, you’re gonna need to learn and take notes. Make sure you know you’re gonna make mistakes, be prepared for that. But make sure you don’t make that same mistake twice. Be realistic of what you can achieve, you’re not going to take on the big boys tomorrow. Offer a small range of markets and service your existing customers. But be prepared that there’s going to be people out there wanting to take shots. So make sure you prepare for it because it’s a tough ask to come into the game. Early on there are some big tax breaks for those new bookmakers. But you need to have your eyes open and ask for advice. I’ve got many of the smaller operators that come to me and ask for advice, I think many bookmakers our size are very willing to pass that on. And because we’ve all been there.
Firstly, thank you to Tristan Merlehen from TopSport, I thought this was a great and really transparent interview. I consider Tristan and TopSport to be an asset of the Australian betting landscape, I think lots of other countries’ punters would kill for a bookie with the same ethics and business model.
If you are lucky enough to be in Australia, sign up with TopSport here – TopSport Sign Up
If you have any further questions for me or Tristan, post them in the comments below or email us at [email protected] and i’ll either answer you, or bother Tristan a bit more and get an answer for you.
As Always, Happy (Value) Betting