Who Do Assignments For Money Fantasy
In the fall of 1979, while on a flight from Hartford to Austin, the writer Daniel Okrent was struck by an idea for conducting an auction of baseball players—or, rather, baseball players’ names and their future statistics. Nothing fancy: this was before the spread of personal computers and sabermetrics. His notion was that, using only the stats that could be tallied or figured from the box scores in the morning paper, you could approximate the potency of a virtual team, compare it against other virtual teams, and thereby imagine yourself as a real-life general manager in training. “It was because I was a shitty athlete,” he recalled recently. Fantasizing about what it would be like to play third base was too implausible. In Austin, he accompanied a few editors and writers from Texas Monthly to a barbecue joint, where he revealed the outlines of his new scheme. They weren’t interested. Fall gave way to winter. Okrent mentioned the idea to some friends over lunch at a French restaurant in Manhattan, and this time it took. Instead of Brisket League Baseball, we got Rotisserie, named after La Rotisserie Française, a long-vanished eatery on East Fifty-second Street.
The entry fee for the initial ten-team Rotisserie League, in 1980, was two hundred and fifty dollars, and the winner, at season’s end, would collect half of the over-all pot. Okrent feared that this might make them gamblers—personae non gratae—in the eyes of the sport’s custodians. He was planning to write a book, later published as “Nine Innings,” that would be a micro-examination of a single baseball game, between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles. The project required extensive clubhouse access. To be safe, they confined their Rotisserie auction to players from the National League, rendering the Brewers and Orioles irrelevant. “A guy I came to know in the American League president’s office said it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Okrent said. “You know the moralism they’ve always brought to the very idea of gambling.”
There was another virtue to the National League restriction. Okrent had grown up a fan of the Detroit Tigers, in the A.L., and he worried about the potential for conflicting loyalties—not just overpaying for the Tigers’ ace Jack Morris, say, out of wishful thinking, but depending on some of the Tigers’ best-known adversaries for the success of the Okrent Fenokees, as he called his squad. The childish simplicity of sports rooting had always seemed one of fandom’s greatest virtues, and he was grateful to be able to separate watching the Tigers from managing the Fenokees.
The other founding Rotisserians, like Okrent, were well connected—writers, editors, academics—and word of their new pastime spread quickly, attracting imitators. Within a few years, baseball officials had a genuine nuisance on their hands: “the number of people calling the P.R. department and pretending to be journalists, asking whether the pitcher’s arm was still hurt,” as Okrent put it. Those callers weren’t gamblers, either; they were Okrent’s proliferating disciples, looking for inside intel to exploit on the virtual trading block.
Card-based simulations, like Strat-O-Matic, which now boasts of producing “the original fantasy sports games,” had existed since the nineteen-sixties, but they relied exclusively on past events and didn’t flatter the sports fan’s unshakable sense of clairvoyance. Strat-O-Matic contests were truly imaginary. Rotisserie was grounded in reality. Actual human beings were affirming (or disproving) your hunches and investments in real time. Okrent and company trademarked the name Rotisserie (thus giving birth to “fantasy” as a generic alternative), began publishing guidebooks, and even hosted conventions during spring training. “People would come from around the country to stay at the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, in Clearwater, and spend time with us,” Okrent recalled. “Very creepy. They were not people you’d want to take home.” What he meant, in essence, was that the expanding audience was not composed of intellectuals, like the pioneers, but standard-issue geeks, who had embraced their new hobby with a Dungeons & Dragons-like fervor. By the early nineties, when I was in high school, the concept had proved durable—and flexible—enough that a few seniors were playing what they called Rotisserie Cross Country, using the running times of gangly sixteen-year-olds in Bergen County, New Jersey, as fodder for study-hall competitions.
By the late nineties, with the arrival of the Internet, the concept had spread to football and had spawned a full-blown industry, with an official lobbying arm—the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The F.S.T.A. created a Fantasy Sports Hall of Fame and honored Okrent and his friend Glen Waggoner, another writer and the winner of the first-ever Rotisserie crown, back in 1980, as its inaugural inductees. “You couldn’t have paid me to go,” Okrent said of the ceremony, which took place in Orlando. He had by then become disillusioned with his billion-dollar creation, for which, he now estimates, he and his fellow-founders have each banked “maybe ten thousand dollars, fifteen thousand dollars, something like that,” for all their prescience.
