No matter what the sport or the level of management, the infusion of gambling and fantasy gaming into the conversation is hard to avoid. Tuesday night at the regular monthly gathering of the New York Sports Venture Capital proved the point as three elite former athletes took turns tackling those and other hot topics.
Former member of the New York Giants Charles Way, former ATP pro Patrick McEnroe, and former college basketball star and ex-coach of the New York Knicks and Vancouver Grizzlies Stu Jackson did not hold back when talking about the issues and challenges athletes face post playing career, nor did they shy away from the issue of analytics, fantasy and gambling.
Television personality Julie Alexandria kicked off the night by focusing on the breaking news of the day – Isiah Thomas back in basketball in New York, this time with the WNBA’s NY Liberty team.
McEnroe said his first reaction was, “Are you kidding me?”
From there the night moved fast.
While some of the time was spent talking about how the athletes managed challenges, filled the gaps in their lives after a lifetime of training and playing and forming new careers in business, the conversation soon turned to analytics and pay fantasy for both the athletes and the business of sport.
McEnroe, who recently finished his run as USTA Director of Professional Player Development and remains active in broadcasting, talked openly about the issues of gambling in tennis, a sport which he said is the second-most wagered on sport in the world. He said most of the players do not earn much on the circuit – and is a proponent of changing the way prize money is distributed – so the temptation to shave a match at the lower levels is great. He said players at those lower levels have been suspended for questionable playing.
Jackson, now Associate Commissioner for The BIG EAST Conference, talked about the need for an understanding of analytics to get ahead in business and the value fantasy gaming has brought to the NBA in terms of fan engagement.
“There is no doubt pay fantasy has been very important to the engagement of fans, especially young fans today, and I think everything leagues like the NBA have done to embrace, rather than shun, the gaming/gambling space is the right thing to do. It’s not going away, it’s only going to grow,” Jackson added.
Jackson said he is a fan of fantasy because it will help the sport grow globally.
He also said he is a big proponent in analyzing data. “The day of saying, “I know it when I see it,” is over.”
McEnroe, admittedly not a fantasy player, was a lot more direct about the issues and opportunities technology, and fantasy sports, have in tennis. “Hey tennis was first with electronic line calls which have now become a part of the game, and we need more innovation to keep going,” McEnroe said.
Asked how his brother, famed hothead superstar John McEnroe, would have fared with the replays changing the calls, Patrick quipped that his brother still would have argued with the technology.
“As far as fantasy, I view it as gambling and although I don’t play, we know it (gambling) goes on and the sport has had its issues with scandal because of the wide discrepancy in pay for the athletes. As long as there is still such a wide gap and gambling is out there unregulated, there will probably continue to be some problems,” McEnroe said. “Fantasy is like legalized betting.”
Way, now of the staff at the NFL, deflected most of the talk around the gaming/gambling issue, not surprising given the NFL’s stance as being the most dogged public opponent on the issue of legalized gambling. However,he acknowledged the need for continued engagement through analytics and the growth of fantasy as an engagement tool, although he did add that, “Unlike other sports, success in football is much more tied to chemistry and culture, something which analytics helps but doesn’t take precedence over at this point.”
How all this ties into the careers of today’s athletes is not perfectly clear, but all three acknowledged that the success post-career must involve deep thought and commitment to surrounding yourself with the right people on the business side as you did when you were playing. That will now involve more of an understanding of analytics for business or sport, while keeping an eye on the growing business of gaming as it evolves into a lucrative profession for some athletes post-career; not in being a greeter in a casino as happened in year’s past, but as a trusted advisor for companies looking to engage in sport through analytics and potentially pay fantasy.
Where all the pay fantasy, legal gambling aspect of sport goes in the future remains up for great debate in the United States, but the conversation across sports continues to lead back to one thing; the business of engaging fans is more and more tied to data, analytics and fan engagement through fantasy, whether you are on the tennis court or the gridiron, and the pot continues to grow.