State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.
All of a sudden, the formerly sedate world of survivor pools and its cousin contests is a bit cluttered and noisy.
This might go down as the NFL season during which this little-discussed niche of the sports-gambling universe went mainstream. Circa, the downtown Las Vegas resort, is drawing big headlines for its $1,000-per-entry, $8 million payout tournament. Several media outlets and major sport-betting apps are running their own free versions for prizes to drive traffic and engage football fans, and some even allow users to create their own pools.
Enter Joel Milton and TJ Ross, the co-founders of Splash Sports. In June their Denver-based company, originally BetterPool, announced it had acquired two booming peer-to-peer platforms, RunYourPool and OfficeFootballPool, which had a combined 1 million users. Those sites let people create a variety of sports-related pools but leave it to the users to deal with any money at stake privately.
Splash Sports, launched this summer, takes the concept a step further. If you live in one of the 37 states where they are live and legal, you can create your pool and let the site take in and pay out the money you and your poolmates have at stake. Any pool commissioner knows why this is great; the biggest hassle is hectoring your friends to send over their money by Venmo or PayPal. Then you spend it because it’s mingled in your usual accounts, so when it’s payout time you feel like it’s costing you something more than your own entry fee.
Splash, RYP and OFP also understand that not everyone has friends who want to do a pool with them or can agree on an entry fee price. On RYP and OFP, there are free contests sponsored by advertisers, and on Splash Sports there are countless site-run pools in a wide variety of sports and at a range of price points.
And all of this has an unusual advantage: Splash Sports is active in many states — California, Texas and Florida among them — where mobile sports betting apps are not permitted to operate.
RunYourPool is easy, comfortable to use
The rise of Splash and, more specifically, RunYourPool, interests me because I first encountered RYP earlier this year in a March Madness survivor elimination tournament. It was a breath of fresh air, a user-friendly technology solution I didn’t know I needed.
At that moment, I was running my annual friends-and-family March Madness bracket tournament on CBS Sports’ very clunky, byzantine platform. CBS’s system is marginally more usable than the ESPN one I tried many years ago, but both of them are so unnecessarily complicated and convoluted to maneuver that I’ve considered giving up on my pool rather than face the annual dread of re-figuring out how they work.
RYP, which also hosts March Madness brackets and many other styles of competition, is so easy and comfortable. And it makes sense; unlike the ESPN and CBS Sports platforms, RYP is built entirely for the sole purpose of facilitating peer-to-peer wagering and recreational activity. I’ve not used OfficeFootballPool, but I suspect it has much the same advantage of not being an add-on swallowed up by a massive, multifaceted media outlet.
Clearly, I’m not alone. Milton and Ross say they’ve doubled the combined RYP and OFB user base to about 2.2 million active users. RYP even climbed all the way to No. 5 on the Apple Store list among sports apps in the first week of the NFL.
Splash owners build a better, but also a bigger, mousetrap
Milton and Ross came to the space with big ambitions. Ross is a former investment banker with the necessary contacts in the venture capital world; Milton found and sold a marketing e-commerce cannabis company which, he tells me, gave him experience “with legislative challenges of state-by-state legalization and navigating that regulatory landscape. I saw similar opportunities in the sports and gaming space.”
The quiet acquisitions served as a shortcut to growing a user base, Milton says. Rather than try to win over RYP and OFB denizens to a new platform, they bought them at an undisclosed price and continued to operate them in 2021 without the user (or anyone, really) any wiser.
“Both of us had had similar experiences playing in these types of contests and thought there was a lot of opportunity there. But it’s really hard to get people to change platforms, especially if you’ve been on one for 10 or 20 years, so rather than start from scratch and try to build a better mousetrap, we had the idea to go out and buy a business or two that already had a bunch of users and had a product we thought we could improve and use that as a starting point.”
The presence of Splash is now all over the RYP and OFB platforms. When you’re creating a pool on those, you are presented with the opportunity to switch over to Splash if you want the site to manage the money involved.
“These games had been around for quite some time and were ripe for a little bit more, I don’t want to say disruption because that’s overused, but more love on the on the technical side and, eventually, even on the on the payment side,” Milton tells me.
Specifically, he says, they sensed that people wanted an integrated way to have a pool and spend money on it — and to play in bigger, site-run pools for more money.
“We knew that there was a lot of people who would want to actually compete in these contests for real money, so we launched Splash Sports as a new platform that is age-gated and that requires geolocation before you can connect a debit card or credit card or PayPal or Venmo and join.”
A valuable demographic waiting to be served
Splash Sports has a bit of an uphill battle ahead of it. As innovative as it is, there’s nothing stopping the major online sportsbook and media platforms from building better apps and interfaces to keep their huge user bases in one place. The fact that RYP, for instance, charges a per-player fee when your pool is bigger than 15 participants would seem like an easy weakness for the bigger firms to exploit.
Milton, Ross and their venture capital backers must know that. And maybe they’re in this to be bought out by one of those big boys so they can cash out. That is, after all, exactly what Milton did with his cannabis platform.
Still, to get to that place, they also have to make an argument they are providing something smart for an underserved market. And the way they describe their user base will have a lot of advertisers’ mouths watering:
“We have a really engaged audience of people. You know, 88% of our users say they watched two-plus live sporting events per year, 90% of them are in the U.S.. 70% are male, mainly in the 25-to-45 range. There’s a tremendous opportunity to bring in brands or businesses who want to engage in an organic way around these contests, in ways that feel authentic. That’s something we’re excited about.”
Time will tell where it goes from here, but for the moment I’m looking forward to relocating my March Madness bracket to either Splash or RunYourPool. And I’m so happy to be able to leave the mess that is the CBS Sports site behind.
Read more from the State of Play column:
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- Problem Gambling Advocates Must Get Real About National Hotline Problems
- A Debate About Gambling With The Snake Lady On The Plane
- Trump’s Betting Market Resilience Is Impressive, But Is It Misleading?