Fantasy football startup Sleeper nabs VC funding to take on ESPN

Sleeper is looking to take on fantasy league apps from major players like ESPN and has amassed venture funding from Silicon Valley investors to take down them down.

The Bay Area startup is aiming to treat a fantasy football league more like a social platform than a loose jumble of league mechanics, distinguishing itself as a simple and free, ad-free option.

Sleeper has done limited press as it has been ramping up its apps over the past two seasons, but the team has been courting the interest of investors to scale the product, raising over $7 million from VCs to date. The company closed a $5.3 million Series A late last year led by General Catalyst. In early 2017, the startup also closed a $2 million seed led by Birchmere Ventures with participation from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s startup studio Expa.

There isn’t much in terms of monetization options at the moment, CEO Nan Wang tells TechCrunch that the focus right now is “amassing a large base of users and making it the stickiest and highest engagement product in the category.”

Wang says the app’s users spend 50 minutes per day on average during the season, numbers he calls “Instagram-like.” The main contributor to that number seems to be that chat is always a swipe away and that all of the actions that are happening during the season show up inside chats to encourage engagement.

This unifies the experience for users, many of whom have had to piecemeal their experience by using a WhatsApp or GroupMe group in addition to the other fantasy league apps that they’ve been using. Sleeper’s more differentiated UI seems to be largely popular among early vocal users as well as the up-to-the-minute notifications that deliver league updates.

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Poaching users from other platforms is definitely a priority, but Wang says the team has really been looking at how to nab users who have stayed away from the convoluted confusion of fantasy leagues as well. Taking on the leading apps from ESPN, Yahoo and NFL can be daunting, another stress for the younger startup is just how tight the user acquisition window is, though things compound quickly if you can create one loyal user that brings their entire league to the platform.

“The user acquisition window for fantasy football leagues is strongest from the second week of August until the first week of September. Historically, we’ve seen that about 70% of users create their leagues in that three-week window,” Wang tells me.

The funding has been used to build out its team, which is still just 10 full-time employees, as well as expand their ambitions beyond fantasy football alone into other sports including basketball and soccer.

Roku expands its free, live TV selection with 5 more channels, including fubo’s Sports Network

The Roku Channel continues to expand beyond ad-supported movies and premium subscriptions, with today’s announcement of the addition of several more live TV channels available to anyone with a Roku streaming device or Roku TV. The company says today it’s adding five free live TV channels to this offering, including most notably, fubo’s Sports Network.

The fubo Sports Network is streaming service fuboTV’s first-ever TV channel designed for distribution outside its own platform.

Soft-launched this June, fubo produces content for the channel, including original programming, event coverage, behind-the-scenes, and other exclusives. The network is already available to a few streaming platforms, including XUMO, Samsung TV Plus, and LG Channels (powered by XUMO.)

However, distribution to Roku’s popular entertainment hub is a big win for the new channel, given that Roku is now the top streaming device platform in the U.S., with a 39% share of streaming boxes and sticks and a 33% share of smart TV operating systems.

Other new networks arriving to The Roku Channel today include the ACC Digital Network, USA Today, Now This (news), and Comedy Dynamics.

In addition, The Roku Channel now offers the Sports Illustrated streaming service, SI TV, to any interested subscribers through its Premium Subscription lineup.

Roku has been rapidly expanding its Roku Channel hub since it first launched in September 2017 with a focus on free, ad-supported movies — similar to Vudu’s “Movies on Us” or Tubi, for example. But shortly after, the channel began to roll out more content like newssports, TV shows, and other entertainment offerings both from traditional studios and digital networks. This pushed the channel to become one of the most-watched on its platform.

And this year, Roku launched its own premium subscriptions alongside its free content, allowing The Roku Channel to become not just the place to find free entertainment, but where you tune in to your favorite shows as well. Today, its paid lineup includes top premium networks like HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz, EPIX, and many others.

The decision to invest in its own content hub gives Roku a powerful selling point for its devices — and that appears to be paying off with consumers and in terms of the company’s bottom line.

Roku recently closed out its second quarter with 30.5 million active accounts, up by 1.4 million from the prior quarter, and average revenue per user up from $19.06 in Q1 to $21.06 in Q2. Revenue was also up 45% year-over-year to $252.5 million.

 

Watch a Tesla Model 3 play chess against the top-ranked player in the U.S.

Tesla cars can now take on human players in a game of chess, thanks to a software update it pushed out to vehicles earlier this month. Its programmers likely didn’t imagine they were designing a chess program to take on the best players in the world, however: U.S. no. 1 ranked chess player Fabiano Caruana (also currently ranked no. 2 in the world) played a Tesla Model 3 in a recent match… but Deep Blue vs. Kasparov, this was not.

Caruana bests the vehicle in just under five minutes of playing time, and he’s not particularly stressing the time, plus he’s offering a running commentary. The car makes some questionable moves, but to be fair, it’s not a super computer with deep artificial intelligence, and Caruana is one of the world’s best. He also gives it credit at the end, calling the game “challenging” and you can hear it’s probably more than he was expecting from a car’s infotainment system.

The car would probably beat me, but I’m unranked and haven’t played a game of chess in probably 15 years so there’s that.

