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Some viewers of the 2020 NFC Championship may well have cared more about the performance of individual players than whether the Green Bay Packers or San Francisco 49ers won. | Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From rotisserie merch to a dedicated weatherman, fantasy sports-related businesses are booming.

Kevin Roth is a meteorologist, and for the most part, his résumé looks like you might imagine it: He has a master’s degree in meteorology, got his start at small-market television stations, and worked his way up to a more prominent perch in Dallas/Fort Worth — the fifth-largest media market in the country. But these days, his forecasts sound a little bit different.

“It’s not that it’s going to be storming or rainy or all that terrible, but we should see about a 15 mph sustained wind, with gusts up to 20,” he tells the audience before diverging from a typical weatherman’s shtick. “This is borderline. I’m more worried if the sustained winds are 20.”

He explains: “I’ve seen about a 10 percent drop in passing yards in similar-weather games. So it is not ideal, but we’re really only talking about a couple really deep throws or a couple really long field goals that are going to be impacted by the weather.” This is all about the Minnesota Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers; it’s not your typical weather forecast.

Despite his traditional background, Roth is currently the chief meteorologist for RotoGrinders, a website serving the daily fantasy sports (DFS) community. On this particular day in early January, just before our phone conversation, Roth is sharing his at-the-moment forecast and analysis for the CBS Sports podcast Fantasy Football Today. The NFL’s divisional playoff games commence that weekend, and fantasy sports fanatics need to know the most current weather forecast in Green Bay, Wisconsin, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Kansas City, Missouri, where the weekend’s four games would be played.

If you’ve never heard of DFS, you’ve probably heard of DraftKings and FanDuel, its two main operators. Users draft fantasy teams to play in limited game “slates” (e.g., one week of NFL action, one night of MLB). In DFS, your teams are driven by granular details like player matchups, injuries, stadium, and certainly weather.

While he may be one of only a few certified meteorologists working in this space, Roth isn’t alone in serving this community. The popularization of fantasy sports, the emergence of DFS, and the recent legalization of sports betting have ushered in a new era of sports fandom where individual player performance is just as exciting as watching your hometown team win. Beyond the companies that fuel the fantasy world — ESPN and Yahoo, DraftKings and FanDuel — a coterie of other entities, from niche analysis websites to merch stores to sports bars hosting live contests, have popped up to cater to fans and cash in on this growing market.

Though it is still an emerging industry, legal sports betting has already seen more than $15 billion in wagers and $1.1 billion in revenue — in just 12 states where sports betting is legal and data is available — since the Supreme Court reversed a decades-long federal ban in June 2018. But before sports betting got approval, DFS went through its own battle for legal recognition. Currently, some form of DFS is legal and operational in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Seven states — Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Washington — still consider DFS illegal sports gambling.

After a high-profile battle with former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over deceptive marketing practices, DraftKings and FanDuel settled, and New York soon after passed legislation to explicitly legalize it. In a December presentation to investors, DraftKings reported $213 million in revenue in 2019 with 60 percent of the market share, indicating the DFS industry brought in more than $350 million in revenue last year.

Before 2018, when the Court ruled that states possessed the authority to legalize sports betting, Nevada was the only state that offered it legally. Since then, 19 additional states and the District of Columbia have legalized sports betting, with sportsbooks either having started taking bets or planning to do so soon. ESPN reports that 24 more states are “moving toward” legalization.

Despite being separate products, regulated separately, the user base for all three games — traditional fantasy, DFS, and sports betting — is similar. A 2018 Ipsos study, commissioned by the FSGA, found that “79% of fantasy sports players who are not current sports wagerers say they will likely participate in sports betting once legalized in their state.” So it makes sense that many of the DFS operators have gotten into sports betting too. DraftKings and FanDuel both operate sportsbooks separate from their fantasy offerings.

Dustin Gouker never thought sports betting legalization looked “particularly imminent” until it happened, but always saw DFS as a “placeholder” for sports betting. Legalization “might have happened either way, but I think everybody got a little more comfortable with it — no matter what you think of DFS, it’s a form of having money on the outcome of a game,” Gouker, head of content for LegalSportsReport and a network of related websites, tells me. That involves everyone from leagues and teams to media companies, politicians, lobbyists, and users. “I think there still would’ve been a pretty decent groundswell without it because I think there’s a pent-up demand for sports betting, but everyone got more comfortable with it a little bit more quickly because of daily fantasy.”