He had also temporarily shuttered the Okrent Fenokees, who never did win a championship, out of fantasy fatigue. “In the first year or two you’re playing, you are much more engaged with baseball than you’ve been since you were seven years old,” Okrent said. “And then, by your fourth or fifth year, the actual game has lost meaning for you. You’re engaged in the numbers that the game spins out and engaged with millions of others in the same way. It has no relationship not just to the fan attachment that you may have had to a particular team but to the physical thing that’s taking place on the field. It’s the representation of it in a number that’s what’s important. I’m thinking of our original group. A couple of them really don’t give a shit about baseball at all anymore.” He added, “When people say, ‘How do you feel, having invented this?’ I say, ‘I feel the way that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt having invented the atomic bomb.’ I really do. I mean, pretty terrible!”
A couple of months ago, I attended the winter conference of the F.S.T.A., in Las Vegas, and detected an air of triumphant ascendancy, as though the future of sports itself lay in the hands—or in the obsessive brains—of the nearly four hundred people swapping waiver-wire strategies and business cards at the Bellagio. After years of being dismissed as a lesser breed of sports fan, the fantasy crowd had proved its strength in numbers: some forty million participants in North America, including eight million women. More important, though, was the belated embrace of the professional teams and leagues, which had initially sought to distance themselves from an activity that seemed so transparently parasitic. In the Internet age, where enthusiasm and loyalty can be measured in terms of media minutes consumed, the best kind of customer is not the polymath with a wry disposition and an ability to charm the in-laws but, rather, a junkie. Primordial sports fans, content to watch athletics as theatre, devote a mere six hours a week, on average, to the consideration of balls and pucks. Fantasy nerds do triple that. And then there are people like Jeremy Munter.
Munter, a.k.a. Muntradamus, is a lanky and slightly manic twenty-seven-year-old who moved to Las Vegas a couple of years ago so that he could “be in my own cloud, my own zone,” as he told me, “and not answer to anyone and just focus on dominating fantasy sports.” The genre of fantasy sports that he is intent on dominating bears only a vestigial relationship to Okrent’s original idea. Instead of joining leagues, among friends and colleagues, you participate in nationwide tournaments, some with tens of thousands of entrants—and, crucially, winners are crowned, and paid, just hours after you’ve created your team, on the basis of the players’ performances in an evening’s worth of games. With daily fantasy, as these contests are called, any odd Tuesday can be your Stanley Cup or your World Series, although the repeatable and impersonal nature of the format attracts a more compulsive clientele. Munter has been known to create two hundred teams in a night, at two dollars apiece, preferring a low-risk, high-volume approach, like a day trader. “First fifty teams I make, I won’t even do a spreadsheet,” he said. “I’ll look at the players and just know—like, K. J. McDaniels, that’s a good price for him. Tony Wroten, that’s a good price.” (The entrance fees are real, but the “salaries”—subject to a cap, just as in the N.B.A.—remain notional.)
Munter comes by his expertise laboriously: for a start, by watching six hours of live sports every day. Around 4 P.M., when the first basketball or baseball games on the East Coast typically begin, he arrives at the Westgate sports book, with its two dozen screens, and he doesn’t leave until the end of the last of the West Coast games, around ten o’clock. “I’ll make sure to pick someone on every team,” he said. “Like, I’ll pick Tony Allen just so I can have one game where the Memphis Grizzlies matter.” Once the games are finished, he hits the gym, to relieve all the pent-up anxiety, and then he loads up on coffee and Red Bull so that he can crunch numbers for the next day’s schedule till 5 A.M. When he wakes up, around noon, he checks Rotoworld.com, a comprehensive recasting of sports news through a fantasy filter. He has forty thousand Twitter followers and says he charges people who don’t want to submit to his gruelling schedule four hundred dollars a week for daily roster suggestions.
