Cory Albertson was cruising at 30,000 feet and, like others on the plane to Detroit, taking care of some business on his laptop.
His spreadsheets contained names familiar to anyone who follows baseball. Pitchers, catchers, maybe a center fielder Albertson thought might be due for a home run or two.
Albertson's business on this day was trying to outsmart a few guys in one game, maybe a few thousand in another. Crunching numbers to enter some 500 fantasy sports contests before the first pitch of the day, he was hoping for a score before the night was out.
"I didn't look exactly, but I think I had about $22,000 invested for the day," he said.
It was just another day in baseball for Albertson and his partner, Ray Coburn. Football will be another story, with more than $100,000 of their bankroll in play on any given Sunday this fall.
Million dollar paydays. Big wins. Vegas junkets. Those are just some of the prizes offered online, where a hybrid of the traditional season-long fantasy leagues played by an estimated 41 million Americans has morphed into something quite different.
It's daily fantasy sports and it's legal in most states, thanks to an exemption the major sports leagues carved out under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The same legislation that outlawed online poker as a game of chance allows fantasy players to do what regular sports bettors outside of Nevada only dream about — wager money online.
It may resemble sports betting, but those who run it — and those who play it — say it's not. They cite the gambling law that labels fantasy sports as a game of skill, where picking players to fill a team depends a lot less on sheer luck than picking a team to win a game against the Vegas spread.
Daily or weekly cash games are just a fraction of the fantasy sports universe. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association says Americans spent $11 billion playing fantasy football alone in 2013. But the short-term cash games are exploding in popularity, and anyone over 18 with a credit card, a Paypal account and online access can play. Team headquarters on any given day can be in an airplane, an office, or even your basement.
There are also tens of thousands of losers, of course. The numbers dictate that more than half the players have to lose if the others are to win.
One company — the leading site FanDuel — has some $6 million a week up for grabs now and expects to triple its base to some 500,000 customers this NFL season. Dozens of other companies have sprouted up offering everything from daily play to help — for a fee — on selecting the right mix of players.
The profits are so easy — daily fantasy sites take about 10 percent off the top of every contest as their fee — that Comcast Ventures, the venture capital affiliate of giant Comcast Corporation, invested $11 million in FanDuel last year to get a piece of the action. Even mainstream media landmark Sports Illustrated is offering daily fantasy cash games of its own.
"Two years ago investors would have been very skeptical, even nervous, about daily fantasy sports," said Nigel Eccles, the co-founder and CEO of FanDuel. "Today they see this as very good for sports. Our players consume 40 percent more sports than regular fantasy sports players. They spend an average of 24 hours a week watching, searching and doing research on sports."
Albertson is so good at it that he has hedge funds and option trading desks talking to him about wanting to invest in his system. The former professional poker player was looking for something to keep his interest after online poker was effectively banned by the 2006 act. He found it just in time for the NFL season in 2011, investing $500 to start and adding a few hundred here and there as the losses started to mount.
But he came up with some basic rules, such as don't draft a quarterback and a field goal kicker from the same team because they're competing for the same scores. Later, he and Coburn developed an algorithm to maximize their chances while playing numerous games.
Albertson spends several hours a day studying players. During the NFL season, he and Coburn will work from Saturday afternoon until kickoff the next day on lineups for some 1,000 different contests.
"I knew it was a matter of time before I had a breakthrough week and was on the right side of the luck factor," Albertson said. "I stayed with it that season and ended up with like $8,000 or something. I felt the model had sort of proven itself and most likely I was demonstrating I had a skill edge in these games."
He's not alone. Dan Gaspar was just out of college working as a claims representative at an insurance company in Wisconsin, when he started playing daily fantasy games three years ago. He has an MBA, but didn't need it to figure out that there could be more money to be made in online fantasy play than in the insurance business.
"Compared to what I was making as a claims representative there was quite a difference," Gaspar said. "Plus I didn't have to get yelled at every day by people who just got in car accidents."
Gaspar won a spot in a contest offered by Draftstreet — which was recently acquired by Draftkings, the No. 2 player in the sport — offering a $1 million prize in Las Vegas at the end of last year's NFL season. He didn't win, but it was a perk that established him as a top player.
Still, he says, he's not in a league like Albertson and others.
"One of the more successful guys on here puts up $50,000 and up a night," he said. "He had a guy scratched because of flu-like symptoms one week and to have that much exposure on one player puts you in a horrible position. I put a pretty penny on the line every night, but it's not $50,000."
Part of the lure of the games is that the rules are simple, and mostly already understood by the millions who get in traditional season-long fantasy leagues with their buddies. Most of those leagues simply offer bragging rights, or small cash rewards. The rules are the same for short-term games: Assemble a team under a salary cap and the stats of those players determine your score. Unlike the season-long games, the weekly competitions offer instant winners and quick cash.
You can play against one other player or thousands. Albertson enters 500 games a week.
And if you happen to end up ahead, the winnings are deposited in your account before you wake up the next morning.
It's legal — except in Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and Washington — where state laws are more strict. That's in contrast to online sports betting, which is allowed only in Nevada and, in a very limited form, Delaware.
Still, the success of any given player — no matter how skilled — is predicated on new players coming in who are not as sophisticated. Getting those players and keeping them even when they are losing money is why the sites offer double money bonuses, entries into various contests, and trips to Vegas among other enticements.
Albertson understands those players may not always be out there. Opposing players will get better, and the newbies will either have given up on their dreams of a big score or opted to compete in smaller games among other recreational players.
Right now, though, it can be a lucrative business for those at the top. The day Albertson was filling out his teams on the plane to Detroit he ended up ahead $4,500 on his investment of $22,000.
He's not counting on it lasting. In the fall, he'll be playing from South Bend, where he is pursuing an MBA at Notre Dame so he will have something to fall back on.
"I don't know how long the fantasy sports opportunity is going to stay around. That's one reason grad school is appealing to me," he said. "It will help me figure out what the next chapter will be other than fantasy sports."