Gouker says he thinks the legal progress and economic growth in the past two years is “astounding,” but there’s a lot of room for the industry to grow, he says. “Even though we have all these states, we’re not even close to a fully mature market.”

Since the popularization of fantasy sports in the 1980s, media organizations have consistently played a significant role in the growth of the games. The prefix roto-, found in RotoGrinders and a number of other fantasy-focused businesses, originated with the advent of the season-long rotisserie baseball league. Daniel Okrent, the journalist who invented the format, and his friends launched their first league over lunch at the now-closed La Rotisserie Française. Their draft took place just before the start of the 1980 Major League Baseball season, and Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt was picked first overall (a good pick, too: Schmidt had an MVP season and led the Phillies to their first World Series title).

“Roto” baseball took off in part because Okrent — who went on to become the first public editor of the New York Times — along with his fellow team-manager buddies, worked in journalism. “The second season, there were Rotisserie leagues in every Major League press box,” Okrent told Vanity Fair in 2008. “In 1981 there was a players’ strike, and the writers who were covering baseball had nothing to write about, so they began writing about the teams they had assembled in their own leagues.”

In 1995, ESPN began offering a fantasy sports platform on its website, followed by CBS Sports in 1997 and the upstart, which CBS then bought outright for $31 million in 2001. Yahoo changed the game in 1999 when it began hosting free fantasy leagues, relying on ad revenue rather than user fees. And with the rise of fantasy sports came news specifically catering to its players. RotoNews — now RotoWire — launched in 1997 and quickly became one of the most visited sports websites.

 Star Tribune via Getty Images
Fantasy sports fans in 2000 draft their teams, before the rise of DFS.

Now practically every sports media organization, from mainstream to niche, has some involvement with fantasy sports (including Vox Media’s SB Nation). They provide player-by-player insights and statistical analysis through TV shows, podcasts, articles, and databases, and fantasy managers rely on this information to make educated decisions about drafting and maintaining their teams.

DFS, which first appeared in 2007, bridged the world of traditional friend-group fantasy with what we’re seeing now: a burgeoning sports-betting market gradually sweeping through the United States.

While much of the money in this space flows through the fantasy sports operators and sportsbooks, a cottage media industry has popped up to support it. Niche sites zero in on sports statistics, analyzed for specific audiences playing specific fantasy games and making specific sports bets. Troves of podcasts bring a new spin on the chatter of legacy sports talk radio. And there’s plenty of analysts — of varying repute — who sell their fantasy and sports betting picks to more casual players for hefty subscription fees.

At first, Chris Raybon wasn’t exposed to much of this, but he always played fantasy football and obsessed over stats. He worked in accounting for a tech company and, “bored out of my mind,” would read about fantasy. After reading an article on the sports analytics website numberFire that he vehemently disagreed with, he emailed the editor, who asked if Raybon wanted to start writing for them for free. Over time, Raybon started building an audience and improving his analysis, and in turn he was able to get paid more and more for his writing. Finally, he left his accounting job for a full-time position writing for the fantasy site 4for4 to launch its DFS coverage.

Thrust into the nascent DFS space, Raybon watched as the game’s legality was challenged. “When the legality of DFS was being questioned, it was uncomfortable for me personally,” he said. “If DFS is no more, I’m probably out of a job.” But Raybon transitioned smoothly to his new career. These days, he splits his time between writing for the Action Network, an upstart subscription media company focused on sports betting, and its sister website FantasyLabs, as well as co-hosting Fantasy Sports Radio on SiriusXM and I’ll Take That Bet on ESPN+. There’s a large appetite for his analysis.

 Lisa Lake/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Former NFL player Torry Holt broadcasts live at the SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio talk show, cohosted by Chris Raybon.

Despite the emergence of sports betting, Adam Levitan is sticking with DFS. Levitan, who has an established background writing about DFS for RotoWorld, recently launched Establish the Run, a new DFS football website, with partner Evan Silva. The model is simple: $204.99 for an entire NFL season of their analysis, top plays, rankings, and more. With an enormous following on Twitter and his popular Daily Fantasy Football Edge podcast, Levitan has made a career out of DFS.

