What I Learned About DraftKings After Playing Basketball With Its CEO

Aug 09, 2017

My very first interaction with DraftKings CEO Jason Robins involved me flailing my arms in the air and screaming, “Turn! I’m open!”

He didn’t turn, and I wasn’t open. I was simply yelling what I thought was proper basketball terminology to a teammate, as Robins and I were in the middle of “playing” the game at Madison Square Garden.

How did I find myself in this situation? Just weeks ago, DraftKings’ merger with rival daily fantasy sports site FanDuel unraveled over antitrust concerns, which means both companies are (again) operating as competitors. Robins now faces the daunting task of not only proving that the business model is sustainable, but also that it can support two companies offering virtually identical products and services.

Thus, basketball. My experience on the floor of Madison Square Garden was part of a media debrief for reporters, clearly meant to convey that while yes, the merger had failed, everything was still very much under control. (New product launches! More ad campaigns!)

The event itself was elaborate. After arriving at the arena, reporters were guided to locker rooms where we received DraftKings branded jerseys, backpacks, and swag. Prior to the presentations and interviews, journalists and DraftKings executives teamed up to play two 10-minute halves on the famed MSG court. The entire executive team played, including co-founders Robins, Matt Kalish, and Paul Liberman.

As great as it was to yell at DraftKings’ CEO, before turning to another executive and demanding “Can you just stop moving so I can block you,” I didn’t leave with any details regarding how the company plans to outmaneuver FanDuel going forward. Although several DraftKings executives discussed the company’s strategy for the upcoming NFL season, no one spent time discussing the failed merger during the presentation.

For those who don’t remember the details, here’s a quick summary: Fantasy sports betting startups DraftKings and FanDuel had big plans to merge this fall, a move that would expand their offerings and integrate their tech stacks just in time for football season. Robins would become the CEO of the combined entity. None of that happened because the two companies called off the proposed merger in July after the Federal Trade Commission announced legal action to block it over antitrust concerns. Read a more comprehensive explainer here.

I was still sweating from the activities on the court when, over lunch, I finally got the chance to ask Robins about the company’s strategy post-failed merger.

I didn’t get much out of him, other than that the company will be introducing new features but won’t be fundraising anytime soon. (“We don’t need money now. We raised a bunch of money during the merger process,” said Robins, referring to the $100 million in Series E1 round of funding the company raised in March.)

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When regulators moved to block the proposed merger, DraftKings and FanDuel said, “We are disappointed by this decision and continue to believe that a merger is in the best interests of our players, our companies, our employees and the fantasy sports industry.”

And it made sense. As a combined entity, the nearly identical companies would have been able to pool their resources to get daily fantasy sports legalized throughout the United States. Now, they have to focus on emphasizing their differences to users and the media.

“Those are all things that will differentiate us as a company,” Robins said, citing DraftKings’ new premium content offerings and app features. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘What is this thing going to look like in three years?’ It will obviously be very different than it is today.”

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