BOSTON – As its industry continues to tangle with U.S. policymakers, daily fantasy sports giant DraftKings is making its long-anticipated international push with a launch Friday in the United Kingdom.
The Boston-based company was granted a license by U.K. gambling regulators in August and had hoped to launch by the end of 2015. But the release was pushed to early this year, with officials saying the website’s software was still being finalized.
“The focus has been on getting the product right,” Jeff Haas, the company’s London-based chief international officer, said by phone. “Any delays that may have occurred were not due to what was happening in the U.S.”
The legality of daily fantasy sports has been challenged in states including Hawaii, Illinois, New York and Texas. Nevada declared them gambling operations that need to be licensed. The online games involve players who pay to compete against each other for cash prizes by assembling teams of real life athletes and scoring “fantasy” points based on how they do in real games.
Matching the industry’s explosive growth in the U.S. is far from certain: DraftKings will have to go up against a lucrative, well-entrenched sports gambling industry in the U.K. — something it did not face in the U.S., where sports betting is largely illegal.
“The United Kingdom is an incredibly competitive market for online sports wagering,” says Chris Grove, editor of the Legal Sports Report website in Nevada. “If they’re simply competing with established operators for share of the existing customer wallet for sports betting, then they’re facing an impressive challenge.”
Hass says DraftKings is focused on showing U.K. customers how different daily fantasy sports is from traditional sports betting. He hopes the company can draw up to 100,000 players in the first year.
“We’re a pure game of skill. People use their brain in order to be successful,” Haas said. “We also offer players the opportunity to play against each other, not just in large pools of people across the world, but among their friends and family.”
DraftKings will also have to ramp up the product itself, which has been launched initially in the U.K. as a smartphone app and is not yet set up to take direct credit and debit card deposits, says David Copeland, CEO of SuperLobby.com, a U.K.-based firm that tracks daily fantasy sports spending.
Haas says a full website version will launch in about a month and players can make debit and credit card deposits through PayPal.
Other daily fantasy sports operators, meanwhile, are also entering the U.K. market.
FanDuel, DraftKings’ main rival, applied in November for a U.K. license that’s still pending. Yahoo, another major fantasy sports operator, has partnered with Mondogoal, a daily fantasy sports company already operating in the U.K. that’s focused on soccer.
DraftKings’ U.K. product heavily emphasizes English Premier League and UEFA Champions League soccer, but players will also have access to NBA, NFL, NHL and other sports competitions.
In recent weeks, the company has dropped hints the U.K. release was imminent, announcing partnerships with English Premier League clubs Arsenal, Liverpool and Watford and launching DraftKingsFC.com, a companion website for players to get research, strategy and news.
Haas declined to talk Friday about future expansion plans, saying the company, for now, is focused on growing its U.K. brand. DraftKings has said previously it aims to open website in other parts of Europe, as well as Asia and Latin America in 2016.
Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/philip-marcelo