LSR Q+A: ‘Dueling With Kings’ Author Daniel Barbarisi On Daily Fantasy Sports Scrutiny

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Daniel Barbarisi, author of the pre-eminent retelling of the rise of daily fantasy sports, sat down with LSR to discuss his thoughts on states revisiting the industry’s overlap with sports betting a decade later.

In his book Dueling with Kings, Dan recounts his experience learning from professional DFS players, all the while governments scrambled to put guardrails on a burgeoning new industry.

As legal sports betting takes off years later, the emergence of a pick’em DFS, where users predict athletes to go either over or under a given statistical projection, has states revisiting their fantasy laws.

LSR: How much has the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to legalize sports betting impacted DFS?

Barbarisi: Nobody realized it was going to happen so fast. DraftKings and FanDuel were on these 10-year plans for DFS, thinking maybe in 2025, we start to see some progress on sports betting. Then, boom, it just happens before anyone really expected it to.

That created this gold rush, with companies ramping up faster than they thought they would have to. That means operators of all sizes pushing the envelope on what they’re allowed to do. And I think we’ve seen that, certainly, with smaller operators attempting to get sports betting products regulated as DFS.

I don’t fault them for trying to get what they can in each state, but that creates this patchwork. It is all over the place in terms of which state is more lenient or where it’s a gray area. I understand it’s been left to the states to decide, but it really would be best to have some federal framework in place.

What do you think DraftKings and FanDuel learned from the pushback when they were getting off the ground with DFS?

Barbarisi: I think they learned that if you push the envelope and establish yourself on a state level, you can survive. If you become big enough, it’s hard to get rid of you. You have to make sure the public believes there is no appearance of impropriety. And if you become important enough, states are more prone to deal with your lobbyists.

I don’t blame DraftKings or FanDuel for not being on some of these other companies’ sides. They don’t see themselves as in the same boat anymore. They were very aggressive for a long time without any question, but they operate under different rules than they did back then. Those companies are pushing the envelope in a different way.

What does the future of daily fantasy sports look like with sports betting on the rise?

Barbarisi: DFS was always going to be a niche thing because it’s hard to play. It’s fairly optimized, and you’re playing against experts for the most part now. There are massive resources out there to help people be good at it. The companies know how to optimize it, so there aren’t necessarily holes unless they want there to be.

(That is) versus a sports bet, which is a much simpler, casual experience. It’s probably harder in the long term because you’re going against the house, but it’s much easier to pick up and more appealing to most people. The companies certainly understand that. 

Is that why pick’em, which some states see as sports betting, has taken off?

Barbarisi: I don’t think DFS is going anywhere yet because you still have half the states without online betting. To me, pick’em fills that void. I think those companies are flying a little too close to the sun and will eventually get burned. It may impact some legitimate DFS operations too.

Under the origins of DFS, the basic idea is you are trying to build a team and compete against other people building teams. When you have essentially none of those two elements and are throwing two or more players together and competing against the house, I don’t see how you can call that even a downstream version of DFS.

With what DraftKings and Underdog have done moving to peer-to-peer, maybe that satisfies states for now, but again every state is different and it seems like another example of operators pushing to see what they can get away with.

How much of the debate goes back to the original fantasy laws and the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006?

Barbarisi: It’s funny because we’ve gotten so far past that and so many states have their own individual written stuff on fantasy now. I think a lot of operators have just decided we’re going to see what we can get away with and we’re going to see if regulators have the appetite for going after us.

To me, you look at these games, and there’s just no way they’re not essentially prop betting. You’re not building a fantasy lineup. Not everyone is doing the same thing, but I’d think that regulators are going to knock some of them out. If you don’t, then where does it stop?

Is it surprising to see so many states take action against daily fantasy sports again?

Barbarisi: It may be tied to the rise of sports betting generally, but there’s been perhaps too much of an attempt to push the envelope. But I think sports betting has its own pushback coming in the next few years.

States are never going to like giving a little and then seeing companies do more than they intended. And it may be that we’re just starting to see that pushback begin with DFS variance.

It’s a cycle. I think the companies have learned that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but the whole industry is going to have deal with this.