Anthony Forde likes to compare the skills he uses on daily fantasy sports websites like FanDuel and DraftKings to Wall Street and poker.
He spends hours researching which hitters bat best against left-handed pitchers and which NBA players make the most free throws. Sometimes he's up until 4 a.m. looking up statistics. For Forde, who works as an admissions counselor for Ultimate Medical Academy in Clearwater, it has paid off. He has made almost $65,000 on fantasy sports sites this year.
But does he consider it gambling?
"No. … Well, I guess to a certain extent, yes," said Forde, 26, who admits that he's on his phone almost all day checking scores and stats. "It takes a lot of time and dedication. There's a lot of skill involved but yes, it's really addictive."
You can't watch a college or professional football game this season without seeing a barrage of advertisements for sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, Web-based companies that offer daily fantasy sports matchups where players can win big bucks — sometimes as much as $1 million jackpots. These companies spent $206 million this year on TV ads that show your average Joes taking home enormous checks after watching the game in a bar drinking beer with their friends.
But these sites — valued at billions this year — have come under fire recently, as investigators and regulators question the legality of the games and challenge instances of insider plays. Some states, like Nevada, have ordered the websites to shut down until they obtain proper gambling licenses, like the ones casinos have.
Playing the online games is similar to free fantasy football leagues offered by ESPN or Yahoo! Sports, where teams are created and each player chooses a roster of NFL players for the season. What's different on fantasy sites like FanDuel and DraftKings is that players can pick new team lineups for a variety of sports — from college and NFL football, to baseball, basketball, golf or even mixed martial arts — and compete for money daily. High-stakes games cost as much as $25 to play, and lower-stakes games could cost a quarter or $1 to play.
That entry fee is added to a larger pool of money collected from all participants. Each player wins points based on the real-life stats of players who performed during a given period. Payouts are determined by the number of points accumulated.
Forde started playing daily fantasy games last year after becoming frustrated from losing in season-long fantasy football leagues he bet money on with his friends.
"It always got to a point when my team wasn't that good any more in the middle of the season and I knew I wasn't going to make any money," he said. "That's when I started seeing the ads popping up on TV, so I jumped into it."
Last year, Forde lost about $2,000 playing the daily fantasy games. He chalks it up to inexperience. But he never quit, and was determined to get better.
"Once I started making a decent amount of money on it, I was hooked," Forde said.
He started entering contests that some of the most successful players were in, people who had risen to pseudo-celebrity status because of how much money they'd won.
"I started watching how they picked their lineups and how they were winning," Forde said. "And I found success."
Forde is launching a website this month where he will sell his tips and skills to other fantasy players. Want to know who he's putting in his lineup this week? That will cost you a couple of bucks.
Ray Lampe, a restaurant consultant and chef based in St. Petersburg, was drawn to fantasy sports websites through the incessant advertisements.
"The ads make me feel like the NFL supports it, like they're a partner in this with how often you see them, so it must be legitimate," said Lampe, 58, who plays on sites like DraftKings once a week. He isn't in it to win $20 here and there. He bets only on the high-stakes contests for Sunday NFL games hoping to win the $1.2 million pot some day.
He hasn't won any money yet.
"To me, it's like playing the lotto. It's a fun thing, and it's not that dangerous if you have self control," Lampe said. "It's made me more involved with the league. If I'm playing a St. Louis running back this week, I'm going to care about that game even if St. Louis was never really a team I liked or watched."
And that's music to the ears of professional sports leagues.
FanDuel partnered with the NBA last year for specific promotions and has sponsorship agreements with more than a dozen NFL teams. DraftKings partnered with MLB. The games are drawing more people into bars, into stadiums and to TV screens to watch.
"With stadiums adding free Wi-Fi and new digital tickers so fans can track the scores of other games while they're sitting in the stands, I don't see fantasy sites going away any time soon," said Steve Dolan, a Philadelphia-based sports blogger who writes a weekly fantasy draft pick blog for CBS Sports. With the evolution of high-definition televisions and live streaming access from virtually any device, pro sports teams are constantly looking for new ways to get fans in seats at live games.
"They need to do something to counteract watching from home," Dolan said, and jumping on the fantasy bandwagon is one way they're doing that.
And this is a problem, said Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program in Los Angeles.
"The argument is that it's a form of entertainment and another way to watch a sports game. It's a game of skill, like poker, or even the lottery, with fixed odds," Fong said. "The difference is that the wagers aren't always fair. There are people in fantasy games that have more access to information, research and time. That's what makes this confusing."
To Fong, it is absolutely a form of gambling that can lead to addiction. Though not as mainstream as blackjack or poker or other gambling game addictions, it's become a cause of concern for centers that treat addiction, he said.
And because of that, he thinks it requires more regulation.
"No one predicted when daily fantasy games was going to emerge and we don't know when it will stop," Fong said, though he thinks it will eventually lose its luster and live on as a passionate cult following. "But it's a step toward 'gameifying' our lifestyles. What will happen if I could wager on how fast I can get home from work? It certainly makes my drive more interesting, but it's dangerous."
Contact Justine Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.