BUSINESS Technology

Ex-NFL star Warren Sapp joins fantasy sports start-up Rivalry Games

NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp invests in and becomes VP at Santa Monica start-up Rivalry Games
MuckerLab-supported Rivalry Games scores Warren Sapp as investor, vice president of business development
Growing market for daily fantasy sports has new entrant focused on casual fans: Rivalry Games

Football Hall of Famer and NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp has invested in and accepted a position at a fantasy sports start-up located in Santa Monica.

A friend of a friend introduced the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle to Rivalry Games, said Justin Bauer, the chief executive of the start-up.

Sapp has promoted or offered social-media advice to other tech companies, including video app Viddy, image-sharing app Momentage and education nonprofit Code.org. But the role of co-founder and vice president of business development at Rivalry will be his deepest involvement yet. His stake in the company is similar to that of co-founders Bauer and Nathan Leland.

“I knew the moment I met Justin that together we could bring Rivalry Games to the next level by developing cutting-edge fantasy sports products that make every game better,” Sapp said in a statement announcing his role Wednesday.

Rivalry’s app is aimed at fantasy sports players who care more for the thrill of the competition than betting big sums and amassing huge returns. It’s one of several companies offering “daily” action, meaning players draft new teams each day rather than just once at the beginning of the season as in traditional fantasy sports setups. Branded as games of skill, not chance, the daily betting hasn't faced legal scrutiny yet.

The expanding market emerged a few years ago as avid fantasy players such as Bauer grew frustrated that friends stopped paying attention late in the season because their teams were struggling. But the most well-known places for daily fantasy games, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, are too geared toward “hard-core gamblers,” Bauer said. Other competitors include DailyMVP and DraftDay.

In Rivalry's app, users can bet virtual currency or real money on games. Rivalry takes a cut of 8% to 12% of real-money games and could turn to advertising and sponsorships to make money from the free games. Opponents can be friends or strangers. The game, available only for iPhone or iPad, has been in testing mode, but it's hitting prime time with football season beginning. About 25,000 downloads have been logged so far.

“This is a big moment in our company because football is Christmas for the fantasy sports world," Bauer said.

The hope is that if the app catches on, Rivalry will be able to close its first round of fund raising by mid-2015.

Sapp first met with Rivalry at the beginning of the year -- about the time that the company moved to Santa Monica to join the MuckerLab accelerator program. Mucker Capital co-founder William Hsu said he and co-managing partner Erik Rannala had an eye out for mobile-centric companies.

“This is about entertainment, with money as the cherry on top,” Hsu said.

Sapp encouraged Rivalry to allow trash-talking between players. He’s also helping with outreach to media partners to help build awareness. Having built up more than 1 million followers on Twitter, Sapp is lending  insights on social-media tactics, too.

“He’s our chief evangelist,” Bauer said. “For Warren, what really matters to him is the game play being legitimately very little commitment and the social aspect.”

Sapp, who filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 after a real estate development deal turned sour, joins an exclusive list of celebrities -- NBA star Carmelo Anthony and actor Ashton Kutcher among them -- willing to take on the risky investment in start-ups. 

Chat with me on Twitter @peard33

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