As More of US is Betting, High-Stakes Fantasy Players Keep Drafting

Posted By Brant James on August 16, 2021 - Last Updated on September 7, 2021

Abib Agbetoba isn’t really supposed to exist. Not the actual man, that is. Not the Houston-born, Austin-educated, first-generation Nigerian otolaryngologist and director of Texas Allergy & Sinus Center for Texas Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists.

Why? Because Agbetoba is a high-stakes fantasy football league player – with zero interest in sports betting.

The football, the smarts, the juice. They’re supposed to make for crossover passion. With legal sports betting spreading into more and more states – albeit, not TexasDFS was supposed to become the gateway to the sportsbook and traditional fantasy a relic.

Even if there aren’t legal options in a state, after all, those with enough zeal and self-assured football intelligence and disposable income to put up as much as $10,000 to play in a league could certainly make faster work and bigger bucks through sports betting.

Not Agbetoba. Not into it.

“I’m really not into sports betting at all,” he told PlayUSA. “For me, it’s just redrafts and just watching the games. And that’s more than enough going for me.”

So it would seem. As the two-time defending champion of the Fantasy Football Players Championship (FFPC) in conjunction with Footballguys.com, Agbetoba has won $750,000 in first-place money in the past two NFL seasons. He became the first-ever repeat champion in the history of the top contest last year.

“To me, there needs to be a mental aspect of it on, kind of, multiple levels,” explained Agbetoba, who won $500,000 last season. “I know sports betting is hard. One reason I don’t do it is because of how difficult it is. And for me the NFL … it’s an art form and there’s just so many variables that are in play that it’s really hard for me to just assume that I’m going to be able to predict a certain outcome.”

This isn’t exactly your $20 office pool.

Agbetoba, an admitted poker die-hard, dabbled in a gateway game of sorts – daily fantasy – and dabbled very well. He recalls his first “major payout” came two years before he entered the FFPC the first time, a $20,000 prize that would have been a half-million top prize with three more points.

That stung, but his payouts have become exponentially more major in high-stakes fantasy.

Demand for high-stakes fantasy as old as the pastime

Fantasy football continues to mutate in the age of legal sports betting‘s ascendency in the United States. While traditional web-based games continue to thrive, leagues such as Hall of Fantasy have emerged for players seeking a more immersive, and correspondingly expensive, experience.

The germ for FFPC was formed in 2002, well before legal sports betting was much more than a whim outside of Nevada, when founders Alex Kaganovsky and Dave Gerczak met while in Las Vegas to play in the first-ever World Championship for Fantasy Football. The pastime was still fairly nascent on the Internet and the entry fee was “gigantic money,” at $1,500, Kaganovsky said.

ALEX KAGANOVSKY

“That was kind of the beginning of that entire industry and the beginning of our journey where we realized that there’s a lot of people out there – or at least in our little world, it seemed like to be a lot of people – who were interested in playing and playing these high-stakes fantasy games,” he added. “And then six years later, Dave and I got together and launched our company. So, we already knew that market already existed when we launched that company.”

Kaganovsky brought a deep business background and Queens street smarts to the enterprise, Gerczak an admitted naivete to the process from his home in Wisconsin.

“And it meshed really well,” Gerczak said.

“I think the fact that we were both hobbyists, we both love fantasy football and both had entrepreneurial spirit also allowed us to go into this industry,” Kaganovsky said. “We knew nothing about the industry other than what we knew as players. And I think that in itself gave us the courage to do it.”

Neither brought coding or web-development backgrounds, which dictated hires, but didn’t elicit panic.

“As we realized that we have something special here, we realized that we needed to invest a lot of time and energy into development. Back then, we felt like just a couple of guys who didn’t really know how to program, could probably hire a couple of other guys who did know how to program it and get it going,” Kaganovsky. “And we did.”

FFPC fills void for highly intense, high stakes fantasy football

FFPC launched its prestige league, the “Main Event” from the outset, with a $1,500 entry fee because the founders knew first-hand that there was a market. It drew 180 teams. Entries fees for contests now range as high as $10,000 per entry. Agbetoba had to fight off nearly 11,000 entries last year.

