Super Fan

By Lynn Freehill Maye | Spring 2015

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.” 

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

“I was caught off guard by the question,” Albertson said later. “What I wished I had said was that it’s been a lot of work and a lot of risk to be in a successful position, and that winning validates that all of this hard work is paying off.”

Reflecting back, Albertson said the question is unfair. After all, no one asks Brian Kelly if he feels bad about beating Rice. “It’s competition. Even if you are in a more favorable position in terms of probability of beating a competitor, you’re still accepting the risk that the outcome could go the other way,” he said. “That generally applies to any competitive market, whether it’s sports or business or politics. The only reason a sense of guilt should be associated with winning is if you were cheating.”

Beyond Sports

Albertson also wished that he’d had the opportunity to discuss the rest of his life — the many interests and endeavors outside fantasy sports that provide deep meaning and a desire to give back, which Notre Dame had a lot to do with.

It started with his girlfriend, MBA classmate Kimberly Greenberg. They met at a Notre Dame admitted-students dinner in New York. She was a native French speaker with international development experience in Africa. With their shared dreams of bettering the world through business, they clicked.

“We look through a different lens, because he’s more quant-linear thinking than I am, but we’re both committed to directing our talents to improving the world, whether in the U.S. or abroad,” Greenberg said. “We’re interested in empowering people who already have ideas and might just need access to capital or knowledge.”

To begin that social-entrepreneurship work, Albertson has capitalized on some of Notre Dame’s key global opportunities. Last summer, he mentored small-business founders in Haiti through the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. Having started his own company, he was well-positioned to conduct entrepreneur boot camps in the evening and train farmers, doctors, sandal-makers and others by day.

Both Albertson and Greenberg devoted this past spring break to volunteer consulting projects through Business on the Frontlines. Albertson worked on a solar panel project in Uganda, while Greenberg investigated how to foster entrepreneurship in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa.

Outside the classroom, the health-conscious Albertson brews antioxidant-packed tea by the potful. He avoids gluten and practices yoga. Last year, he and Greenberg competed in the Chicago Triathlon together. They’re considering even tougher swim-bike-run combo races ahead.

For now, daily fantasy is still a viable business for Albertson, but he’s looking past it. The Brooklyn Nets have shown interest in whether he could run some Moneyball-esque stats for them. Hedge funds have called, too, but he’s not interested in traditional Wall Street. Albertson dreams of developing an economic model, maybe tracking global currencies that could help governments or commerce. “I want to leave a positive mark on the world through business,” he said.

But he’s not quite there yet. Before graduating from Notre Dame’s MBA program, Cory Albertson had something to prove.

Thank You, Le’Veon Bell

The night in Chile was a pivotal one. On that date, Oct. 20, 2014, the DraftKings payout was bigger than usual. It all came down to Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Albertson needed Bell to score more than 19 fantasy points for touchdowns or other key plays. Every time Bell got the ball, Albertson’s nerves ticked. If Bell got injured, Albertson would lose. Bell had already made a 43-yard reception. Now the Steelers were two yards from a touchdown.

To Albertson, if Bell scored, it would prove that all the time he’d spent on the algorithm had been worth it. It would also help him do well enough financially to help fund his MBA costs, and to pursue his dreams of bettering the world. He tugged his glasses, which had slid down his sweating nose. He rested his chin on Greenberg’s head.

Of all the players on the field, the Steelers quarterback found Bell in motion and open. Bell caught the pass and charged over the goal line. Touchdown. Like that, he was over 19 fantasy points.

“Yes! Yes!” Albertson shouted, punching the air. Greenberg had never seen him more excited. He grabbed her in a hug, then high-fived his cheering classmates.

The camaraderie stayed high as they all snapped photos with Albertson. They knew this was a big night for him. After all, that Living the Fantasy camera crew was there. Albertson was just too modest to say how big the night was.

Finally, his most financially focused classmate pulled him aside. Exactly how much had he won?

“Um, it was a million,” Albertson said.

“That’s what I thought!” his classmate hollered. That night’s dinner tab — and unlimited future potential for his use of Big Data — would be on Albertson.