Daily-fantasy taxonomists speak in terms of sharks, whales, and fish, or professionals, high rollers, and lunch meat. Muntradamus is a minor shark—he serves the whale population his advice while snacking on minnows. When we first met, he was standing in a bar near the craps tables at a party hosted by FanDuel, the most popular daily-fantasy platform, which awarded more than five hundred million dollars in cash prizes last year and plans to approach $1.5 billion this year. Elsewhere in the bar were a few well-known great whites, Drew Dinkmeyer and Al Zeidenfeld, who have brought sophisticated mathematical modelling to the task. And, over by the side, maintaining a low profile, was FanDuel’s C.E.O., Nigel Eccles, a trim, sandy-haired forty-year-old Northern Irishman who likes to say that his company’s mission is to transform the way we watch sports in the United States.
Eccles grew up on a dairy farm in County Tyrone and is an unabashed wonk, like so many sports executives these days. His sport of choice is distance running. He used to work at McKinsey. “People talk to us about the Super Bowl,” he told me, shortly before the party began. “We’re like, ‘Look, the Super Bowl is the one event that people don’t need a fantasy game for, because it’s compelling in itself.’ What needs fantasy is those games that nobody cares about, particularly in basketball and baseball, where it’s a long season. Those are the ones that need fantasy to create the interest, and that’s our bread and butter.”
In a sense, Eccles and Okrent were in agreement: there was a dearth of interest in the actual games, and the “ancillary event,” as Eccles put it, referring to fantasy, “has become so big that it’s in some ways eclipsing the core event.” Throughout the long seasons, FanDuel’s users average more than twenty-four hours of sports consumption a week, an increase of forty per cent over the audience for traditional fantasy, which daily partisans and old-timers alike have begun calling “season-long.” For example, the industry analyst who delivered the conference’s keynote address said, “In five or ten years, people will be asking, ‘Who used to do season-long? What was season-long?’ ”
Daily fantasy is one of those ingenious ideas that seem obvious and inevitable in retrospect, but it might never have existed were it not for a convergence of lobbying during the second term of the George W. Bush Administration on the part of the National Football League and the Christian right, both of which opposed the spread of offshore sports betting enabled by the Internet. Their efforts led to the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, a hastily appended rider to a port-security bill. UIGEA, commonly pronounced “you-EE-juh,” sought to block financial institutions from processing payments associated with offshore gaming and was later used to stamp out the booming business of online poker in this country. But the law also included an explicit “carve-out,” as fantasy entrepreneurs say, for fantasy-sports “games of skill,” thanks to the N.F.L., which had recognized that a casual fan’s vested interest in yardage counts and sack totals might well keep him from changing the channel in the garbage minutes of a 34–7 blowout. Better for ratings, better for ad revenues.
FanDuel was founded in 2009, as an offshoot of Hubdub, a news-prediction site that Eccles, his wife, Lesley, and three other partners had established a year earlier, in time for the 2008 Presidential election. Hubdub offered users virtual cash with which to bet on the outcome of real events, channelling the wisdom of crowds. “We predicted all fifty states, the same year as Nate Silver,” Eccles said. “But we didn’t get quite as much publicity.” They didn’t make any money, either, and, as they looked into refocussing their business model, they noticed that the genre of news that was consistently attracting the most predictive activity on the site was the one that they’d included as an afterthought: sports. UIGEA provided them some legal cover to explore paid prediction games, as long as those games didn’t hinge on the outcome of any individual sporting contest or on the performance of an individual athlete—potentially corrupting scenarios, given the incentive for tampering. And there was a ready audience of probabilistic speculators, in the form of displaced online poker players, with an established track record of spending money to make money online. Not long ago, a professional poker player I know e-mailed to say that he’d passed much of the previous month “trying to prepare a profitable daily fantasy model” for the upcoming baseball season. UIGEA has become a law of unintended consequences.
There are now more than twenty companies involved in daily-fantasy sports, among them Sports Illustrated and USA Today. But the vast majority of the action—ninety-six per cent, according to the latest estimates—is concentrated on FanDuel and on its chief rival, DraftKings, which was founded in 2011, in Boston, by three sports-fan colleagues at Vistaprint, a direct-marketing company. Perhaps by now you’ve seen some of DraftKings’ TV spots, like the one involving yet another—in this case, fictional—Fantasy Sports Hall of Fame. “Former accountant Derek Bradley,” a would-be docent intones, while leading his tour group toward a clay statue of a scrawny man wearing glasses. “DraftKings one-day fantasy baseball took him from a guy with holes in his underpants to a guy with bikini models in them!”