About 1,000 people annually attend the FFPC convention in Las Vegas just before the NFL season commences to draft and socialize, but a substantial number, Kaganovsky said, now play online. The league also fields deeper dynasty leagues in January that allow for the drafting of college players not yet on NFL rosters. According to a study released by the American Gaming Association, this season “six million will participate in a paid fantasy contest or other type of pool competition,” which is a 69% increase from 2020.

DAVE GERCZAK

Kaganovsky and Gerczak assert that they are not competing with sportsbooks, although they believe many of their players – unlike Agbetoba – do both. But while many of them find motivation in camaraderie or trash talk with a group of friends they’ve competed against for years, monetizing their savvy – like in sports betting – is a key trait for their demographic.

“They don’t have very much interest in fantasy games without the money aspect,” Gerczak said. “So while we don’t feel like we’re losing a lot of customers to the gambling people, I think a lot of our guys play that as well.

“I think that’s another part of their hobby, but a lot of them, they still want to make sure that there are prizes involved with the prizes are big and they’re juicy. A $500,000 grand prize is our biggest contest. And that’s why these guys want to play, and they want to win, or have a shot at winning, with that big carrot at the end.”

Fantasy sports in general and FFPC has a type, the founders say: 98% male, 40-to-55 years of age, high disposable income, small business owners, lawyers and doctors with six-figure incomes.

Journey to whale status began with college buddies

Enter Agbetoba. Fantasy sports became a passion during his undergrad studies at the University of Texas. Traditional low-entry fantasy leagues became a means of maintaining relationships with his college buddies met through intramurals and poker as he left for medical school in Houston, then residency at Mount Sinai before settling into practice back home.

Though those friends don’t compete in high-stakes leagues, they became the inspiration for his original (and continual) interest in refining his fantasy acumen.

“We have a championship belt, but the bragging rights and the group chat I’m on, it runs basically year-round every single day that,” Agbetoba said. “I think it made it so much more fun, but that is mainly the reason why I kind of went from being someone who was just completely clueless, a complete novice when it came to fantasy football to really putting in time and effort to try and get good at it. Because you just get tired of just people talking trash. And I mean, they were just so creative with PowerPoint slides and videos, so it was either you live at the bottom of that league and have to hear about it every day or try to get better and then you can earn some bragging rights.”

Agbetoba’s voices rises as he begins speaking in fantasy jargon in an attempt to define his excitement for the process.

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Agbetoba’s pursuit of bragging really rights paid off

ROI?

“I was just putting in so much work at the time and then trying to win this one league, I just thought to myself, the ROI on this is just …the bragging rights are nice, but I mean, if I’m putting in this much time and effort ….,” he recollected. “And I’m feeling pretty confident because at that point I was doing pretty well in that league. I figured why not just try and branch out.”

Agbetoba researched FFPC after hearing an ad for it on Sirius XM. He was admittedly “scared,” and cognizant his enjoyment from the hobby came from competing against friends.

“But I think it was in a situation where I was like, ‘OK, well, let me see how good I am’,” Agbetoba said. “Let’s test my skills out against people who are willing to put up quite a bit of money.”

Agbetoba knew he was putting up quite bit of money, too, but says that he didn’t study the prize structure other than where he needed to finish to recoup his entry fee.

Admittedly ‘very bad,” his first season, he studied and purchased 15 teams the next. Twelve were playoff-viable or qualified for the postseason. He bested 10,800 teams to win last year and nearly 20,000 the past two championship seasons.

Laden with credits from his numerous playoffs teams and bored because of COVID-19 shutdowns, Agbetoba bought 68 teams last year. He insists entertainment is his motivation but concedes “I really, really enjoy the high stakes aspect of it.” FFPC has entry fees as high as $2,205 and as low as $350.

“I just love to draft. And people will ask, ‘Why don’t you do mock drafts? They’re free, or you can do the $5’,” he continued. “And it’s because people just don’t have investments in those. I hate getting in a draft or in a league in particular where I’m the only one that’s really invested, no one else is sort caring, they’re out of it and they’re not watching their roster, I’m the only one that’s really playing the waiver wire. I feel like I’m sort of taking advantage, I suppose.

“I almost will never rejoin a league like that. So with the high stakes, it’s hard for someone to do that when they’re putting up $350. So I just love there’s this built-in level of intensity.”

And a place to exploit it in the age of sports betting.

Photo by Dreamstime
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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