Sloan Analytics Conference Makes Daily Fantasy Sports Trending Topic

Fantasy Sports Lands in Crosshairs at Sloan Analytics Conference; Expert Says DFS Is ‘Essentially Gambling’

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Daily fantasy sports were a hot topic at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, from its status as a skill game to its future in the major sports leagues like Major League Baseball.

A story at FoxSports.com from Todd Fuhrman said that the increased dialogue about sports gambling and daily fantasy sports was his biggest takeaway from Sloan. And it was a buzzword, too, according to some attendees:

So what exactly were people saying at Sloan?

‘It’s Essentially Gambling’

One would think that fantasy sports would get a lot of love at a place like Sloan. After all, fantasy sports are for people who love statistics (although the ones used in fantasy sports aren’t of the advanced analytic type that have been used to transform the sports landscape).

But tenXer CEO Jeff Ma — of MIT blackjack team fame — had this to say at Sloan: “Daily fantasy sports… it’s essentially gambling.” And in an interview afterwards: “You’re putting money on the line to win more money. What’s that called?”

Of course, he’s talking in practical terms, not legal terms, as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act has a carveout that differentiates it from gambling, calling it a game of skill. That legal status has been a touchy subject in the world of daily fantasy sports, and Ma’s comments are just the latest that have called DFS’ status into question.

A story at fivethirtyeight.com on Sloan also backs up Ma’s view that DFS is gambling. At the same time, stories like this one from ESPN’s David Purdum — the sports site’s top writer on sports gambling — makes a pretty good case for it being a game of skill.

No matter what you think fantasy is, the comments from Sloan illustrate that despite the current law, not everyone is buying that DFS is not sports betting at its core.

MLB Commish on Fantasy

New Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke on a number of topics at the conference, and sports betting and fantasy sports were a part of the discussion.

There weren’t any bombshells on this front — after all, he discussed betting and fantasy sports in a Washington Post story last month. Still, there was a little bit different spin this time around.

Here is what Manfred had to say about fantasy, according to a story at Covers.com:

We try to maintain a pretty clear line between what we see as fantasy products on the one hand and what we see as gambling on the other.  I think fantasy is an important part of fan engagement. I think it’s particularly important for young fans. And I think it’s an area where we need to do a better job.

Our difficulty is that our fantasy products need to evolve in a way that they don’t require quite the 162-game, 183-day commitment that the traditional fantasy crowd might not.

I think we need to develop games that require a less constant commitment. We know guys who play fantasy who are so into it they don’t have time for their real jobs. It’s a big time commitment and I think it’s important to have games that have a little less of a commitment.

Manfred framed the discussion about DFS in a way that many in the industry do: daily fantasy doesn’t take up as much time as its seasonlong counterpart. In reality, to be really good at DFS, you need to spend a lot of time setting lineups. If you played DFS every day, you would be devoting more time to it than seasonlong leagues.

But, still, if you want to just play a few contests here and there, you aren’t committing to a fantasy team for months at a time. And the DFS industry should probably be excited that a commissioner of a major sports league gets that concept.

Pro tips

One of the panels at Sloan was dedicated entirely to fantasy sports. “Tips from a DraftKings Pro” featured Jason Robins, CEO of DraftKings, and Peter Jennings, a pro who has made a lot of money playing DFS.

While fantasy sports are based on “counting stats” — which aren’t the currency of people that use analytics — the panelists described how the best players use analytics to get an edge against their competition. For instance, inefficiencies in players’ salary cap values are a major way DFS pros gain an edge over amateur players.

We’re guessing Jennings didn’t give away most of his trade secrets — but he did provide a lot of nuggets that would help fantasy players. And the panel provided some counterpoint at Sloan to Ma’s “DFS is gambling” stance.

Dustin Gouker
- Dustin Gouker has been a sports journalist for more than 15 years, working as a reporter, editor and designer -- including stops at The Washington Post and the D.C. Examiner.
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