The inevitable rise of real-time fantasy sports

Final at-bats of baseball games provide the perfection intersection of micro-fantasy and gambling. David Dennis/Icon Sportswire

DFS today, RTFS tomorrow?

Acronyms aside, daily fantasy's rise in popularity is impossible to miss -- but real-time fantasy sports is imminent. If permitted under federal and state law, live prop bets could be coming soon too. And both promise to be second screen experiences that sports fans will likely devour.

While in-game betting is commonplace in Europe, it barely registers in the United States. Likewise, U.S.-style fantasy is just beginning in the United Kingdom, for example. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has mentioned live options as a possibility for basketball, but it has yet to take hold. Dynamic fantasy sports and as-it-happens proposition wagers may be the vehicles for change.

Micro-fantasy, perhaps?

"In-game fantasy sports platforms are certain to gain some traction in the next few years, as the appetite for new games, instant gratification and marketing dollars is so significant right now," said Tom Masterman, chief revenue officer for Sportradar US in Minneapolis.

Masterman explained how aspects of Sportradar's recently inked exclusive deal with the NFL will be activated in ways that transcend gaming too.

"Beginning this season, real-time player tracking will be captured for every player, every play and every game," Masterman told ESPN Chalk. "Broadcasters, portals, fantasy sports and social media are just some of the platforms that will make use of this innovative data.

"By this time next year, we expect new stats like openness, separation/closing speed and route efficiency to enter the vernacular of the average football fan."

Daily fantasy contests of the type made available by industry titans DraftKings and FanDuel have already given way to real-time offerings by a number of upstarts. These contests commence after the underlying games start. They continue as events unfold on the court, field, pitch or diamond.

"Real-time fantasy is the future," explained InGame Fantasy CEO and co-founder Dan Cook during a recent phone interview with ESPN Chalk. "In our case, it is also the present; the real-time aspect is more engaging."

The prospect of real-time fantasy has garnered the attention of industry stakeholders outside the U.S. as well.

"There is definitely a potential for fantasy sports to head in the direction of real-time," said Mark Locke, CEO of Sport Integrity Monitor, a London-based technology and betting data company. "The question is how this will be affected by legalized sports betting in the U.S."

During March 17, 2015, oral arguments in the yet-to-be-decided New Jersey sports betting case, attorney Paul Clement, representing the NCAA, NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB in their lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie, may have foreshadowed the leagues' plan in this space.

In the course of questioning from the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia, Clement repeatedly referred to a low-stakes "friends and family plan" as a permissible exemption to the 1992 federal law that has put the freeze on expanded sports wagering options in the U.S.

"When I read the court transcript, his comments resonated with me immediately," said Kasim Ahmad, founder and CEO of Cincinnati-based Waygr (pronounced "wager"), a new exchange-based platform that tracks wagers among participants in real time. "Clement is foreshadowing where the market is going."

David Lockton of Winview Games in San Francisco has a view of where the market is moving as well.

"Real-time options blew away DFS in Europe years ago," said Lockton. "All of our offerings are free to play [and] have the same feel as the in-game betting that is so popular in Europe.

"Our version is tournament-based, with sponsor-backed prizes that include various real-time propositions as determined by our experts."

The fuel for all these fast-acting ventures, whether cash-based, free to play or largely unrelated to gaming altogether, comes from high-quality real-time data. A growing industry of private companies (as well as the sports leagues themselves) brings instant data to fans.

"Breadth of data, speed of data, accuracy of data and presentation of data now lie at the heart of any serious or sophisticated sport platform," said Alex Inglot, head of communications for Sportradar AG. "This applies] whether it is traditional media, social media, second screen applications, mobile or fantasy products."

The foundation for such applications was laid decades ago.

In 1991 congressional hearings, former NBA commissioner David Stern testified in support of legislation that eventually became the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the same federal law at issue in the current New Jersey sports gambling case.

"The proposed legislation would also help protect sports leagues' valuable property rights in their games, scores, statistics and trademarks," explained Stern.

The same issues reappeared five years later in a legal case.

"The most valuable economic asset of any professional sports league is live sports competition," wrote lawyers for the NFL, NHL and MLB in a 1996 court document obtained by ESPN Chalk.

During the same legal proceeding, lawyers for the NBA provided more details.

"[Our] principal product is the action and excitement of NBA games in progress," wrote the NBA's attorneys. "Games achieve their greatest value while they are in progress -- that is, in 'real time.'"

This exact sentiment is espoused today.

"We're incredibly protective of our live game rights," said NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference earlier this year.

Technology has now caught up with the legal arguments from the 1990s. The result is engaged fans watching live game telecasts while simultaneously interacting with any number of contests on their smartphones, tablets or laptops. Fully immersed in a DVR-proof second screen experience rarely seen outside of sports, fans become active, not passive, consumers. That is something sports leagues, broadcasters, advertisers and fantasy operators all understand -- in real time.

"The optimal situation for illustrative purposes is the last at-bat situation in baseball," said Dan Cook of InGame Fantasy. "Both the game itself and the fantasy contest are on the line."