Fanium ushers fantasy football into the mobile-first era

By Michael Carney , written on September 2, 2013

From The News Desk

Fantasy sports are exploding in popularity of late and starting to remind me of where online poker was five to ten years ago. At a recent Major League Baseball league championship party, the winner walked away with an oversized check for $75,000 and enormous off season bragging rights. Other players in the room had been able to quit their jobs and earn between $50,000 and $100,000 over the year just playing fantasy sports.

In just three days, the sports fan madness that is the NFL season will be upon us. And with all the game tickets, memorabilia, and beer sold as a result, one of biggest industries surrounding the game this season will be fantasy football. A Forbes columnist made a case for why the market may be as large as $70 billion per year in aggregate.

But while fantasy sports have grown meteorically in popularity, in many cases, the technology and user experience powering these contests haven’t kept pace with the rest of the consumer Web. San Diego-based startup Fanium is taking on this disconnect and recently released what it calls “first 100% mobile seasonal fantasy football game.” The app, which launched on August 6 in the iOS App store and Google Play Store, is free to download and play. The company recently completed a successful beta test with a CFL (Canadian Football League) version of the app launched this Spring.

Reimaging the fantasy experience for a mobile-only environment required more than just resizing graphics, according to Fanium founder and CEO Grant Gurtin. But the end result is a more enjoyable and more broadly approachable game, he believes.

“We started out by asking ourselves, ‘What would a fantasy sports app look like if Fantasy Sports was invented today without any legacy Web experience to dictate its look and feel?’”

One of the biggest differences between Fanium and every other season-long (as opposed to daily) fantasy game in the market is the league creation and drafting experience. In most cases, setting up a league is akin to filling out forms in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. But Fanium has simplified the process dramatically. Players simply sign in, invite friends via Facebook or Twitter to a private league, and start drafting.

Picking teams historically has required getting everyone in front of their computer for the same two-hour period – either in the same room or remotely – and having a live draft. It’s not difficult to imagine the scheduling conflicts that this can create.

“In the past, it was not uncommon that eight out of ten players in a league I was playing in would miss the draft to start the season,” Gurtin says. “It totally killed the experience.”

Fanium solves for this problem by removing the strict timeline for the draft through what it calls “Flowlive.” A Fanium draft is powered entirely by push notification and can take hours or days, as much or as little time as the participants want and need. Each user has up to eight hours to make their pick, before it is the next user’s turn. Also, Fanium institutes roster limits with each player picking only two quarterbacks, two running backs, four wide receivers, and two tight ends – skipping the kicking and defensive sides of the game entirely.

Gurtin says:

People were concerned initially when they heard that it could take days, but it turned out to be something that people really liked. I wouldn’t be surprised to see other leagues go to a format like this. We also learned that we could accelerate the draft clock by sending users notifications when it’s their turn or when others in the league pick a player. We thought, it might be annoying, but we’ve found that it actually helps a ton.

There’s an argument to be made that Fanium makes drafting less exciting by removing the urgency and the in-person camaraderie. But doesn’t need to be the case, as Fanium gives players time to think about their pics while extending the fun – and the trash-talking – over a longer period of time.

The Fanium also provides real-time Twitter updates from a curated list of sports writers and fantasy experts as a means of keeping its users informed of strategy, team updates, player injuries, and other pertinent information. The app also displays live scoring data, meaning participants never need to leave the app to get the info they need to manage their teams.

Fanium’s biggest competition comes from legacy league and media giants like the NFL, ESPN, Yahoo, and CBS. The tiny startup will never outspend these leagues, so it will have to rely on its ability to move quickly and innovate, according to Fanium’s CEO.

“They have really neglected mobile and they have so much inertia and legacy code that I’m not sure they could really move quickly to copy us even if they wanted to,” Gurtin says. “We built this product because we’re fantasy football fans ourselves and we were dissatisfied with the experiences available.”

Fanium is entirely free to play today, and the company has yet to turn on monetization – with the exception of a few nominal licenses for its Twitter aggregation technology – instead choosing to focus on user growth. The future will likely include a freemium business model in which users can pay to access pro features, Gurtin says. Brand sponsorship may also be an interesting avenue to explore.

Fanium raised a $650,000 Seed round in 2012 from Howard Lindzon’s Social Leverage, Venture51, Benedict Capital, and Brown Venture Labs, as well as other angels.

The NFL app already has more than 10,000 active users, a number that is growing daily and which is more than five times the number it saw at the peak of the CFL season. While the company is fully focused on football today and making sure that this inaugural NFL season is a success, there’s a good chance that it will introduce NBA and MLB versions of its product in the future, either as stand alone apps or as elements of a single universal app, according to its founder.

With its painless onboarding experience and go-anywhere flexibility, Fanium offers a fast and lightweight fantasy football experience that should be both approachable for those who have never played before and refreshing and exciting for those who are veterans of the game.

It’s still early, and Gurtin and his team still have their work cut out for them to spread the word about the product and to find ways to generate meaningful revenue without losing the player-friendly stance. But the young team has already proven itself capable by building a compelling early product and for stepping out of the shackles of the existing fantasy sports paradigms.

[Illustration by PandoDaily's Hallie Bateman]