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by robert cocuzzo | February 23, 2015 | People
Why it’s good to be Jason Robins, the king of one of the country’s fastest-growing fantasy sports start-ups, DraftKings.
Jason Robins is turning fantasy sports teams into real dollars for his investors and customers.
Warning: CEOs, avert your eyes. According to a recent study, US companies lose an estimated $13.4 billion on fantasy football every year. No, it’s not that these firms are crummy at picking their rosters on draft day. Rather, the study found that millions of Americans spend at least two hours a week checking stats, making trades, and managing their fantasy teams—all on company time. So where’s that $13.4 billion worth of distraction going? Meet Jason Robins.
“I can’t think of a time when I was able to use a computer that I wasn’t playing fantasy,” Robins tells me over drinks at Scholars American Bistro & Cocktail Lounge in downtown Boston. The 34-year-old is CEO of DraftKings, one of the fastest-growing fantasy sports start-ups in the country. With $74.8 million in backing and more than a million registered users and counting, DraftKings has sacked competitors, buying out both DraftStreet and StarStreet in the span of two months last summer. Now, in true Red Sox/Yankees fashion, this Boston-based company is battling for the top spot in the nation against a New York City rival known as FanDuel.
Robins is fast-talking and easy to like. He sits with one arm slung casually over the back of his chair, exuding a confidence that’s equal parts Poindexter and Don Draper. “Sports are evergreen,” he says. “The content is constantly new, and the numbers you can look into are just endless.” Robins is making good use of this limitless flow of content. Beyond hosting daily games and leagues across a wide range of fantasy sports, he and co-founders Matt Kalish and Paul Liberman have created a bustling digital marketplace and entertainment provider. Robins wants DraftKings to be like Facebook: the first site people check after waking up and the last they check before going to bed. With his players now averaging some four hours a week on DraftKings, achieving that status may not be a fantasy.
Born in California and educated at Duke University, Robins was an executive at Capital One and then Vistaprint, where—literally at the watercooler— he, Kalish, and Liberman hatched the idea for DraftKings. In 2012, Boston became the team’s base of operations, due to the Hub’s thriving tech talent pool, which Robins says is on a par with Silicon Valley’s. The city also offers a “passion point” when it comes to fantasy sports. “Of everywhere I’ve lived,” he says, “Boston has by far the most knowledgeable sports fans.”
Robins and Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil, after they signed an exclusive partnership deal last year.
Robins himself is a diehard fan of the New England Patriots, but not for the reasons you might think. “Bill Belichick is incredible. Tom Brady is an unbelievable quarterback. Their whole team is world-class,” he says. “But it all starts with the vision the Krafts have in how they want to build that organization.” Robins has good reason to sing the praises of team owner Robert Kraft and his sons. Last October, he landed the Patriots as a partner, the first time a pro football team has aligned with a fantasy sports provider. Digital signage at Gillette Stadium and DraftKings content on the team’s social media feeds are part of the package. A month later, he signed the Denver Broncos to a similar deal. “The Krafts run a top-notch organization,” he says. “They’re inspirational to anyone who’s building a business.” Just then, the table starts vibrating. Robins picks up one of his two iPhones. “Speaking of which, will you excuse me for a second?” He flashes me the screen: Incoming call… Jonathan Kraft.
Robins retreats to a far corner of the bar to take the call from the Patriots’ second-in-command. Although he doesn’t look tired, the young CEO hasn’t slept more than a couple of hours in the last two days. Just before kickoff the previous Sunday, a bug in the code of DraftKings’ website caused it to go down. These things do happen. The same kind of crash struck the company’s nemesis a month earlier. But rather than hide behind the Internet curtain, Robins took the error on the chin, appearing on DraftKings’ YouTube channel to answer questions and issue his mea culpa. He also pledged to refund any losses that players might have incurred during the outage. Talk about customer service.
DraftKings has also become known for making many of its players filthy rich. Dave and Rob Gomes, for instance, became the first Bostonians to win DraftKings’ weekly Millionaire Maker. Twenty-seven bucks and their lucky selection of newly signed Patriots running back Jonas Gray in week seven turned the Gomes brothers into the toast of their mother’s North End restaurant, where they received a giant million-dollar check. And the Gomeses are not alone. DraftKings pays out more than $13 million in winnings each week.
When Robins will collect his own DraftKings winnings remains unclear. He says there is probably an IPO in the company’s future, and if the confidence of his early investors is any indication, the play will hardly be a gamble. Meanwhile, Robins is content to continue playing the game he’s in: a young tech entrepreneur turning his fantasy into reality, one click at a time.
DraftKings player James Tran won this first-place trophy and $1 million in 2013.
The CEO of DraftKings shares his inspirations in sports and in business.
Game Night: “Boston Beer Works is my favorite place to watch a game. I was there when I watched the Celtics’ epic comeback against the Lakers in the NBA finals a few years ago. Now I’m superstitious and try to watch big games there as often as possible.”
Sports Town: “When you look at Boston, it’s pretty clear that the fans understand the teams and the sports more. Fantasy sports rank higher relative to the population in Boston than in almost any other city in the country.”
Words of Wisdom: For business advice, Robins turns to The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman, who writes: “Most entrepreneurs want to make a lot of money and to run the show. New research shows that it’s tough to do both. If you don’t fgure out which matters more to you, you could end up being neither rich nor king…. Founders’ choices are straightforward: Do they want to be rich or king?”
photography by Ian travIs barnard; davId dow/nba (robIns and o’neIl)
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