As each new sports betting handle and revenue report has affirmed, FanDuel Sportsbook has become a national sportsbook juggernaut, leading several states in overall popularity (New Jersey) while on the podium in all others. As of mid-November, FD Sportsbook is live online or in sportsbook lounge-form in nine states, having joined the Tennessee cyberspace most recently on Nov. 1 as part of a shotgun launch of four sportsbooks.
Coinciding with FanDuel’s expanding U.S. footprint, the shop’s betting handle has exploded: In just one mid-sized jurisdiction alone in October, FanDuel handled $63.6 million for the month in Indiana. The person directing the massive action in the U.S. is John Sheeran, who hails from Ireland where he spent seven years as the international horse-racing lead for FanDuel’s corporate owner Paddy Power Betfair (now part of Flutter Entertainment plc), before moving to the states in February 2019.
Sheeran spent some time chatting with Sports Handle recently about a range of subjects, including increased interest in player props, efforts to reduce latency for in-game betting markets, betting limits, and what watching games is like for him — a sports fan sitting on the bookmaker’s side of the counter. You can follow Sheeran on Twitter at @johnsheeran1981 and listen to his weekly spot on Thursdays on the BetTheBoard podcast.
Below is the first part of a two-part question-and-answer session with Sheeran.
A chat with FanDuel Sportsbook Director John Sheeran
Sports Handle (SH): I’m curious how the COVID-era lack of in-stadium fans has factored into the odds. At least as far as the NFL, in some states like Missouri, Kansas City is allowed roughly 20% capacity at Arrowhead Stadium, while in New England there are zero fans. How do you guys approach accounting for home-field advantage — or the lack thereof — in this environment?
John Sheeran (JS): We’ve done a lot of analysis and had a lot of our analytics being looked at this closely, as we all have individually, as well to try and understand what home-field advantages are really worth. I think there’s two elements to the question. One is home-field advantage in general, the second one is the impact of fans. So from my perspective, we’ve seen a continual trend in home-field advantage decreasing in every professional sport. We’ve gained a lot of learnings from that, from soccer, as it’s kind of taken some of the controls away from the officials in particular, who are obviously going to be subconsciously biased and react to 60,000 baying fans calling for a penalty or whatever. And we’ve seen that happen and trend over time. The same is exactly true in U.S. sports where we’ve seen the same trend.
In fact, over the last year-and-a-half, I think last season actually was the first season where the away team outscored score the home team in NFL history. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I think it’s a trend. And I guess part of the challenge in the NFL specifically is we do only have 17 regular-season weeks. So the sample size is always going to be smaller. So from an analytical perspective, you would like a bigger sample size. We understand the home-field advantage has been exceptionally volatile in history, but I think over a season-and-a-half now nearly, we’ve seen, I think the numbers in the model I ran have home-field advantage as 0.03 of a point.
SH: Let’s talk in-game betting. It’s growing here in the U.S. and quite popular in Europe, especially with soccer and tennis. From my vantage point as a bettor, I’ve often encountered that “spinning wheel,” when a bet is being reviewed for six-10 seconds for wager processing. It seems this is kind of an inherent issue with the disparity of the feeds that the sportsbooks and the leagues may be receiving, compared with what the viewer/bettor has on DirecTV or Comcast or Yahoo! Stattracker or whatever. The question is, to what degree if any is this an impediment to the growth of in-game betting?
JS: Yeah. I mean, look, there’s obviously a delay there to protect all operators from latency, effectively. We have seen examples, particularly as it rolls out through the states and the U.S. where people are in venues and able to, without a delay, would be able to beat the market. So we obviously rely on a provider to let us know what’s going on through an incident feed, which is an official data supplier from the league.
But there’s obviously a delay in the latency in terms of a message being sent from the stadium to the supplier, and then us receiving it, and having the model react to that message. So I think that’s probably what happens in the back end. And I think it’s only fair that there is a delay there to ensure that everyone’s playing on a level playing field. I think we work really hard with the suppliers, the likes of Sportradar and the leagues. And we always call it out in our meetings with them that this is the one area that we feel like technology can help with in terms of reducing that latency to as low as we can possibly get it.
SH: How much room for improvement do you think exists on this front?
JS: I think in sports where we do have access to as close to real-time data as we can possibly have — I’m speaking probably about the NFL to that degree — we have made conscious efforts to reduce that delay significantly. We maintain the markets open for betting at a higher rate than we’ve ever done before, than any of the other operators, frankly, do. And we’ve reduced those numbers down to what I think is more fair. I am not in love with it, 10 seconds of a delay, and in the NFL, particularly where we have access to real-time data. And like I said, we’ll continue to review that. I’d love to get to a place where in the Super Bowl this year, we have eradicated that entirely.
I don’t know that we can get there just yet, but we are working hard because we understand that it’s a pain point for customers, particularly in the high-turnover possession games, like basketball, for example. If you’re trying to place a bet in basketball, I think we’ve all experienced the frustrations with the line moving as you’re trying to get the bet on. I understand where that’s coming from. Some of the novice betters probably won’t.
SH: Since the start of the NFL season I’ve noticed banners and a big push for “Same-Game Parlays,” at FanDuel and at other shops. More informally I guess they’re called correlated parlays, but in any case, previously bettors weren’t allow to combine bets from the same game into a single parlay. Have these become popular?
$1 ➡️ $304.92
— FanDuel Sportsbook (@FDSportsbook) November 10, 2020
JS: Yeah, it’s something we’re really proud of. “SGP” is a product that we’ve had in Europe for some time. And we’re delighted to kind of be the first ones in the U.S. to deliver it. I think it really works exceptionally well in sports where player participation skews.
