In the “stretching a metaphor past its breaking point” department, I’m about to tell you how Underdog Fantasy and legalized sports betting is the Darth Vader (but in a good way!) in the following story.
Back in the O.G. Star Wars movie, ol’ Darth faced off against his former mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and noted the following: “The circle is now complete.”
Well, there was another incomplete circle: the NFL, which, for a long time, people basically paid attention to for half the year. But now, thanks to the meteoric rise of Underdog and the legalization of sports betting, that circle is closed. The NFL — and as a byproduct, the NFL content machine — has become a year-round affair.
If you’re a sports bettor or a fantasy player, you can’t turn away from the league. And if you’re in the content business … well, good luck.
“News happens in the NFL 24/7/365 now, and when news happens in the NFL, that has an immediate effect on the fantasy values and sports betting futures of everything,” said Matthew Berry of NBC and a constant presence in the lives of fantasy footballers since 1999. “There’s an ancillary effect to any sort of news. Sean Payton gets named coach of the Broncos, all of sudden the fantasy values of the players go up, odds get better.”
And while — obviously — news like Payton’s hiring was always happening in the NFL offseason, sports betting and fantasy sites (specifically best ball sites — more on that in a moment) have made basically every nugget of offseason news actionable.
In short: There is no offseason.
“The NFL has become a year-round sport,” Berry said. “It’s really kind of amazing, I remember when I was at ESPN, I used to have to switch off to do fantasy baseball. Then after a while we’d see the numbers, and when we realized an offseason NFL article about free agent moves was doing better than preseason fantasy baseball draft prep, that was when I left fantasy baseball content.”
Berry agrees with my general assessment: The twin rise of sports betting and other forms of fantasy, including dynasty, has pushed the NFL content machine into (one more Star Wars reference since I already started down this stupid path) hyperdrive.
“With sports betting becoming legalized in more and more states, it’s now even more so a year-round sport,” he said. “And obviously, the advent of best ball has been a boon.”
First, sports betting
It doesn’t take an accountant to see that sports betting has exploded in America. The tally for legal 2022 betting handle in the U.S. has surpassed $93 billion with one state’s December figures still to come.
And while I’m not going to sit here and say offseason NFL betting markets are the wind blowing this sailboat, operators are noting more and more people are dabbling in the world of NFL futures.
“Props and futures continue to get more mainstream and more popular,” said Jeffrey Benson, the director of sportsbook operations for Circa.
When she's trying to see how much you bet on NFL Draft props… @FDSportsbook pic.twitter.com/4qf8lMp1Bj
— Extra Points (@ExtraPointsPod) April 29, 2022
This is echoed by Jay Kornegay, the longtime bookmaker and vice president of Westgate SuperBook.
“We have seen an uptick in NFL betting during the offseason in recent years,” Kornegay said, but did qualify it by saying “several sports” are also seeing a bump.
But the other sports don’t have a manic best ball following.
Underdog enters the chat
“It’s pretty rare to see such a big innovation in a very mature space like season-long fantasy,” said Dan Back, the senior vice president at Rotogrinders. (Full disclosure: Rotogrinders and the soon-to-be discussed Spike Week are sister sites of Sports Handle.) “Credit to MyFantasyLeague10’s for the initial concept, but Draft, Underdog, DraftKings, and Drafters all deserve big credit for bringing the concept to scale and developing the tech that makes it such a fun and easy experience.”
But really, it’s Underdog.
Some numbers, courtesy of Underdog: In 2020, it debuted its signature contest, “Best Ball Mania.” It was a $25 entry with $1 million in total prizes, with 34,008 of 43,200 possible entries filled.
In 2022, “Best Ball Mania III” was the same $25 entry fee — with 451,200 entrants. It filled in four months.
And every other contest that debuted in 2020 more or less follows the same trajectory: At least 10 times the entrants in 2022, filling in a matter of weeks.
But perhaps the most telling and mind-blowing (and proof of my hypothesis) Underdog stat is the following: The Big Board, which launches in February (meaning, the 2023 contest launched before the 2022 season was over), is a $10 contest. In 2021, the first year it was offered, there was a $50,000 prize pool with 5,748 entrants. It filled in a little under two months. This year’s version? It’s the same $10, but with $1 million in prizes, is open to 112,800 entrants — nearly 20 times as many as the original — and is almost half-filled after about three weeks.
With the Big Board on @UnderdogFantasy 39% filled, a 112.8k entry fantasy football best ball contest that opened on 2/10, pays $200k to first, and closes on 4/27 (last day of draft).
Is next year the first year we see Underdog's pre-draft NFL contest be $1m to first!?
— Liam Murphy (@ChessLiam) February 28, 2023
No rest for the weary (content providers).
“For me, personally, and really, for everyone in the space, you have to be locked in year-round,” said Erik Beimfohr, the man behind Spike Week, which covers best ball 12 months of the year. “In the past, you could take a breath pretty much once the season ended, and then once NFL Draft and free agency happened, you could start again and figure things out. You had this December-to-May time frame which was a dead zone for fantasy football. No one thought about it, no one talked about it.”
But now? Non-stop.
“Now, we’re talking about this stuff in December — for the next year,” Beimfohr said. “Free agents, recovery timelines, potential trades, understanding the incoming rookie class. It’s full time. You can’t be successful in fantasy football — certainly from a content perspective, but also from a playing perspective — without understanding all these things you didn’t need to know even three years ago. If you’re doing the content, you have to know the rookies, have to know the cap space, have to know free agents, have to know who might be traded, have to know coaching philosophies. There’s just so much more now that goes into it.”
As for Berry?
He’s still in “pinch me” mode.
Enjoyed talking to @Forbes about my journey to NBC, being an entrepreneur and @MBFantasyLife https://t.co/bXm6yfV6tS
— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) February 6, 2023
“When I was dreaming of jobs as a kid, the idea you could make a living talking about fake football and sports betting for a major media company, on TV, on well-trafficked websites, come on, that was a pipe dream,” Berry said. “I never imagined this. It’s been an amazing run.”
Of course, without the NFL itself taking advantage of the craze for fantasy and sports betting, it’s possible we wouldn’t be in this position today.
“A lot of credit has to go to the NFL; they’ve done such a good job of marketing themselves and making minor things big deals,” Berry said. “They’ve done a great job of turning it into a year-round sport despite the games only being played September through early February.
“Look at the spectacle Draft Day has become. There are shows around the schedule release. There was 24/7 coverage of the combine for a week. And when you put that down on paper — a lot of people no one has ever heard of, and we’re going to watch them run around in shorts? And time how fast they go? For 40 yards? And people are going to watch this for a week? Well, the answer is yes, yes they are.
“Because of the promotion and ingenuity of the NFL, its media, and broadcast partners,” Berry continued, “it’s become this year-round sport that drives interest in fantasy and sports betting.”
In fact, it’s probably about -110 a piece of market-impacting NFL news was reported in the time it took you to read this article.