Neither FanDuel nor DraftKings is currently profitable, although both are increasingly mentioned as possible “unicorns,” a term used by venture capitalists to refer to startups valued at a billion or more dollars on the basis of fund-raising alone. In the race to attract customers, both companies have been spending more money on radio and television commercials, and on the whopping prizes that those ads promise, than they’ve been taking in via the rake—a cut, around ten per cent or less, of all the user entry fees. Nonetheless, their combined revenues have increased by nearly twentyfold in the past two years, and ESPN is said to be close to acquiring a twenty-per-cent stake in DraftKings.
The phenomenon is going global, too. “We’re first-to-market in the U.K. and Europe,” a tall man named Daniel Feldman said. Feldman spent eleven years working for the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a year as a pitching coach for the Soviet national baseball team. He passed me a coupon for the fantasy platform Mondogoal, advertising a daily “soccer for cash” game. “It’s a fucking landgrab,” he said.
When I questioned soccer’s fantasy potential, given its relative lack of scoring (fewer numbers to rearrange), he said, “We have a lot of stats”—passes completed and passes intercepted, for example, to say nothing of goals and assists. “And we can always add more. We can add clearances, corner kicks, shots off target, fouls that result in a penalty kick.” He said that Mondogoal had just signed a marketing deal with Barcelona, the team of Lionel Messi and Neymar. “Barcelona has eighty million Facebook fans”—a number that approaches the total of the entire N.F.L. Mondogoal is based on the Isle of Man and has a license from the United Kingdom Gambling Commission. “The argument against us working is that if you go to Old Trafford or Wembley you can order bangers and mash in one window, and then you take one step to the right and you can bet on the game,” Feldman said. “But our counterargument is: It’s a developed betting culture. There’s no stigma attached. It’s social—they bet with friends. A certain portion of money is set aside for gambling, and there’s been no innovation in gambling there in twenty years. A whole new game can come in.”
Exactly what distinguishes a game of skill from a game of chance in this country is decided at the state level, and FanDuel and DraftKings currently prohibit residents of Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and Washington from playing for money. A panel of the F.S.T.A. conference was devoted to discussing lobbying efforts in those remaining states, as well as praising the “crown jewel,” UIGEA, and monitoring the national political scene, where the presumption seems to be that further Republican success could be bad for business. “One senator is all it takes,” an association member told me, noting that “there are a lot of conservative people who are against drinking, gambling, gay marriage.” Not that FanDuel, say, considers itself gambling, which, even if it were legal, might limit the platform’s populist appeal. But there are others who are clearly hoping that the growing popularity of daily fantasy can serve as a kind of stalking horse for outright sports betting, beyond Nevada.
Daily fantasy’s biggest ally among the major sports leagues is the highly regarded new N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver. Last November, Silver publicly committed his league to an equity stake in FanDuel: a strong demonstration of mainstream support. The next day, Silver published an Op-Ed in the Times, calling for something like the British model of legalizing and regulating sports betting. “Gambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States,” he wrote, and mentioned a high-end estimate of nearly four hundred billion dollars wagered illegally on sports each year. That figure would include most of your office March Madness pools, which, unlike fantasy sports, do in fact hinge on the outcome of individual games. Taking this money into account, a sports-entertainment industry that is often said to be the only thing keeping cable television afloat turns out to be even more indomitable.
Silver calls himself a “realist,” and implies that people who continue to believe that authentic sports fans merely root for the home team, with their eyes glued to the court, are in the grips of a different sort of fantasy, blinded from the thousands of people at any given game who already spend half the time staring at their phones—or at the Kiss Cam, or at the branded T-shirts launched from handheld cannons during every break in the action. We don’t watch basketball games; we watch portions of them. They would like those portions to be slightly larger.
