Super Fan

By Lynn Freehill Maye | Spring 2015

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Trying to ignore the video camera in his face, Cory Albertson nonchalantly started excavating from a mountain of nachos. He’d buttoned up a collared shirt that evening, knowing a film crew would be on hand. Now the producer for this documentary, Living the Fantasy, wanted to record him crunching chips (and trying not to spill olives, salsa, guacamole or beans).

One of the biggest nights in his 30-year life was ahead. Albertson had just arrived in Chile for a seven-week internal immersion offered as part of his Notre Dame MBA coursework. He and a dozen classmates wanted to dive into Chile’s economy and culture so they could deeply understand global business.

But on this, their second night in Santiago, he’d called his friends to an American restaurant, California Cantina, to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the Houston Texans. The popular urban bar’s vibrant orange walls were hung with surfboards and painted with palm trees to bring in that Surf City USA vibe. But for Albertson, the real draw was the expanse of three TV mega-screens. He had a stake in the game.

No, Cory Albertson is not a Vegas-style sports bettor. He doesn’t even usually care which team wins. He’s a master of Big Data, the developer of a proprietary statistical prediction algorithm. He inputs thousands of numbers, and the algorithm in turn generates what he calls “logical outputs” — much like a stock market investor might use. 

Albertson’s source of data just happens to be the $3.6 billion fantasy sports industry. Thinking like team owners, fantasy participants get to draft players into a dream lineup, then track how the athletes perform that day in real games. They can make money investing on websites such as FanDuel and DraftKings. These outlets offer the potential for consistent profits and sometimes big prizes.

Nearly 42 million Americans now play daily fantasy sports, and Albertson regularly performs among the best of all of them. He uses numbers, not fan loyalties, to tell him which players are overvalued or undervalued on a given day and assembles his teams with statistical precision. Think Moneyball — a sabermetric approach that relies on evidence-based analytics.

Albertson took his talent for analyzing complex data sets, developed a complex formula for building fantasy teams and built a successful business. And all this while being an involved full-time MBA student.

Now, on this night in Chile, there were especially big profits on the line. Albertson had the chance to prove that his algorithm was spectacularly worthwhile. 

No, Cory Albertson is not a Vegas-style sports bettor. He doesn’t even care which team wins. He’s a master of Big Data, the developer of a proprietary statistical prediction algorithm. 

Beyond fantasy

How did Albertson get here? Rewind to 2011. A data-obsessed 27-year-old started hearing about daily fantasy sports. Albertson had been raised down the road from Notre Dame in Warsaw, Indiana. He would grow up to be broad-shouldered and well over 6 feet tall. But as a kid, he was short and less than athletic. So Albertson channeled his athletic interests into stats.

He collected football cards and kept statistics for his high school’s baseball team. By his 20s, after earning a degree in criminal justice from Ball State University, he was starting to think about business school. But first, with his deep knowledge of sports statistics, he thought there might be an opportunity in the daily fantasy industry.

Albertson wanted a systematic approach, the kind of strategy one might use for trading stocks. So in 2011, he started developing his algorithm. The formula accounted for each player’s past stats with aggregations of historical data. It also figured in dozens of factors likely to affect a player’s performance that day, from weather to injuries. From a laptop, he poured 15 or 20 hours per week into spreadsheets with hundreds of rows. In 2013, Albertson was accepted into the Notre Dame MBA program, and at the same time, his business started to perform well. The media began to pay attention. The Living the Fantasy documentarians made him a protagonist in their film about successful fantasy sports players, so camera crews started following him around South Bend. The Wall Street Journal profiled him as a remarkable student entrepreneur. Albertson was even the lead story on Yahoo!’s home page.

HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel produced feature story “Risky Business” about Albertson as well, sending a film crew and producer to trail him to class and around campus, holing up in his apartment for hours as Albertson demonstrated in real time how his algorithm works. At one point in the piece, which aired Sept. 23, 2014, the interviewer Carl Quintanilla asked Albertson if he felt a “pang of remorse” about competing against people who are just “winging it.”

Albertson paused, smiling but looking slightly pained, and bemusedly repeated the phrase, “pang of remorse.”