The advent of the 2015 NFL season saw the daily fantasy sports industry reach what many consider its peak. The space’s two juggernauts, DraftKings and FanDuel, were expecting the remainder of that year to be the most prolific yet in their brief histories. An unprecedented, multi-media marketing blitz by both companies seemed poised to deliver on the lofty expectations.
In the spirit of what many expected to be a record-breaking quarter, DraftKings announced a two-part NFL live final that upcoming December. ESPN even planned to televise the event, which would ultimately pay out a record $5 million to its first-place winner.
Legal issues = reduced prize pools
The subsequent and unforeseen legal maelstrom that encompassed the industry in the following months didn’t necessarily derail those plans. However, it undeniably cast a dark cloud over the proceedings. A general pall hovered around the industry as the calendar year came to a close.
In time, DFS mounted a comeback. A flurry of lobbying efforts around the country in 2016 led to much greater legal certainty in multiple states. However, with it came a host of new regulatory- and compliance-related expenses.
The 2016 NFL season-ending mega-tournaments offered by both sites experienced a corresponding effect. DraftKings’ total prize pool shrunk to $10 million total after peaking at $15 million the year prior. Meanwhile, FanDuel’s 2016 offerings dropped to $5 million, compared to $12 million awarded in 2015.
A positive trend in 2017
Fast forward 12 months. The tail end of the 2017 NFL season coincided with a second-consecutive successful legislative year for the DFS industry. With 18 states now having expressly legalized daily fantasy sports, this past year’s live final events had a resurgent feel to them.
DraftKings bumped its total prize pool back up to $12 million in 2017 for its Miami, Florida-based Fantasy Football World Championship (FFWC). The FFWC unfolded Dec. 14-18, a span that included Week 15 of the NFL season. First prize was worth $2 million for the second-consecutive year. Meanwhile, the field increased from 180 to 200. The top 20 finishes all scored six-figure paydays.
FanDuel’s World Fantasy Football Championship (WFFC) preceded DraftKings by a week. It unfolded in Los Angeles, California during the NFL’s Week 14 slate. A total of 75 finalists split a prize pool of $2.5 million, with $500,00 going to first place.
However, for the first time, the WFFC was supplemented in significant fashion by an online-only WFFC Fan Championship. That event featured a larger $4 million prize pool. Of that, $1 million of which went to first place. However, the event also had a much more robust field of 18,181 entrants.
In all, the combined $6.5 million in prizes between the two contests represented a boost of $1.5 million compared to 2016.
FantasyDraft enters the live final fray
Additionally, in what might be considered a sign of the times, second-tier DFS operator FantasyDraft held its first-ever live NFL final Dec. 9-10 in Charlotte, North Carolina during Week 14.
The event was only the second live final in FantasyDraft’s three-plus years in operation. It boasted a $1 million prize pool, which included a $200,000 top prize. A total of 12 finalists were determined through 13 weeks of qualifier contests on the site. Even last place netted $15,000.
Admittedly, the overall size of the prize pool could be considered relatively modest in comparison to the Big Two’s. Nevertheless, a five-figure sum is no small feat for any DFS operator not named DraftKings, FanDuel, or Yahoo, the latter which has not yet offered live final events in any sport.
Moreover, the small number of entries certainly offered all 12 contestants a highly realistic chance at a solid six-figure payout in relative proximity to the top prize in FanDuel’s WFFC.
Cautious optimism for future
The full-court press for DFS legislation should continue for multiple years, as legal clarity is still lacking in the majority of states. The associated expenses of complying with the myriad of regulations each new law usually brings will therefore only increase.
Consequently, it’s difficult to determine how much of a ceiling live final prize pools have moving forward. Nevertheless, a contest such as FanDuel’s Fan Championship – which opens up the lucrative season-ending tournament experience to the masses, as opposed to a select few with typically substantial bankrolls – is unquestionably a positive development.
Likewise, FantasyDraft’s initial foray into these types of events is another encouraging sign for the overall health of DFS. Moreover, the intimate field of contestants is in synergy with the operator’s stated commitment of prioritizing positive experiences for the everyday DFS player.