scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Shirley Leung

DraftKings and the power of luck

Shirley Leung chose Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to be part of her team, raising the question: There’s a football team in the Carolinas?Ryan Kang/Associated Press

It was the “Whaaaat?!#$?” heard around suburbia Sunday night when I told my husband that my fantasy football team was beating his.

Not only that, but my inaugural entry in a DraftKings contest was at the time doing better than lineups submitted by two members of the esteemed Globe sports department. Yes, I will name names.

I spent the weekend logged onto the DraftKings website to try to answer the question that is on people’s minds: Is daily fantasy sports a game of chance or a game of skill? It’s an important distinction because if the contest is mostly luck, it should be labeled — and regulated — as gambling. The fantasy industry has come under fire recently with investigations launched by the FBI and some states into whether it violates gaming laws.


For me, there was only one way to find out if it was better to be lucky or smart: take on those who know more about football than me.

Let me sum up what I know about the gridiron. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are star players for the New England Patriots, coach Bill Belichick is a grouch, billionaire Bob Kraft owns the team, and they all went to the Super Bowl this year. Did I hear something about an issue with a ball?

My idea of a fantasy involves lounging on a float in the picture-perfect Caribbean. Since I know even less about fantasy sports, I decided to draft a team based on average-priced players, or about $5,500 each, rather than spend lavishly on a few superstars.

A quick primer: Fantasy league participants create teams made up of players from different teams. At Boston-based DraftKings, players are assigned dollar values based on performance; for example, stars such as Brady and Gronkowski, cost more, at $8,100 and $7,600 respectively.


In the DraftKings football contests, participants create a nine-player roster using a fictitious team salary cap of $50,000. Skill comes into play because you need to weigh everything — from the momentum of players to the opponents they face that day to game-time weather.

With no such skill, I took a chance on drafting players with mid-sized salaries. So instead of picking an expensive quarterback, I got Cincinnati Bengal Andy Dalton for $5,700. My tight end was Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers for $5,500. Who knew the Carolinas even had a football team. Another value investment: Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin for $5,000.

While I was looking at salaries, my husband and sports department colleagues were studying matchups, carries for running backs, and targets for receivers.

Didn’t matter. On Sunday night, with a few games to go, I was beating Globe sports columnist Chris Gasper, Globe fantasy sports reporter Ed Ryan, and my husband.

By Monday morning, my team bested the rosters put together by my husband and Gasper. In fact, I did better than half of the 2,500 entries in our contest involving Sunday NFL games. Not bad for a rookie.

But I wasn’t ready to call myself a DraftQueen.

Ryan and Globe senior sports editor Scott Thurston did better — but not well enough to do any gloating. In the end, none of us made back our $27 entry fee or came close to cracking the top 500 to claim a cash prize. The top payout was $10,000.


So what did we just learn here? This is clearly a game of chance — but also a game of skill. But it’s not as simple as knowing as much football as Gasper. You also have to know how to play fantasy competitions. DraftKings was all new to Gasper, too.

And that’s where I have a problem with this fast-growing industry: The marketing of fantasy contests makes it seem like any sports junkie has a shot at winning a $1 million.

That’s not right, and that’s where regulators such as Attorney General Maura Healey can have an immediate impact on protecting consumers.

Those commercials need to be toned down or at the very least come with more truth in advertising. The fine print in one DraftKings TV ad, for example, boasts how the average user’s winnings over a 12-month period is $1,263. What it doesn’t tell you is how much was spent to earn those payouts. Already, customers have filed lawsuits against DraftKings and rival FanDuel alleging deceptive marketing practices related to how they advertise their deposit bonuses.

This is something else customers should know: A much-cited McKinsey & Co. study suggests that most of the winnings from fantasy contests go to the same small group of elite players. They make up just 1.3 percent of the people who play. In other words, more often than not you will lose to the professionals, known as sharks.

But let me propose something else for our regulators and legislators: Stop with all this philosophical debate on whether fantasy sports is gambling and just use some common sense. We don’t need to deem the industry gambling to regulate it.


Because of the federal carve out in the Internet gaming law that allows for fantasy sports, sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel are pushing the envelope — and rightly so as capitalist enterprises.

But the industry itself is not an all or nothing proposition. With hundreds of contests across many sports, fantasy competitions need to be examined game by game.

This is where Beacon Hill can make a difference now. For example, there are competitions on DraftKings that require an entry fee of more than $10,000. The biggest bet you can make at one time at Plainridge Park Casino is $2,500.

Whether you call it gambling or not, fantasy sites shouldn’t be in the business of offering such high-stakes games. It defies logic. Beacon Hill should ban excessive entry fees, especially since opening a DraftKings account is more convenient than buying a lottery ticket. (It took me less than two minutes to register and plunk down $100 with my credit card.)

Here’s another idea from Marc Edelman, a professor at Baruch College who consults on legal issues involving fantasy sports: Ban single-event contests.

Edelman thinks competitions involving one golf tournament or a NASCAR race seem to violate the federal law that requires fantasy sports to be based on multiple real world events.

In those contests, chance can play an outsized factor in the outcome.


The upshot, says Edelman, is that legality is “not a one-size-fits-all answer.”

My own take is that daily fantasy sports should flourish — and here’s why: I had a lot of fun and learned more about football in one weekend than in a lifetime of watching the games on TV. My colleagues and I all lost money, but we could bond over some of Sunday’s underachievers — Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Adrian Peterson, and even Gronk.

A few of us now want to keep playing the rest of the season.

This is exactly why the Krafts and some professional sports leagues are investors in sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel. It’s another way to engage fans — and along the way pick up new ones like me.

We shouldn’t kill this new industry, but our regulators and legislators should stop fumbling around. Some common sense is needed so that fans don’t get hurt.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.