FANALYTICS: Fantasy baseball 2020

When I go on radio interviews, I am occasionally asked where I think the fantasy industry will be five years from now. In the past, I'd give a canned response that dealt with some sort of advancing technology. That was always a safe answer because really, who the heck knows what is going to happen in five years?

As I get more and more cynical with age, my answer has become less and less measured: "The future of fantasy? Easy. Follow the money." Read the below well-summarized commentary from last November in THE WEEK Magazine; you don't have to look very far to see where the future is heading...

“Adam Silver is a genius,” said Hunter Felt in TheGuardian.com. The NBA commissioner has secured his reputation “as the most forward-thinking commissioner in major pro sports” by proposing, in a column in The New York Times last week, that federal law be changed to legalize sports gambling. Up to now, all pro sports had been adamantly opposed to legalizing gambling on their games out of fear it would lead to bribery of players and referees to throw games. But Silver pointed out that an estimated $400 billion is already being illegally wagered on sports every year and called on Congress to pass legislation allowing all 50 states—and not just Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon—to bring the practice “out of the underground and into the sunlight.” “Left unsaid was how much money the leagues and their owners stand to make,” said Ken Belson in The New York Times. More gambling will generate more interest in non-descript games, which leads to higher TV ratings and more revenue. Plus, if leagues get a slice of the 10 percent cut that bookies take for handling bets, it could bring in billions in new revenue.

Still, Congress is unlikely to act on Silver’s proposal, said Travis Waldron in ThinkProgress.org. Major sports leagues “have a long and sordid history with gambling,” dating back to when the Chicago “Black Sox” threw the 1919 World Series. In the 1970s, there was a point-shaving scandal in NCAA basketball, and in 2008, ex-NBA ref Tim Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months for betting on games he officiated. That’s what makes Silver’s sudden reversal so troubling, said CSMonitor.com in an editorial. Pro athletes and their sports wield tremendous influence, especially with children. If the NBA and other leagues endorse gambling—and then proceed to profit from it—it will undermine the integrity of their sports, and tell fans that the point spreads are as important as who wins or loses.

Let’s drop the hypocrisy, said Tim Dahlberg in the Associated Press. With modern players’ salaries in the stratosphere, “fears of shadowy bookies fixing games are long outdated.” How do you bribe a player making $10 million a year? Laws against gambling do little more than “funnel billions of dollars to organized crime,” said Alex Reimer in BostonHerald.com. Americans today enjoy access to all sorts of vices, from alcohol to marijuana. “There’s no reason why sports betting should be any different.”

 

And then there's daily fantasy sports (DFS). While technically legal, my column last week described an activity with a strong smell of gambling.

It used to be that Major League Baseball would do everything in its power to keep a safe distance from that stink. As recently as 15 years ago, they'd have nothing to do with even traditional, full-season fantasy for fear of any perceived gambling connection.

And up until two years ago, they still kept up defenses, proclaiming that DFS was "akin to a flip of the coin, which is the definition of gambling." Their 180-degree turnaround since then has sent a clear message. When it comes to tradition, continuity, credibility and even the moralism and ethics upon which the game was founded... money trumps everything. I know—no great revelation here. But it's still astounding the lengths that MLB has gone to almost make Pete Rose viable again. And a hearty "thank you!" to Fox Sports for prying that door open.

So, between MLB's actions and the possible push to legalize gambling in general, I wonder what the true driving force for the future will be. Will it be the marketplace setting the course, or will it be MLB's cash obsession that molds the marketplace?

Let's fantasize where this could be headed...

By 2020, we'll be sitting in casino sportsbooks, watching our players on our own private screens as the crawl feed shows where our daily fantasy lineup stands in real time. We'll be able to swap players into and out of our lineup at any time, paying a small fee for the right to increase our odds of improving. Those odds appear on the screen and are updated continuously.

In the right sidebar will be a list of players due up in the current inning—all players in all ongoing games—along with their stats up to that point in the game, the odds of a hit or out in their upcoming at-bat and the cost for you to add them to your roster. Those odds change in real time. In games where you are playing against other people instead of the house, the cost to swap in a particular player will be based on the level of activity on that player.

Of course, you won't need to be sitting in sports books to take part of the action, because the entire game is easily downloadable as an app to your smartphone or tablet. You will be playing real-time DFS while in your car or on the can.

