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Dean Towers TDN Op/Ed: Fantasy Sports & Horse Racing

Fantasy Sports LogoI have played fantasy sports since I was a kid. I (like many of you, I suspect) enjoyed season-long leagues with friends; making trades, playing head-to-head and watching the box scores each day or week to see how my players were doing. It was always fun, a bit of a brain stretch, and we as a group had a good time. Recently, the season-long league fantasy phenomenon has branched out. Daily Fantasy Sports, which many of you have likely heard of or saw a commercial for, has been growing like a weed, with more and more of the estimated 60 million fantasy sports enthusiasts on our continent taking part in these daylong, or weekend-long (not season-long) games. The changing delivery system has spawned some big businesses.

I have always dabbled at Daily Fantasy Sports, but recently I decided to give it a deeper look. What can I learn to get better? What can I do to try and win more often? The tools to answer those questions weren't difficult for me to find. First, I looked at Fantasy Labs. Fantasy Labs is an online database for the NBA, MLB and NFL. The user can build their own player models, through back testing historical numbers, in a variety of ways. Do you want to know how all running backs have performed against a 25th or below run defense? Do you want to know how a certain player does over expectation at home or away? Do you want to see how wind over 10 miles per hour, or temperatures under 40 degrees, affects certain quarterbacks? By querying this database you can. Many of the queries, the programming, and the modeling is heavy. It takes some skill and smarts. We aren't talking lottery numbers here. 

I next surfed over to a site that was created by a sports analytics geek. This young man received a degree in business in 2009, now works in e-commerce and loves data and sports. His product, like Fantasy Labs, incorporates virtually everything you want to know, or datamine, when it comes to pro sports statistics. You can pick what type of value you want for a player in a certain situation, make manual adjustments, and let the machine "run" to create lineups for you based on those preferences. Again, this is not for the mathematically or 'xls' challenged.

What struck me most from my exercise to learn more about what makes a Daily Fantasy Player tick, what makes him or her want to win--to get better--was the parallel between them and horse racing's target market. These folks--the folks who want to model, who want to dig, who want to create--are the exact same subset of people who bet the races each day. They're the exact same people racing needs. Horse racing is the original data-rich gambling game: maiden specials to maiden claimers, barn changes, surface switches, rider changes, and literally tens of thousands of other factors. All of those things can be modeled, can be massaged by smart users, to create betting plans that can and do succeed. My question: Why is this business seemingly so afraid to cater to them? Our marketing programs for the sports' outreach are centered on the horse, the personalities, the fun we have for a day out at the track. The database platforms offered in the sport are good-- Bris's ALL-Ways, DRF's Formulator, for example--but are not as dynamic as what's offered in daily fantasy, and are somewhat handcuffed by static chart data. In the Daily Fantasy Sports world, the companies open up their API to allow users to upload line-ups, make global changes, and mass edit. In racing, we often shun technology or "batch betting" like its evil incarnate.

As a sport, it seems everyone thinks it's a good idea to attract these potential customers, but in my opinion, it does not do nearly enough to try and capture this willing market. I propose the sport can do better, and here are three ways I think it can. 1. I completely understand that disparate tracks' marketing budgets are stretched, but how about a little funding for a marketing initiative selling the game of handicapping as a brain game? We market a day out, food, beverages, bands, horses, jockeys and just about everything else, and that's fine. But what about this target market? This can spawn millions in new handle. And it's 2015; people do things from home on their computer or handheld now. 2. Where is the data? Fantasy Labs, stats geeks from Indiana and others can create products for personal use (or the market) in a jiffy, because data can be had at little or no cost. I remember making a foray into creating a personal use product to handicap the races better many years ago. To just test my theories I needed to spend upwards of $8,000. I understand the issues with data in horse racing land, but can't we do better? I think we'd much rather have the $8,000 go into the betting pools, en masse, to be churned again and again.

3. Google, Microsoft and other tech companies will often sponsor University or college courses which teach something about their offerings. Horse racing has hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of race results, running lines, and trainer statistics on file and there are professors and teachers who know and understand horse racing. For a statistics or computer science course, either at the undergraduate or post-graduate level, horse racing is an amazingly interesting topic. This academic introduction to the sport not only helps attract eager stats-geeks, it could also spawn some useful research on how to improve horse racing on any number of levels (field size modeling, optimal takeout rates, dynamic pricing, new bets, etc). It would also probably help improve data collection in racing (a whole other topic). We all see the betting trends, we see the revenue numbers. We hear how competition has killed the handles. We also hear that these trends cannot be changed, because "people don't like to bet horse racing anymore." I disagree. 

The skill game gambling market is stronger than ever. People wanting to use their minds to figure out the puzzle--whether it be through a winning DraftKings line-up or creating a superfecta ticket that scores--have not left the market. They're there and their business is waiting to be asked for. In my view, changing the way the sport markets to speak directly to them, along with offering them a data-rich system to unleash their interest, is a good start.

-originally published in November 10 issue of Thoroughbred Daily News

Dean Towers is a long time bettor, horse owner and handicapper. He is a marketer by trade, has presented at several gambling conferences across the continent, and is a Board Member of the Horseplayers Association of North America

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