Silver’s perspective helps explain what is perhaps the most surprising development in all this: the enthusiasm of the once pious Major League Baseball, which entered into a marketing partnership with DraftKings almost two years ago, in the summer of 2013. “In today’s world, we want a quicker reaction, a quicker culmination,” Bob Bowman, M.L.B.’s president for business and media, told me, and cited the fact that daily fantasy skews young, which is appealing to league executives as they contemplate the implications of cord-cutting, second screens, and other industry-disrupting habits of so-called digital natives. This is especially pertinent for baseball, which has the oldest fan base of the major team sports and has recently been contending with pace-of-play issues, flirting with the introduction of a pitch clock and other measures to keep games from dragging on.
Bowman brought up a fantasy game that his department developed in 2001, called Beat the Streak, referring to Joe DiMaggio’s record, set in 1941, of fifty-six consecutive games with at least one base hit. On the league’s Web site, you’d select a single batter from among the rosters scheduled to play each night. If he recorded a hit, your streak was activated. The next day, you’d choose again. The goal was to keep it going for fifty-seven days. Bowman suggested that it was, in a way, the progenitor of daily fantasy.
Beat the Streak was free to play, with a ten-thousand-dollar prize reserved for the first person to succeed. The prize went unclaimed. The following year, the game runners increased the prize to a hundred thousand dollars. In 2008, with no one yet having come closer than forty-nine days, they upped it to a million. A few years later, they introduced “mulligans”: anyone who’d established a streak of between five and fifteen games was welcome to shrug off a mistaken bet and keep counting upward, with no consequences, like a duffer ignoring a tee shot sliced into the woods. They also added a “double down” feature, allowing contestants to select pairs of batters, in the hope of besting DiMaggio in half the time. In September of 2012, they went all in, announcing Beat the Streak in a Day, an option of picking fifty-seven batters at once. A streak in name only—but now more popular than ever. The prize, still unclaimed, stands at $5.6 million.
“Baseball’s a vexing game,” Bowman said. “Whether because of Adam Silver’s Op-Ed, which has certainly developed a lot of interest, or daily fantasy, we’re all looking at a lot of things.” M.L.B. commissioned an independent study to assess how skill-based daily fantasy is, and, last week, sufficiently reassured, it announced a multi-year extension of its deal with DraftKings.
If fantasy sports are an “accelerant” of fandom, as Adam Silver says, it may be only natural that the fantasy games have been accelerating. “We went from season-long to daily, and I figure the next step is in-game,” a civil engineer named Dan Cook told me over breakfast at the Bellagio. “That’s where it’s obviously headed.” He produced his iPhone and began to demonstrate his app, Fanamana (pronounced “phenomena”). “Our thing is you can’t even start to play until after the first pitch,” he said.
Fanamana’s premise is that even daily fantasy is too passive a form of fan engagement, in the mobile era, and that waiting for statistics to accumulate can ultimately be of interest only to an analytically minded subset of the population. The app provides you with an “on-deck circle,” a list of batters in the starting lineups of all the baseball games currently under way, and you select up to three of them, to create your own micro-lineup. As each batter comes up in the real games, his success or failure is applied to your virtual team on the app. A triple followed by a strikeout and then a walk leaves you with one out and runners on first and third. A strikeout followed by a walk and then a triple gives you a 1–0 lead. And so on—until three outs have ended your inning. Games last three, six, or nine innings, depending on your preference. No need to worry about pitchers.
Like several people I met in Las Vegas, Cook believed that Dan Okrent’s initial concern about a weakening of ties between fans and their favorite teams was being borne out. We found ourselves reminiscing about the great Yankees-Red Sox rivalry of a decade ago, and how it was hard to imagine anything like that tribal intensity returning in the near future. But he proposed that a larger, almost utopian gain was being made, in the form of a perfectly optimized season. What he and the other entrepreneurs were doing, he said, was “aggregating live events and creating user-generated content.” And with enough live-action games being spun off of the occasionally listless action on the field, and the introduction of money, where necessary, to raise the stakes, every pitch of every game would soon be of great consequence to some thousands of digital gamers, somewhere.
