07/29/2015 3:55PM

Gisser: FantasyTrot could be a game-changing concept

Derick Giwner
Pick the right driver and you could profit.

Most of us have played fantasy sports—season-long baseball, football or basketball leagues, or maybe just an NCAA tournament bracket. But the game has changed with the advent of the one-day fantasy tournament. DraftKings and FanDuel are the industry leaders. If you have any doubt that fantasy sports’ one-day tourneys are the real deal, just look at Monday’s announcement that DraftKings had raised $300 million in funding from Fox Sports and (most notably) from Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer. In response, rival FanDuel, which raised $275 million earlier this month in partnership with several broadcast firms, claims a total valuation of one billion dollars. These companies don’t require a season-long commitment . . . new contests start daily, and most professional sports have embraced the concept. Harness racing has not, and neither company offers harness racing play. But a relative newcomer, FantasyTrot.com, specializes in harness fantasy games.

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“The response has been 95% positive,” says New York horseman and FantasyTrot developer Ryan Macedonio. “A lot of people are a little confused by the concept. Generally people seem intrigued, but hesitant. It’s a new idea.”

Macedonio’s site, www.fantasytrot.com underwent beta testing, offering free games this winter, and went live in April.  Promoting mostly via word of mouth, he has about 400 users, but believes he can reach 20,000 users in a relatively short period of time. He plans to add content as well, including driver bios and posting his driver interview podcasts to the site (it is currently available at www.soundcloud.com/fantasytrotcast).

Yahoo estimates that there are 56 million fantasy sports players in the United States. For Macedonio to reach 20,000 players, he needs less than 4/100 of 1% of that 56 million. It’s simply a question of targeting properly.

“When we first started, we went heavily after people involved in the harness racing industry, many of whom did not quite understand what we were trying to do.” Macedonio explains. “Now we are targeting our games after the big fantasy sites. The analysis and the format are the same, so a football or basketball fantasy player can switch seamlessly to harness racing, even if he is not a fan. I do baseball fantasy leagues and do pretty well, but I haven’t watched a game in 10 years. I can read a box score, though. I really think we would create more fans and create more wagering as well by reaching out this way.”

FantasyTrot offers several games but the most popular is the Driver Eliminator tournament. In that one, players select 10 drivers on a particular card (upcoming: The Adios card (8/1) from The Meadows and Hambletonian card (8/8) from the Meadowlands). Using each driver only once, players assemble a team

Macedonio says, “The strategy is tough. Tim Tetrick may have six solid drives on the card. Which one do you select him in? And what if that is the race where a lesser driver, who may only have three or four total drives, has the best chance to win? There’s lots of strategy, it’s not just handicapping the races.”

The player with the most points at the end of the card wins. FantasyTrot offers both 50/50 games, where half of the players cash, and winner take all games as Macedonio tries to grow its player (and prize money) base. Prizes are currently small, which reflects the number of players.

“With Fantasy Football there is down time, they play from September through the end of the year,” he says. “Baseball is April through October. But harness racing can be played year-round. Our prize money is not where I would like it to be yet, but it will grow as we grow. DraftKings and FanDuel did not start off with $100,000 or even $10,000 contests. We hope to get some sponsored pools as we go forward, which would increase both prize money and our level of play.”

I played in FantasyTrot’s Meadowlands Pace Driver Elimination tournament and really enjoyed it (I did not cash). But just as I end up watching an otherwise meaningless Sunday night 49ers game if I need a good fantasy boost from QB Colin Kaepernick, I watched (and ended up wagering on) a couple races that I probably would not have played otherwise.

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And that’s an interesting point, perhaps the key one to seeing our business embrace the concept the way the major pro sports have embraced FanDuel and DraftKings. While harness racing pundits (including this one) constantly complain about slots taking away from racing with their fast-paced, mindless jackpots, racing, compared to a pro sports game, is quick. You can wager on 10-12 races in the time it takes to play one football game. And the Fantasy aspect, using the entire card, covers nearly the same time-frame as the game. It should hold the interest of the casual player with no problem.  It is clear to me that, contrary to what I have heard from some naysayers, these games will not cannibalize pari-mutuel wagering, but enhance it.

Legally these games must meet certain criteria and the entry fee and prize money must be fixed in advance, unlike pari-mutuel wagering. They require analysis, albeit a different type than we see in handicapping. More importantly, they publicize (and create a rooting interest for) the drivers, who we see eight, 10, maybe 14 times a night, four or five nights a week. Rooting for a horse is great, but we will only see Wiggleit Jiggle It or JL Cruze race 25 times in a year. I can see Aaron Merriman or David Miller race that many times in a weekend. Our sport is doing a better job of marketing these personalities than it did, but it could still do better. Fantasy harness racing could be the boost that pushes these personalities to the forefront.

And that could attract women to the game, and ultimately to the track. They are pretty much ignored by many racing marketing people, but if they connect with a driver’s personality, through interviews and content that appeals to them, they may show up to cheer him on in-person.

FantasyTrot.com is in its early stages and may need some fine tuning of its business model, and perhaps, even its website as it goes forward. For instance, you need to have a PayPal account to fund your play, while the big boys accept credit cards. But it seems like an outstanding way to build interest in harness racing with an already proven business model in sports that are far more successful than ours. And it’s really not that far behind. FanDuel’s first paying customer came online barely five years ago, while DraftKings started in 2012. Hopefully the sport’s powers will support Macedonio’s concept, which could be a game changer for harness racing. As detailed in the opening paragraph, capital is pouring into the two big sites. Will FantasyTrot thrive with a cash infusion from a savvy tech investor? Will it hang around as word gets out and fill a small niche? Or will it wither on the web and disappear? I don’t know. I do know that it is the most intriguing concept for marketing our sport that I have seen in a long, long time. That’s all for this month. Now go cash. Maybe in a Driver Eliminator Tournament.

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