While the Sixers Innovation Lab wasn't supposed to be up and running at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex in Camden until March, the lab's newly named managing director Seth Berger has already spotted a new venture he couldn't resist helping.
Combing through "the first 60 or so applications" from startups seeking funding from the Philadelphia 76ers spin-off, Berger was drawn to one called AND1Analytics. The name pays homage to the sports apparel company AND1 that made the Malvern-based Berger's rep and fortune in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"One of the young men behind it — Dylan Elder, a Georgetown University student taking time off from school — had no clue I would become the MD [managing director] here when he sent it in," Berger mused. "And honestly, for what it is — a daily fantasy sports (DFS) lineup recommender — I thought the name was awful. But the project itself, already up and running with terrific results, is amazing. It enables the casual sports fan to spend a minute or 30 minutes picking a fantasy player lineup that will perform as well as those from people who spend 40 to 60 hours at the mission."
Newly renamed and online as Monster Roster, the recommend service is targeted to the "hundreds of thousands of players" who make weekly investments in payoff pools at hosting sites like Draft Kings and Fanduel, which MR links to.
While many have argued that DFS is a form of gambling, at least three dozen states have come round to legalizing and taxing the pursuit; the Pennsylvania legislature is considering such a bill.
Berger argues that DFS is a game of skill and knowledge, not chance, though a casual participant's odds of picking the best performing fantasy squad are considerably improved by Monster Roster's "patented algorithm and lineup recommendation tools." While the rules of the game say the top performing half of all lineup submissions will win in the "50-50" entry category, "75 percent of our lineups are cashing in," he said.
"The daily fantasy market has exploded," noted Adam Caplan, a Philadelphia-based football maven heard Fridays on SiriusXM's Fantasy Sports Radio channel and seen often on ESPN as an NFL "Top Insider."
"In fantasy football, you pick your lineup for the season. In the daily fantasy derivative you pick whichever players you think will perform best on a specific game day — in football, basketball or baseball. I know guys who've quit their jobs to do nothing but play DFS as a vocation. If Monster Roster performs as well as they claim, it will be well worth the fee they're charging" — $20 a month, after a 30-day free trial.
Though initial promotion has been limited to "some Twitter buzz and word-of-mouth," nearly 5,000 customers are already poneying up that monthly fee, said Berger. "That's after just a couple months operating in Beta [test] mode, with no advertising and no pr."
With venture backing coming from a 76ers affiliate called "1776," the first startup at the Sixers Innovation Lab has a strong sports-tech connection.
"But in fact only a quarter of our applications have been in the sports space," said Berger. "And any smart, consumer-facing business we can help — with financing, branding and marketing to improve their visibility — we're interested in."
Elder encourages others to follow his path: "Seth challenges me to think bigger and is the perfect mentor for my situation."
Soon to occupy about 10,000 square feet of the 125,000 square foot 76ers Training Complex (the team is already there), the startup zone is also being supported by partners and advisors including office furniture maker Kimball (which actually gets "Crafted by Kimball" billing at the end of the Sixers Innovation Lab name) and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, plus StubHub, Draft Kings, Rothman Institute, First Round Capital, Maven Creative (which coined the Monster Roster name) and others, including a major law firm, to be announced.
Startups can apply at sixersinnovationlab.com. Besides advice and counsel — and sometimes funding — incubator residents get three square meals a day and free housing in the Philadelphia area.