It just might not be obvious inside the stadium itself—which, I soon learned from a friend of Cook’s, Jon Goldstein, was due for some rethinking anyway. Goldstein has invested in old movie theatres in and around Detroit, in an attempt to revive another disrupted business. The fan of the not too distant future, Goldstein said, will want better telecom service within the stadiums so that he can follow his fantasy teams at the same time as he is watching the game. “You’ll have an iPad mounted into the seat, and on that iPad you’ll have the RedZone channel,” he said. “Can you imagine? I pay, I can lean back, I can sit, and I can be in my living room—but in the stadium. That’s what we’re doing in the theatres.”
What explains the temptation to make games of the watching of games? Last month, I joined Fantasy Iditarod, and the two or three hours that I spent compiling my team of Alaskan dog mushers were a nirvana of pure concentration. I had twenty-seven thousand “dollars” to spend on seven sled drivers, whose “salaries” were calibrated such that you couldn’t just stock up on favorites and former champions. The process reminded me of something Dan Okrent said, when describing what he called the “one, overriding positive contribution” that Rotisserie baseball had made to the actual sport, which was that, after you started playing, “you knew the twenty-third guy on the roster of a team that you never followed—a reserve infielder on the Brewers, who has a face, and a personality, and who’s doing something on a regular basis that you can track.” And so it was that I came to learn about Chuck Schaeffer, a sixty-year-old Army veteran from Kotzebue, north of the Arctic Circle, who had twice before, more than twenty years ago, tried and failed to traverse the snowy thousand-mile trail and was now coming back for one final attempt. I scooped him up for a thousand bucks.
The gamification of fandom is alluring because it provides an application for the things you’ve learned—or think you’ve learned—in the course of wasting so much time that could have been spent reading Proust, or playing with your kids, or donating blood. It’s a hedge against existential despair, a measurable opportunity to “succeed” at what might otherwise be called futility. I went to Alaska on assignment a couple of years ago, to see the Iditarod in person, and was sufficiently transfixed by the new sporting subculture that I’ve continued to follow its developments from afar. Yet nobody in my daily life, some eighteen hundred miles below the Arctic Circle, shares this interest or is likely to be impressed by my gut sense that Nicolas Petit, from France, was a steal at four thousand dollars—as, indeed, he proved to be!
But it was a good thing I had no real money on the line. I went to bed, on the second night of the week-and-a-half-long race, in two-hundred-and-fifth place (out of around eleven hundred: not bad) and woke up in seven-hundred-and-third, with no hope of recovery. One of my costliest investments had been disqualified, the equivalent of a season-ending injury. My consumption of Iditarod-related media nose-dived in the days that followed. I no longer had a stake in Chuck Schaeffer’s comeback ride and scarcely noticed when he finished. What I needed, clearly, was for FanDuel to add daily fantasy mushing to its slate of options.
FanDuel and DraftKings sometimes host in-person events, for which people qualify online. Frequent players are able to match faces to screen names (3rd_and_schlong, for instance, turns out to be Bryce Mauro, a junior at DePauw University, in Indiana) while eating and drinking on the company dime and generally being treated like stars in their own right, rather than superfans. These events tend to have the biggest purses—in football, where the action is heaviest, a million or more for first prize is not uncommon—and to take place, like the F.S.T.A. conference, in Las Vegas. Or, in the case of a FanDuel basketball event held in Los Angeles on a Saturday night in February, at the Playboy Mansion.
The Playboy Basketball Championship generated considerable excitement within the industry, because the eventual winner, pmiles, was a working married mother. She offered hope for what is known as the “ecosystem” problem—too many sharks scaring away the fish—which presents a threat to rival any moralizing senator. As Dan Cook put it, “If I want to play tennis and Pete Sampras shows up, that’s no fun.”
Pam Miles, who is fifty-one, works in the accounting department of a small oil-field company outside Houston. “I’m a numbers person,” she said when we spoke, shortly after she’d cashed FanDuel’s hundred-thousand-dollar check, which she planned to spend on having “the pool redone” and on other home-improvement projects. She began playing daily fantasy football last Thanksgiving, on the recommendation of the older of her two adult sons. Post-turkey, she created a FanDuel account and deposited a hundred dollars, which she hadn’t had to re-up in the months since. She’d qualified for the basketball championship on the basis of her football prowess. “I haven’t watched basketball in years,” she said, because it’s “too demanding on your time,” in contrast with football’s manageable Sunday-afternoon concentration. “There’s so many games, and they’re late at night.”
