Eric Karabell isn't a household name in the sports world. In fact, as a short man who wears glasses and isn't particularly fit, Karabell is more apt to be labeled a geek than an athlete.
But these days, Karabell wears a smile as wide as anyone just crowned the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player. That's because in the world of fantasy sports, he's a godfather.
Karabell came to Disney's (DIS) ESPN in 1997 as an editor for its nascent website, ESPN.com. Shortly afterward, he convinced his bosses that this fantasy game stuff warranted deeper and more concentrated analysis. And an investment on the part of Disney.
Back then, a handful of hard-core ESPN lifers realized that fantasy sports had loyal followings, mainly as an outgrowth of rotisserie baseball, statistically-charged games that became popular in the early-1980s, well before the Internet. Yet, few had actually played it. Karabell, though, had the good fortune of good timing. As the Internet went mainstream, playing fantasy sports became exponentially easier, and a social phenomenon was born. Eighteen years later, he's makes a very good living handicapping fantasy sports for ESPN.
"There certainly weren't analysts like me advising, informing and entertaining fantasy players," Karabell said in a phone interview. "Now, you can play a fantasy game in virtually any sport, full-season or daily. It's a billion-dollar industry and I'm just glad to be a part of it."
Actually, that's not accurate. According to American Express, (AXP) it's a nearly $5 billion industry, and Karabell has become one of the leading authorities to its nearly 75 million participants. That's 75 million.
When you consider that the league boasted more than 200 million unique viewers last season -- 80% of all homes with a television -- it still has room for incredible growth.
No wonder everyone wants a piece of the action. In the fantasy space, in addition to ESPN, there's 21st Century Fox (FOX) and CBS (CBS) , which all have multi-billion dollar contracts to televise the bulk of NFL games, and Yahoo! (YHOO) , which has sought to become a central gathering place for fantasy sites. The pay-TV operator Comcast (CMCSA) , meanwhile, is investing in an upstart daily fantasy brand FanDuel to complement its NBC network which also televises a handful of games.Whether it's season-long competitions in baseball or hockey, or daily fantasy games in any sport, one thing is clear: Football dominates the fantasy sports industry, and the NFL couldn't be happier.
As the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers open the NFL season on Thursday, it's like Mardi Gras, Christmas and New Year's wrapped into one. The beginning of football season is, perhaps, the most lucrative time on the fantasy sports calendar as sites collect millions of dollars in entry fees. Of course, the full season lasts five months, providing platform operators even more opportunities to generate revenue.
"Football is the most popular," said Karabell. "Whereas some view baseball as a six-month grind, especially with daily moves, football is but once a week. Fantasy football has grown at a much higher rate."
Much of that recent growth is being fueled by increasing interest in daily fantasy games, which are usually completed in one day rather than the typical 2-5 days or full season for regular fantasy league games. Unlike weekly or season-long contests, the daily games give participants a chance to make or lose money every day of the week. As participation has surged so has investor interest. FanDuel has raised $363 million, while its chief rival DraftKings has brought in $426 million in financing.
Of the two, DraftKings is less than five years old but is growing at a clip of more than 700% per year. FanDuel is a little older and a little bigger, but both are showing exponential growth.
"Last year, it was more of a curiosity. Now it's everywhere," said Karabell.
For an old-school geek like Karabell, the explosion of daily fantasy may seem like a threat. But it's not.
"It's certainly taking the industry into new directions, which is a good thing," he said. "The leagues playing roles matters greatly. Daily fantasy is very different than traditional, but I'm glad it's here."
As Brad Pitt's Billy Beane character says in Moneyball: "Adapt or die." Karabell better like it because daily fantasy games have put more pressure on pundits to remain relevant. And brands like ESPN's Sportscenter are no longer subtle about how the country's most iconic highlight show feeds the beast.
"We'll do highlights specifically to show a horrendous loss for somebody that gave 7.5 points," anchor Scott Van Pelt recently told media web site TVNewser. "We'll do that because people bet."
There has been some pushback for this transparency, especially from the so-called amateur ranks of major college sports, however it's clear that fantasy sports may be the driver of sports media consumption -- making columnists like Eric Karabell indispensable.
Proof again that geeks -- think Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos -- really do inherit the earth.