For many, the repeal of PASPA heralded not just the starting gun for regulated US sports betting, but the death knell of daily fantasy sports.
After all, if DFS was sports betting for those who couldn’t bet sports, why would anyone stick around when the real thing arrived?
That’s pushing the argument to the extreme of course, but plenty thought DFS would decline as sports betting grew.
The narrative was helped of course by the gradual winnowing of just about every competitor to FanDuel and DraftKings. At ‘peak DFS’ in 2015, there were something like 80 DFS start-ups in various forms. By 2018, that was down to around five.
And of course even the leaders like FanDuel and DraftKings have re-positioned their business around sports betting.
It was something of a surprise, then, to see a flurry of news from second-wave paid fantasy platforms in the buildup to NFL betting season.
Daily fantasy sports companies making a splash
Monkey Knife Fight, which claims to be the third-largest daily fantasy company in the US, inked partnerships with five MLB teams and three NFL teams.
Atlanta-based PrizePicks then announced deals of its own with two MLB teams, and closed an $850,000 bridge raise including investment from poker pro Phil Hellmuth. Elsewhere, fantasy survivor game StatHero announced a “multi-million dollar” raise.
And arguably the biggest splash of all was made by the launch of Underdog Fantasy, built by the old DRAFT team, with an investor list that included Mark Cuban and Adam Schefter.
It all suggests there’s a bit more money and optimism floating around the paid fantasy industry than some thought.
So what’s going on? Are investors and customers buying into a true second wave of DFS?
DFS interest back on the rise
Adam Wexler, CEO of PrizePicks owner Performance Predictions, said the company posted a record month in August as sports returned, and a record weekend on NFL Week 1.
That suggests players are still interested. As for funding, Wexler said:
Ever since PASPA, investor interest has been slowly but surely coming back. It’s been tough to see some of the valuations in the public market for these sports betting companies and not have access to that as a smaller private company. But appetite is coming back and this DFS deal between ESPN and DraftKings will trickle down.
What’s interesting, though, is that an investment in a DFS firm now is almost a long play on sports betting. FanDuel and DraftKings lead the US sports betting market because they had experience in operating in the US, experienced tech teams, and a database of players who wanted to wager money on sporting events.
Taking from a successful playbook
In essence, that is what companies like MKF and Underdog are building now. And these companies are focusing on states like California, Texas and Florida, where sports betting legislation faces material hurdles.
“Those three states are our largest markets,” said Jeremy Levine, founder and Chairman of Underdog. “When sports betting opens in California, we’ll have 30,000 users. And every other sportsbook except FanDuel and DraftKings will have zero.”
A majority of states in the US don’t have sports betting yet. That’s a huge audience who see all the sports betting chatter and want a legal way to wager on events.
Can we all get along?
For Levine, the spread of sports betting is lifting fantasy rather than edging it out.
“Predicting sports for money is what we do in America,” Levine said. “There’s no separation. We’ve seen that in betting states like New Jersey and we’re seeing that in our own player base now. Statistically, fantasy hasn’t dipped in legal sports betting markets.”
Remember also that even in most sports betting states, bookmakers can’t accept players until they’re 21. That give fantasy firms a three-year head-start in attracting that coveted younger demographic.
Multiple paths to profit
So,for a paid fantasy company that can successfully attract and retain customers in a state like California, what’s next? They could sell up to a betting company, like Levine’s previous company DRAFT. Or they could pivot and pick up licenses themselves.
For StatHero, the long-term plan is indeed to pivot into sports betting and launch a sportsbook.
“We can’t compete with FanDuel and DraftKings on a level playing field, they just have too much marketing power,” said StatHero founder Jason Jaramillo. “But we can build an engaged audience and leverage that. I think every company’s goal is to make that switch and have enough active users to make it work.”
That said, Jaramillo points out investors are sold on the fantasy survivor business, rather than the long-term betting play.
Regardless of the route, there’s a lot of value to be created for companies, especially without bearing some of the rigors of the sports betting industry like market-access agreements.
And that doesn’t mean fantasy itself is not important. After all, you can’t build the database in the first place if the product is no good.
As Levine puts it: “Our business is way more valuable because sports betting is legal. We are building value from our customers playing fantasy. But the things we are building parlay extremely well into sports betting.”
Would Levine have started a second fantasy company if sports betting didn’t exist?
“No,” he said.
Can daily fantasy sports and betting co-exist?
Is daily fantasy sports still just a placeholder for sports betting? Levine believes the two can co-exist as part of the same ecosystem. And Wexler is bullish that DFS will be around for years to come, but perhaps in a more rec player-friendly format.
“I think DFS is primed for a big decade,” Wexler said. “You give us a whole decade, as sports betting rolls out, and access to capital and we’ll continue to grow. But I don’t think salary cap will be the ultimate format. It was a matter of two companies in a dogfight to educate the market about that format. But that doesn’t mean it’s the endgame.”
Whether it’s a single-player fantasy like PrizePicks, season-long games like BestBall, or salary cap, it seems DFS isn’t going anywhere soon. For the savvy investor looking at the long game, it may just be a smarter option than sports betting.