So the NBA, for example, is one where over points for Anthony Davis and LeBron James, as well as game elements, are really popular. The NFL market offering around player props is exceptional. And the standalone games, I think, just give people an opportunity to bet in a market that they may have sat out otherwise. Certain people don’t want to risk $20 to win $18 on a spread or a total. And now they can have a $5 same-game parlay that gives them an interest to the entirety of the game. It can pay off a 100-1.
We’ve been super excited to see the reaction on a Sunday night with everyone posting examples of winning same-game parlays and we’re just proud of the product and think we can even improve it further. So it’s a key differentiator for us. We can see some of the other competitors trying to replicate, and that’s where we always want to be in terms of leading innovation and product talk, and giving customer choice. And then never resting on our laurels and pushing that as far as we can.
SH: What trends have you seen nationwide over the past couple of years, as far as any increased or shifted interest in certain sports or markets? Anything specific to a state you’ve observed?
JS: We’ve seen a lot of growth in player props. Part of our strategy is giving people choice, so some people are moving away from the culturally traditional spread and total, into markets that are more engaging throughout the entirety of the game. And we’ve seen huge demands and growth in that space. And I think it will be rewarded with continued investments in development of products.
I think in terms of state specific, I see a lot of bias in every state and local teams, but that’s nothing new or unexpected. I spoke about it in Denver. Drew Lock was our biggest exposure for MVP this season because of the volume that we had taken in Colorado on that. So I think that kind of gives you a degree or an illustration of how local and biased these bettors can be in each of the states, but that’s nothing new and it’s not different in U.S. sports. We see the same thing in areas of Europe and Australia for local teams. It’s kind of as you would expect it to be.
SH: Let’s shift to ‘Gambling Twitter’ for a minute. A couple weeks ago, somebody called your attention to a small limit on a World Series MVP future he apparently tried to place. Are limits in these situations automated? Are certain accounts monitored or restricted?
Hi Brock, apologies you got limited to that amount. You should be able to place your initial stake if you retry now. Given how bad our price is, we will make sure it stays at 100/1 for the next 30 mins. 👍 Good luck!
— John Sheeran (@jsheeran1981) October 20, 2020
JS: Yeah, look, I think it’s a hot topic. It always has been, always will be. I think it’s a little bit fresher in America. I think it’s always existed, but I think the scale that it reaches now is bigger than what it’s ever been before. I think that specific example was really just an error in terms of where our limits were meant to be. And that said, there’s a level of automation which works for any big operator that will accept that up to a certain amount.
I think there’s a misconception out there in Gambling Twitter that there is a trader making a decision to reduce a bet to A, B, or C depending on what it is. And I think a broader understanding that from an operator’s perspective, particularly on the scale and with the footprint that we have, we need a degree of automation in those decisions.
SH: Is this something you guys will be addressing going forward?
JS: We have plans to try and make sure that all of our customers get a fair bet. I think people’s idea of what a fair bet is differs greatly. Fundamentally, we do run a business and we are here to make a profit, same as any other business, but I think there’s an onus on us to be fair. And if I’m really honest with you, I think we do a better job than most of the other operators in the U.S., but I still think we’ve got areas to improve on. And I think that was an example of one of the specifics.
I don’t want to be restricting people down to $10, $20, $50, but when there are particularly some of the more derivative markets, and fun-element markets that really, we don’t have the price confidence that we do in the spread on game day, for example, it’s only right and fair that those limits are much smaller. So they’re designed for the broader public. They’re not designed for professional betters. And I think you’ve seen evidence of that from the likes of Spanky’s commentary around derivatives and player props and to that extent. And so for me, you will always have people who will show bets that have been limited, but I don’t know that they entirely get the wider picture.
SH: Now a couple questions about you: Where in Ireland are you from, and what sports did you grow up playing and watching?
JS: I’m from the West Coast of Ireland — a county called Mayo. I grew up watching every sort of sport you can imagine, obsessed with it since I was tiny. Predominantly played a lot of soccer, some local Irish sports like Gaelic football, played some golf. But yeah, I was a huge, keen sports fan since I was small. And my grandfather was a big sports guy. He probably got me involved in it at an early age, and thankfully it’s all kind of managed to stay part of my, not alone my hobbies, but also my professional work as well. So I was very lucky.
SH: When you’re watching games these days, I guess not so much as a fan anymore, but as the bookmaker, do you get riled up by an unfavorable play or excited by a good bounce? Can your blood pressure handle this anymore?
JS: The results and the cards will fall as they may. We try and do the best job that we can of getting the numbers to where it should be as early as we can. And I enjoy seeing bettors win. I think it was Week 2 or 3 when the NFL favorites on the moneyline went 14-2, and we lost a ton of money. And for me, it keeps them engaged. They get a really good experience. And I think that’s really important when it comes to novice bettors, that they start off with a winning experience and don’t kind of sit there and gradually move away.
It’s hard to win at betting. We all know that. And it’s treated as a fun and a kind of investing sometimes, forwarding a game and making it more interesting. We all know about the advantage of having skin in the game ourselves. So I kind of just let those things handle themselves.
I want to see underdogs win if I don’t have a raging interest in a game from a sporting perspective. But overall, I just enjoy watching the game and seeing how the minds of offenses and defenses play out against each other, and how it can impact the results. So I don’t spend too much time sweating them.
Coming next week: Part II of this conversation, focusing on U.S. sports betting industry opportunities, branding, and challenges.