She crammed for three weeks, learning the difference between a center and a power forward, and ultimately produced a ten-inch stack of research papers. Her primary strategy was to avoid picking superstars, because of the risk that they might wind up resting on the bench in the event of a runaway victory. She saw her indifference to the sport as an advantage. “In football, I avoid every player from the Dallas Cowboys, because I really don’t like them,” she said. “But in basketball I don’t have any favorites, so it’s easy not to have any biases.”
Championship qualifiers were entitled to plus-ones, so Miles brought her husband of thirty-five years, an auto mechanic who enjoys sports on a nonstatistical level. While they were being bused from their hotel to the mansion, she received a text from her son, recommending that she sub in Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans star, who was on an apparent hot streak. She balked. “I got lucky,” she said, and hesitated, before adding, “Maybe I shouldn’t use that word. It was intuition.” Davis hurt his shoulder in the first half of the Pelicans-Bulls game and never returned, dooming more than half of the seventy Playboy entrants, Muntradamus among them.
Miles was hovering in the top ten for much of the evening. She surged to the top when the Mavericks-Trailblazers game went into overtime and a couple of midlist Mavericks she’d selected, Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons, suddenly morphed into Jordan and Pippen, scoring thirteen of the team’s fifteen points. Here, it seemed, was the kind of thrill-inducing drama that Nigel Eccles has in mind when he talks about changing the way we consume sports. If only Miles had been paying attention. “I didn’t watch any of the sports that night,” she said. The stakes were too great, and the fluctuating prospects were too tense to bear. “I didn’t want that roller coaster.”
The highlight of the F.S.T.A. conference was the elevator-pitch competition, in which two dozen entrepreneurs were allotted three minutes each to impress their colleagues with their visions of the fantasy future. Nigel Eccles had won in 2009, I kept hearing. Dan Cook’s Fanamana had won in 2013. Some of the new presentations were more modest in scope, focussing on streamlining the path between a swipe of your thumb and a swelling of your bank balance, and it dawned on me that fantasy sports have followed much the same trajectory as online dating, beginning with an attempt to simulate something complex and building toward a simpler and more immediate payoff. “Envision what it would be like to spend more time with family and friends,” said the proprietor of Fantasy Sports Edge, an app that automatically replaces injured players in your lineup with the best available alternatives, sparing you the trouble of scouring the wires for breaking medical news. Or, better yet: “Let us do the research and you do the winning.” So said Travis Spieth, the founder of Fantasy Picks, and the first FanDuel user ever to win a million dollars. “Our slogan is ‘Win in ten,’ ” Spieth explained. “You can see our lineups in less than ten seconds, and if you spend longer than ten minutes on our Web site in a day you’ve spent too much.”
A more provocative entry came from Alexandria Bolton and Joe Hicks, of Million Dollar Fantasy Sports—a reference to the cost of participating. “We’re looking for thirty-two affluent team owners,” Hicks said. “Or maybe you’re a fantasy wizard with a wealthy uncle who would want to stake you.” They described a hedge fund, with plans to invest in distressed real estate, oil and gas, and “other low-risk, high-return opportunities,” as Hicks put it. The brilliant gimmick was that the fund would be seeded by people playing fantasy football, for cash prizes that would come from the annual returns. As a distillation of contemporary sports-fan aspirations, this seemed a fitting progression. Dan Okrent, having long since abandoned the dream of suiting up for the Tigers, had imagined how he might have served as their general manager. A quarter century later, via the Moneyball revolution, people not unlike Okrent were actually becoming G.M.s. And now that fantasy sports themselves were awash in money it stood to reason that their participants might see themselves as future Mark Cubans, not Theo Epsteins. Also, Million Dollar Fantasy Sports was, oddly, truer to real life. “Even if you finish in dead last, you can still make a great return on your investment,” Bolton said. Hicks later suggested to me that, with the returns they hoped for, you could pocket two hundred grand just for playing—just for membership in the élite club of owners. (They have since abandoned the project.)
