Tiger, Phil, and the Future

Just to be 100% clear, the following represents my personal views, and not necessarily those of my company.

So, I’ll start with a quick apology: I don’t write enough. Obviously, a ton is going on in my industry and for me personally as a result, but I find myself waffling between an urge to get my thoughts out there and a voice that wonders if anyone really cares. Please don’t read that as false modesty; instead read it as byproduct of my distaste for the concept of writing as personal branding, for the kind of self-serving LinkedIn-style thinkpiece garbage that I see way too much of. But it’s 11:45 PM, and I felt like writing, so here we go.

In case you missed it or aren’t otherwise attuned to the world of sports, on Friday over the long holiday, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played a 18-hole one-on-one golf match for a cool sum of $9 million. Originally supposed to be pay-per-view, it was instead broadcast for free over OTT channels like B/R Live due to technical issues. Either way, despite the technical hiccups it was most definitely an interesting and unique event, and one that also spun up a lot of talk about what it meant for the future of sports broadcasting.

Part of that talk was predicated the uniqueness of it; going pay-per-view was a unique (and in my view, incorrect) decision, but the ultimate decision to go OTT with it and generally tailor all of the discussion and commerce surrounding the event to be digital-first was a huge tonal shift compared to say, an NFL broadcast. Count me as a general believer than in five or six years, there will be a Netflix-ation of sports, which will, in turn, be the final nail in the coffin for broadcast cable as we currently know it. My thoughts there shouldn’t be all that surprising, and probably don’t warrant much more discussion.

The other, more consequential chatter that sprung up around the event was the sheer amount of gambling-related commentary that was embedded in the broadcast. On top of the fact that the event itself was held in Las Vegas – not an accident or random choice by any means – nearly every hole came with on-screen and voice-over analysis of real-time odds for which player was likely to win the hole, whether they would make the putt, and so on. Obviously given my background, this is a world in which I’m innately familiar. What may surprise you however is that I thought it made the broadcast immeasurably worse, and downright boring.

One of the first lessons I learned at numberFire, put succinctly, is that very few people care about the same things I do. I started the company to bring hedge fund-level analysis to sports, and I figured that much like the quants at Susquehanna or Bridgewater, my audience would be like me and be happy sorting through JSON files and giant data tables. Wrong. It wasn’t until we started writing editorial content and breaking down those insights into narratives that our work really began to take off. Even if the audience for the match was hungry for the kind of simulated outcomes that the announcers were referencing – which is eminently debatable – it wasn’t presented in a way that was all that interesting, nor was it actionable given the lack of obvious connectivity between the broadcast and an outlet to actually make the wager. Therefore all it really did was turn off the fans that didn’t care about that information, and frustrate the minority that did.

So what’s the right balance moving forward? To use an analogy, I think about it the same way that I think about gamification, which was a very hot method for ginning up user engagement a few years back. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that, think about why Facebook shows you how many notifications you have. Think about why Zynga has daily rewards in all of their games. Think about why Swarm has a leaderboard.) When gamification works, it’s a virtuous cycle that connects engagement loops with positive-utility actions for the user. It’s literally the crux of what makes using a product fun for you, and a profitable enterprise for them. When it doesn’t work, it’s cynical and transparent, like a terrible Lifetime movie. You can’t just throw it into a product and have it make engagement or utility issues go away; it has to clearly benefit a user and it has to be organic to their behavior. All of the gambling chatter during the broadcast, by those standards, was true for maybe 20% of the audience on the latter (and only in indirect, non-actionable ways), and likely 0% on the former. All of which made the broadcast unbearably boring, like listening to a family member drone on and on across the Thanksgiving table.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely believe that there will be a meaningful convergence on a variety of fronts between live events, in-game predictive analytics, and gambling. It’s already a big piece of every competitive sportsbook, and certainly also a defining feature of any fantasy or social game meant to run alongside an actual event. In the rush to capitalize on the excitement of what is now possible and now legal, it’s ever more important to find a balance and ensure that you’re providing utility; it’s far too easy to mistake can with should.

As you might imagine, I am (and by extension, FanDuel is) thinking about this a lot. I’m sure our competitors are as well. Finding balance is extremely tricky; when you’re excited about a new technology or a new market opening up, it’s easy to go overboard and assume that everyone has the same interest that you do and that they share your excitement. You have to be extremely careful about not overdoing it, not saturating it, not forcing it inorganically where it doesn’t make sense. The downside of going slowly and making sure your audience wants it is the risk of appearing slow and potentially missing the market breaking open; the downside of going too fast, too indiscriminately is that you burn out the audience forever. The rub is that it’s difficult as hell to gauge which mistake is easier to recover from.

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