FanDuel doubles down on season-long fantasy football

Daniel Roberts
Writer
At a July 11, 2017 FanDuel event in New York City, there was an elephant in the room. (Getty)

FanDuel popularized the concept of “daily” fantasy sports in 2009, three years before the launch of DraftKings, its main rival. But now, in time for the Sept. 7 kickoff of a new NFL season, the company is emphasizing a new “season-long” fantasy football product.

FanDuel’s new “Championship Leagues” will launch on Aug. 14, Yahoo Finance has learned. The feature represents FanDuel doubling down (a phrase it uses in its own press release) on season-long fantasy.

Here’s why that matters: it’s the latest indicator that daily fantasy sports (DFS) has not delivered on its hype.

The promise of DFS was that it is faster and more exciting than season-long fantasy football. Players can re-draft every day or week, enter new contests every day or week. No more waiting around all NFL season watching your bad team lose every week, trying to make trades here and there to improve.

But now the billion-dollar-valuation “unicorns” that catapulted this business have both launched versions of their product resembling the traditional, season-long fantasy football model that big players like ESPN, Yahoo, and CBS Sports have offered for more than a decade.

That’s not encouraging for the user acquisition potential of daily fantasy sports, the format many predicted could eventually be bigger than season-long fantasy. A report from Eilers & Krejcik Gaming found that the DFS market only grew by 4% in 2016; as a result, the firm reduced its projections for the future size of the market.

FanDuel’s new season-long NFL product

Last year, DraftKings and FanDuel both announced new features that place daily fantasy into a season-long context: they allow for weekly re-drafts, but within leagues that last all season. FanDuel called its product Friends Mode, and DraftKings called its version Leagues.

Now, FanDuel has expanded Friends Mode by creating Championship Leagues. CEO Nigel Eccles calls it “our big jump into the season-long fantasy market.”

What’s new: participants pay a one-time entry fee upfront at the beginning of the NFL season, just like in traditional fantasy football; FanDuel pays the grand prize winner at the end of the NFL season, just like in traditional fantasy football; and FanDuel has created a league chat mode so that you can trash-talk your friends, just like in traditional fantasy football.

But the contests run every week throughout the season. So every week, every player in the league re-drafts their squad. And the league commissioners can choose to allocate a prize for the weekly winner, which would get subtracted from the grand prize at the end of the season. And the leagues last into the NFL playoffs, rather than ending with the end of the regular season. These are DFS twists on the traditional fantasy football model.

“While we still have our main DFS product,” a FanDuel spokesperson says, “we firmly believe that our season-long product is going to be a huge driver of growth, and we are focused on finding ways to reach ALL fantasy players.”

FanDuel regroups after canceled DraftKings merger

FanDuel finds itself in an awkward position following the cancellation of its attempted merger with its rival DraftKings.

While FanDuel beat DraftKings to market by three years, DraftKings quickly grew larger in terms of user base—underscored by the fact that DraftKings CEO Jason Robins was set to be CEO of the merged entity; FanDuel CEO Nigel Eccles was going to be chairman of the board.

But eight months after announcing their plan to merge, the companies called it off last month, following reports that antitrust regulators appeared unfriendly to the deal.

Now that the merger is off, FanDuel will have to restructure its cap table in accordance with a merger-termination clause agreed to in January. FanDuel also pulled out of the UK market.

DraftKings raised a new $100 million round in March; FanDuel is reportedly seeking a new round of funding. FanDuel needs more money to spend on marketing, now that it must compete head-to-head, all over again, with the competitor it almost joined.

If FanDuel cannot raise new funding, it may need an exit (read: sale) soon.

DraftKings and FanDuel reportedly brought in a combined $3 billion in entry fees last year, but neither company is profitable yet. FanDuel says it expects to achieve profitability this year. Each company is valued at $1.2 billion.

By emphasizing season-long fantasy, the very model that FanDuel set out to disrupt, is FanDuel pivoting? The company says no, calling it an “expansion.”

But with many insiders wondering if DFS has hit a saturation point, expect FanDuel and DraftKings to focus on whatever brings them the most new users, whether that’s their own twists on season-long fantasy football, or their fantasy golf contests (both companies are promoting those aggressively before the year’s final Major tournament), or whatever else they can dream up.

Plain old DFS, it appears, won’t be enough on its own.

Disclaimer: Yahoo offers its own daily fantasy sports product.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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