“I like football, but I like playing fantasy and trying to outsmart people more,” he says. “I think if I didn’t play fantasy, I don’t know how much sports I would really watch. People don’t want to hear that. But I think you could be better at fantasy when you don’t care. And I think that if you follow the game from more of a data-driven perspective, you don’t get swayed by small-sample outlier stuff.”

Fantasy and sports betting has given fans new ways and reasons to watch. “I would never watch Jaguars-Titans in a million years, but if I have fantasy players in it, then of course I’m watching Jaguars-Titans,” Levitan says. “I really think without fantasy football, the NFL would not be where it is today.”

Raybon says the fantasy and sports betting worlds are the “most merged they’ve ever been” because not only is the audience the same, but many analysts — including him — use their data to forecast results in both. “For me, I have a spreadsheet and a model and I’m projecting every game and every player and every team every week anyway,” he said. “It’s the same information, it’s the same skills that are necessary.”

And in addition to the niche sites and podcasts, mainstream sports media have caught on. For fantasy ESPN has The Fantasy Show and Yahoo hosts Fantasy Football Live. And they’ve doubled down on sports betting content too: ESPN’s Daily Wager and Fox Sports’ Lock It In are just two examples. (Vox Media, which owns this site, has a deal between DraftKings and Vox’s SB Nation sports property.)

Outside of media, individual retailers have gotten into the fray. RotoWear, a website selling tongue-in-cheek apparel for sports fans, has its origins in fantasy sports (hence the roto- prefix) and has an entire collection of fantasy- and DFS-related merch. (One T-shirt lists BABIP & wOBA & xFIP & SwStr & WAR — mostly obscure but effective baseball statistics — in that now-ubiquitous shirt design.) Professional baseball players like Aaron Judge and Max Muncy have recently been spotted in RotoWear shirts. ESPN host Matthew Berry runs the FantasyLife website, selling fantasy-related merch, including apparel and a $159 26-inch trophy for fantasy league losers with a toilet on it.

The thrills of DFS and sports betting are popping up in real life too — not just in terrestrial casinos and DraftKings or FanDuel-hosted tournament finals, but in bars and restaurants. The Virginia-based company Eaglestrike Fantasy Sports has fantasy kiosks in sports bars across five states and hosts live fantasy competitions too. In Washington, DC, when sports betting becomes fully operational, individual bars and restaurants can apply for special licenses to host sports betting too. It might not be long before fantasy and sports betting are a staple of the modern sports bar.

From the time he was 5 years old, Roth knew he wanted to be a TV weatherman. And by all accounts, he achieved his dream. In Dallas, he worked on a show, Eye Opener, that was syndicated, which meant he often forecast the weather for viewers in Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Portland, and DC as well. “I felt like I made it,” Roth told me. “This was the dream job. I loved the show I was on. But at the same time I just knew it wasn’t sustainable.”

Roth started to feel the financial constraints of the local TV news business, and they were becoming increasingly troublesome. At one point, Roth was asked to handle weather, sports, traffic, and anchor broadcasts. “Things kept getting shittier in the TV industry,” he recalls.

In 2014, Roth started working a second job. Through a friend of a friend, he found out that RotoGrinders needed someone to predict whether baseball games would rain out or not. Roth had always been a “huge sports nut” and dabbled in traditional season-long fantasy leagues but had never even heard of DFS. “I didn’t even know what DraftKings was,” Roth says. “But I knew weather and sports. And that was really all I needed.”

As his TV work became shakier, the DFS industry was growing rapidly and with it grew the scope of his responsibilities. Eventually, Roth was let go from the station, along with the rest of his on-air team, and his show was canceled. Shortly after, RotoGrinders made him a full-time offer.

Roth’s lifelong dream of being on TV had ended, but he had hedged his bet on a promising media company supporting a budding industry.

While his lifestyle is different now, only some things are different about his work. “In TV you’re forecasting for not just a city but a whole area, like the DFW Metroplex and all surrounding counties, so you can be very general. You can say ‘30 percent chance of rain,’” he says. “In sports, you’re forecasting for one particular game in one particular spot at one specific time. Thirty percent doesn’t cut it. Maybes are not accepted in sports betting.”

Throughout his career, Roth’s singular dream was to return to his hometown of Tampa as a meteorologist. Recently, he turned down a job offer to do just that.

Maybe one day he’ll get back to that original dream, but for now, things are going well for Kevin Roth in fantasy land.

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Author: Scott Nover

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