My personal rooting interest was in Muntradamus. Munter told me that he’d hoped to find an outlet for blending the creative and the analytical sides of his personality. He called his game Beast Franchise, and he spent the weekend practicing his pitch on anyone within range. At the FanDuel party, I’d seen him plead with one of the company’s employees for a shot—it’d be his third, evidently—at pitching Nigel Eccles directly. From across the ballroom, during breaks, I’d see him pacing and gesticulating, sometimes to no one in particular. His idea was almost retro, in its emphasis on the role of the manager in setting a batting order, rather than on efficient roster construction. No salary cap. Just choose the best lineup you can think of. The order holds your fate.
“What’s beautiful about Beast Franchise is that no two Matt Hollidays are the same,” Munter said, using the St. Louis Cardinals slugger as an example. “Also, every at-bat is epic!” He proposed a scenario in which your leadoff batter is playing on Pacific Coast time, while Matt Holliday, your second batter, is playing out east. Holliday hits a home run, and now you have to wait a couple of hours to see whether, for your purposes, it’ll count as a solo shot or a two-run blast. It was the kind of inspired idea that might occur only to someone whose daily routine involves watching games through a progression of time zones, in search of continuous engagement.
Alas, Beast Franchise was voted runner-up, defeated by Celebrity Fantasy Draft, “the fantasy game for those people who would rather watch E! than ESPN.” Even the most avid sports fans need a break sometimes. ♦
For many in the US, the end of summer means the start of the American football season. Along with the usual cookouts, beach outings, and pool parties, some will be celebrating this Labor Day weekend hosting draft parties for their fantasy football leagues.
Fantasy football—in which grown men and women pretend to be the owners of imaginary professional sports teams on the internet—is a particularly American phenomenon, a form of sports gambling built out of a loophole in the law that normally bans such betting. It’s a growing industry, estimated to be worth more than $7 billion a year in the US and Canada and to have 59 million players, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
That includes free leagues on sports sites like Yahoo Sports and ESPN, as well as the daily fantasy football sites like DraftKings and FanDuel that offer big payouts for weekly contests during the season. DraftKings is offering players the chance to win up to $1 billion during the first week of match ups alone.
So, how do all these services make money?
DraftKings and FanDuel
Daily fantasy football sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, which offer fantasy players the chance to win NFL-sized payouts, earn most of their revenue by charging fees to participate in their cash-prize contests and taking a cut. FanDuel takes a cut of around 10%, for example, and the rest of the fees help fund the payouts. Gamblers call this cuta “rake.”
Unlike average fantasy-football leagues, where each team drafts a roster of NFL players that they stick with throughout the season, these sites offer new contests weekly. They require little commitment on the player’s part, and give DraftKings and FanDuel more opportunities to collect fees, if they can keep people coming back.
The business model seemed to be working for awhile. In 2015, DraftKings and FanDuel reportedly brought in a combined $3 billion from entry fees. But the sites also hemorrhaged money on marketing, lobbying the government, and fighting legal and regulatory battles.
Last year, they began looking into other revenue sources like advertising, and co-produced videos with brands and sold tournament sponsorships, Bloomberg reported. DraftKings brought in $160 million that year and made a $92 million loss, Axios reported.
CBS, Yahoo, and ESPN
Advertising is also how sites like Yahoo Sports, ESPN, and NFL.com support their free fantasy-sports leagues. The leagues also drive more traffic (and thus ad revenue) to those websites’ other pages: If your fantasy team is on ESPN, you’re more likely to visit ESPN for stats and other updates.
Some also use the free leagues to tempt people into paying for extra services. CBS Sports, for example, has a free league option and a version, normally priced at $180, that includes customizable options and allows for more teams.
Sites like FanDuel and Yahoo Sports aren’t the only businesses to benefit from the growing fantasy sports industry. The average adult player is expected to spend around $556 a year on things like entry fees, prizes, league materials such as boards for the “draft” (when teams pick their players), and draft and viewing parties in 2017, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Read next: The bizarre, multibillion-dollar industry of American fantasy sports