They were the ads that couldn’t be avoided last year at this time – with a TV spot airing every 90 seconds touting daily fantasy sports leaders DraftKings and FanDuel.
Twelve months, hundreds of millions of ad dollars and a whole lot of political and legal hand-wringing later, Outside the Lines and ESPN The Magazine today unfurl a definitive, behind-the-scenes special report into the sudden rise and rapid fall of the daily fantasy industry.
The multi-platform story is reported by Don Van Natta Jr., senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print Media and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. (Outside the Lines debuts its feature on Wednesday’s OTL (ESPN2, 1:00 p.m. ET), followed by an on-set discussion with host Bob Ley and Van Natta. Watch the trailer. The story also will appear in the NFL Preview edition of ESPN The Magazine, which hits newsstands Friday.)
Van Natta conducted more than 50 interviews over several months with daily fantasy executives, current and former players, legislators, lobbyists, lawyers, investigators, and consultants. His 10,500-word narrative reveals that the industry’s implosion began with a series of tactical mistakes made by a pair of bitterly hostile startup companies that all but dared federal and state authorities to shut down the sites over concerns the games constituted illegal gambling.
“That personal rivalry between FanDuel CEO Nigel Eccles and DraftKings CEO Jason Robins began in large part because FanDuel was first in the space and because Eccles saw DraftKings as a clone not to be taken seriously,” Van Natta said. “It became a ‘kill or be killed’ culture for gaining and retaining customers.”
– Don Van Natta Jr.
The reporting was difficult and slow-going at first because both companies are under criminal investigation and have multiple lawsuits pending, Van Natta said.
“When I started, very few people were motivated to speak with me,” he said. “But I kept running at people and eventually gained the trust of nearly everyone in the industry. Ultimately, I was able to collect enough pieces of the puzzle to begin putting together what I hope is the definitive story about daily fantasy’s dramatic plunge.”
Van Natta ended up with two large boxes in his office filled with transcripts, court files, and other documents. Before beginning to write, he says, he spent three days reading every word on every page to help build what he called the “architecture” for the written piece.
“Determining the best way to tell the story was tough,” said Van Natta, who will mark five years with ESPN in January. “There was so much material that it became one of the hardest stories I’ve had to write since I started working at ESPN.”
It was also the first time Van Natta put up his own money to help him understand a subject he was investigating.
“I started on DraftKings with $100 and played for months so that I could better understand the game and delineation of chance versus skill,” he said. “Several daily fantasy executives complained that other journalists who have been critical of their companies never actually played the games or understood how they worked. I do feel playing really helped me, even though I lost money like nearly all regular daily fantasy players.”