Field Position Football Data

Fan Favorite

Data and Daily Fantasy Sports

Is it gambling? Is it skill? Or perhaps the bigger question about daily fantasy sports, FBI investigation notwithstanding: Could the NFL actually learn something from the avid at-home data analysts winning big at DFS?

Vince Gennaro, ’77, president of the Society for American Baseball Research, thinks so. He credits some of the current DFS boom to the popularity of the fantasy baseball played on a less-than-daily basis in the 1990s. Fans intent on winning their fantasy leagues ushered in a mainstream interest in advanced metrics. This appetite spawned a generation of websites devoted to analytics. And MLB teams actually wound up using data from those sites to support real-world decisions. “If the data is out there and in the public domain,” Gennaro said, “teams will absolutely learn from the fantasy players. But that also depends on the sport.”

The factors in football that put its analytics decades behind baseball—the NFL 16-game regular season, to MLB’s 162, for one—are precisely what make football so appealing to today’s DFS amateurs. Football is manageable. The data is easier to absorb, process, and apply. The lucrative, obsessive participation in DFS has confirmed the appetite for analytics among football fans after all. Players logged about 8 million daily entries on the two most-popular DFS sites in early October alone.

So while US state attorneys general around the country consider whether fantasy games should be considered legal or not, maybe NFL teams should be looking at fantasy sites to see if they can glean any helpful information.

Professor Tobias J. Moskowitz said that because DFS puts a monetary value on each offensive player (fantasy players are limited by a standardized budget) an independent market is created. Everybody knows Tom Brady’s value will be high. But for a less-proven player, like third-down running back Dion Lewis, that monetary value will fluctuate based on popularity, matchups, and, yes, advanced analysis.

“There is information there,” Moskowitz said about the sheer amount of market-calibrated data. “And it’s information you probably can’t compute yourself because you can’t create a market. So I would suspect some of the better teams in terms of analytics are looking to that data.”

Ken Kovash, ’06, VP of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns, said that it seems a little too early to tell if DFS might affect the way the pro franchises think about analytics in the future. But he agreed with Moskowitz’s assessment of DFS as market creation. “It’s a market that produces information,” Kovash said. “So someone could look at that information and see if it’s actually helpful or predictive to teams. You always want to be open minded to those sorts of things.”

—By Zach Schonbrun