MLB will also be running these games in huge lounges at every ballpark (I swear I wrote this before the Redskins announced their FanDuel Lounge at FedEx Field [Confirmed—Ed.]), and in officially licensed off-site locations. The fantasy lounges at the ballparks will become such popular places that game broadcasts will often show huge swaths of empty seats. After all, the game on the field hardly matters any more; the DFS lounges become the focal point of the MLB experience.

Then why even come to the ballpark? Because naturally, MLB will be offering free admission to any seat in the park if you make an equally-priced deposit into your fantasy account for the game. All seats will have seat-back monitors, broadcasting game-time action and ongoing DFS odds from every game except the one you're sitting at. You can't bet on that game because, well, that would be gambling.

And here is where it gets really interesting...

How about crowd-sourced in-game decisions? Not possible? But what if game attendees can use their phone to punch in their decision and get charged $1.99 for the power to affect the game outcome?

In order to maintain the perception that games were still controlled by the field manager, these crowd-sourced decisions would be limited to situations where the odds were skewed in favor of the manager's choice anyway. Time to bring in a reliever to face a left-handed batter? The crowd gets a two-choice screen that offers up the top southpaw and a far lesser righty.

Or better, decisions that have little effect on the game outcome. Cincy is up 6-1 in the 9th inning? Let's vote on whether Billy Hamilton should try to steal. You know damn well how that vote will go because half the stadium just added Hamilton to their DFS lineup.

That would never happen, right? But what if the action returned $1,000 each to five random fans? That's plenty incentive for even casual fans to randomly drop $1.99 once or twice per game. If each game could draw 10,000 entries, that's potentially $15,000 of free money for each crowd-sourced decision per game. That's $1.2M over the course of the season.

Yes, following the money can lead us down plenty of bizarre paths. But we don't have to imagine scenes of science fiction to observe the impact that the quest for cash is already having.

There is a pervading sentiment at the highest levels that interest in baseball and full-season fantasy is in decline, which is what is pushing the investment in DFS. It is almost as if they believe that fantasy sports is a zero-sum marketplace, that we can only grow one piece at the expense of another. While I recognize that there is going to be some migration from full-season to DFS, are we not still growing the pie as a whole? (Yes, we are!) And isn't full-season fantasy still 90% of the market? (Yes, it is!) We geezers are not going anywhere yet.

Still, industry companies are adding—and unfortunately, sometimes diverting—resources, be it dollars, support or coverage, to the promise of DFS profit. For instance, you are probably already seeing how the media is devoting more and more space to DFS. You can't listen to a program on SiriusXM Fantasy without the conversation derailing to DFS talk. Airtime is a zero-sum game, so the increase in DFS does infringe on the coverage of other formats.

It makes sense from the media's perspective. In addition to the popularity of the format itself, DFS lends itself to more intensive analysis each day, which fills more airtime. If Clayton Kershaw is pitching tonight, there is not a lot to say for those in full-season leagues; he's active. In DFS, there is all new analysis about his opponent and whether he is worth the cost in these salary cap contests. But that DFS airtime spent on Kershaw is time taken away from full-season analyses involving lesser players.

The numbers speak for themselves. This is how FanDuel and DraftKings rank in web traffic over the past three years (thanks to alexa.com):

Traffic Rank Among All Websites
as of Mid-April of Each Year
(in thousands)

Year    FanDuel    DraftKings
----    -------    ----------
2013       31          96 (merged with DraftStreet, ranked 60)
2014       10          19 
2015        4           5

Is it no wonder that DFS is shaping fantasy sports right now?

For the past 30 years, I've been watching this industry with fascination, as it cycled through growth spurts and consolidations. You might not always see the changes in your own private fantasy league, but change is ever-present behind the scenes, constantly coloring our experience. It is more prevalent today than it's ever been, now driven by an unstoppable force spelled D-F-S.

And yet, amidst all the change and chaos, the traditional Rotisserie game still survives.

For me personally, that's great comfort. Just like it's a great comfort that I can always go to the ballpark as a traditional fan, taking in the sun, and enjoying my hot dog and beer.

When I go to the park, I don't expect to come home with more money than I came with.

 


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.