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Speculation on a possible surge in popularity for daily fantasy sports in the United Kingdom has long existed. But until recently, there has been little evidence that such a spike was in the works.
That surge may be upon us now.
In February, DraftKings launched in the U.K. and London-based Dribble released the app for its mobile-only DFS soccer game. The companies join a small list already operating in the U.K., including Isle of Man-based Mondogoal, which became the first DFS operator in the U.K. when it launched its soccer-only DFS site ahead of the 2014 World Cup. (Mondogoal partners with Yahoo.) Oulala is another licensed UK fantasy sports operator.
Considering the quick rise of daily fantasy sports in the U.S., and the subsequent regulatory and legal morass, now may seem like an odd time for interest in DFS elsewhere.
But Rupert Brenninkmeijer, co-founder of Dribble, said that such a lag is not altogether unusual in the U.K.
“History tells us that U.K. can be slower to adopt new trends and markets than the U.S.,” said Rupert Brenninkmeijer, co-founder of Dribble. “The U.K. will focus resources on traditional markets until the U.S. has proven real growth. This has definitely happened, since the DFS market in the U.S. saw explosive growth in 2014.
A lack of investment has also slowed a DFS industry from sparking, said Shergul Arshad, CEO and founder of Mondogoal.
Arshad, who is critical of many of the investors for U.S.-based DFS products, said he actively searched for U.S. investors to help launch Mondogoal. But he was rebuffed, in many cases, because investors shied away from a legal sports betting environment that would require the sites to apply for a license.
“We kept telling them (legal sports betting in the U.K.) was our key advantage and differentiator,” Arshad said. “Now that the U.S. sites are being shut down in many states, and are getting licenses overseas for gambling, are those investors divesting?”
One clear reason why DFS quickly gained a following in the U.S. is that season-long fantasy sports have long been popular.
Conventional fantasy sports — particularly soccer — have a significant following in the United Kingdom, too. An estimated 8.5 million season-long fantasy players already exist in the U.K..
“(Fantasy sports are) massively popular,” Arshad said. “The newspapers have been all running fantasy football since the early 1990s. I myself have played fantasy football via La Gazzetta Dello Sport for over 25 years (Arshad is from Florence, Italy). Some estimate over 10 million in the U.K. play some form of fantasy sports.”
And it appears that plenty in the U.K. are intrigued by DFS.
Soccer also fosters a massive audience for sports betting. According to the BBC, 70 percent of the nearly $1 trillion that is estimated to be bet on sports legally and illegally around the world is wagered on soccer.
With 40 million soccer fans, 30 million gamblers and 9 million fantasy players in the U.K., Brenninkmeijer said: “The market is there for the taking. But someone has to spend big money to raise the awareness.”
A key difference between the U.S. and the U.K., is that in the U.K. sports betting is widely legal in an industry worth billions.
That means that DFS operators not only need to compete against their direct competitors, but indirectly against legal books and online gaming sites.
Brenninkmeijer said that the entertainment value helps differentiate DFS enough to attract customers.
“Unlike traditional betting, DFS offers a new experience for players, while also offering financial reward,” Brenninkmeijer said. “You build a team and get enveloped in the sport, rather than pushing a button to place a bet on the outcome. There is more fun in building a DFS lineup than there is placing a bet on 3-1 odds for Chelsea to beat Southampton.”
Besides, this is not a zero-sum game, Arshad said. Casinos all over the world are successful by offering a variety of games that will appeal to a wider swath of gamblers.
“This is analogous to roulette or blackjack — fast, low skill, analogous to sports betting — to poker or craps — involved, skill-based, takes time,” Arshad said. “All have found homes in casinos and are wildly popular.”
Mondogoal appears to have gained some mainstream acceptance. Like U.S. DFS companies, it too has secured partnerships with professional sports franchises, including Premier League clubs and clubs in Spain and Italy. Last year it also signed a deal with Yahoo to to help expand its reach.
And slowly investor money is beginning to make its way into overseas markets.
“Now that the U.S. has proven great results, the overseas market is starting to come alive,” Brenninkmeijer said.
In addition, what was once thought to be a hindrance may end up being a catalyst after months of regulatory battles in the U.S. In the end, the legal sports betting environment in the U.K. could be its greatest advantage.
“Mondogoal is 95 percent in the U.K., Ireland and Italy,” Arshad said. “While the U.S. takes the next 3 to 4 years to sort out DFS, we will be unencumbered to grow rapidly without the legal albatross. Not to mention hundreds of millions in debt towards advertising commitments.”
With a far more stable regulatory environment than the U.S., at least in the near-term, it seems inevitable that any success in the U.K. will eventually breed some success.