How skate legend Per Welinder finds an investing niche amid US-China trade tensions

Months of tit-for-tat trade negotiations between China and the United States have damaged cross-border investment interest between the superpowers, especially in areas that involve deep technology and intellectual property. But one sector has so far stayed relatively intact: lifestyle.

That’s what got Per Welinder, the legendary skateboarder-turned-entrepreneur who recently moved into venture investing, to look towards China for opportunities. In early 2018, Welinder teamed up with Chinese venture investor Curt Shi — a skateboard amateur himself — to launch early-stage angel fund Welinder & Shi Capital, focusing on bringing western lifestyle brands to China.

So far, Welinder & Shi has deployed all of its first fund into five consumer brands with the potential to capture China’s increasingly sophisticated middle-class, among whom Welinder observed a “growing individualism away from collectivism that is positive for lifestyle brands,” Welinder told TechCrunch in a phone interview.

Rather than taking the “spray and pray” approach, the fund picks a smaller number of companies compared to many other venture capital firms because it focuses on brands, which take time to build.

“There has been a headwind when you talk about cross-border opportunities with China in general. However, lifestyle is usually not a national security threat to either Chinese or to the U.S.,” Welinder observed. “Yes, there may be tariffs here and there, but it’s not a national threat to consume a pair of pants by a cool brand originating from the U.S.”

Per Welinder, a former skateboarding legend who is now hunting for western brands that can appeal to Chinese consumers / Photo: Per Welinder

That being said, Shi, in a separate interview with TechCrunch, admitted that trade tensions have in recent times generated doubts from limited partners on the fund’s methodology to help overseas portfolio companies “slingshot to China.”

“China and the U.S. can’t afford a real economic fight with each other… I believe once China and the U.S. reach a consensus, the investment between them will be booming again,” Shi noted.

Unlike a successful venture capital investment in tech that can generate a 200x type of exit, the return in brand investment is less lucrative. The appeal is that even if a portfolio company goes south, there remains some value in the brand, whether it’s the trademark itself or graphics.

“When you use branding as a differentiator, you may get pennies on the dollar even on the bad investment. But it will not go to zero like so many tech investments do, so we feel that is a somewhat less risky formula,” Welinder said.

The portfolio counts the likes of a Swedish electric off-road motorbike startup called Cake and premium gin manufacturer Wilde Irish Gin. Welinder makes a deliberate decision to back premium brands because even when tariffs are on the high side, the extra costs generally don’t have an obvious effect on consumers who like to treat themselves to the really good things in life.

When it comes to identifying potential investments, Welinder leans on spotting what he calls a “movement.” He cited his personal experience in the 80s and 90s when skateboarding became a movement. First, he started to see other people getting hooked on either participating or watching skateboarding. With the help of VCRs, DVD players and gaming consoles, skateboarding-culture blossomed into a global commerce phenomenon.

“And people got excited and then said, hey, mom and dad, can I have a skateboard? Can I have a T-shirt? Can I have a pair of shoes? That’s the kind of the way we like to look at things. Where do we see movements, what technology can be leveraged to really speed up that movement, and is that movement big enough for more than just one player.”

‘Robot umpires’ make independent league baseball debut

Four months after being announced, so-called “robotic umpires” have made their debut in baseball’s Atlantic League. The addition is one of several tweaks currently being piloted in the independent league in an attempt to update some fundamentals of America’s pastime.

The system utilizes TrackMan radar to determine whether a pitch is a ball or strike, a Doppler-based system that’s already in use at 30 Major League Baseball Stadiums and many more minor league parks. Information from the system is relayed to a human umpire via an iPhone and earpiece.

The system isn’t replacing home plate umpires entirely, and for now the human ump is required to monitor pitches as a kind of fail-safe. They can also ultimately override TrackMan’s calls. Among other things, the system isn’t set up to detect checked swings — when the batter stops a swing midway to let the ball pass.

“Until we can trust this system 100 percent,” the game’s umpire Brian deBrauwere told ESPN, “I still have to go back there with the intention of getting a pitch correct because if the system fails, it doesn’t pick a pitch up, or if it registers a pitch that’s a foot-and-a-half off the plate as a strike, I have to be prepared to correct that.”

Robo umps are one of a number of features currently being tested in the Atlantic League, with the intention of potentially bringing them to the majors, should things go well. Other changes include adjusting the mound’s distance from home plate and a three-batter minimum for pitchers.

MLB Ballpark app adds Apple Business Chat-powered concierge experience for All-Star game

Just in time for tonight’s Home Run Derby, Major League Baseball is rolling out a new feature on its Ballpark app that utilizes Apple’s Business Chat feature for a customized in-person experience. MLB says it’s the first league to roll out out the feature, letting users ask location specific questions. Though Apple Business Chat has been used for things like drink orders in the past.

Clicking into the Indians section will bring you Progressive Field, the center of this week’s festivities, where you can access the new All-Star Concierge feature. Developed alongside New York-based AI startup Satisfi Labs, the feature is designed to answer simple questions.

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From there, it will either answer straight away or open the appropriate app, like Maps and Calendar. In the case of this week’s events, that could mean something as simple as the start time for the derby or something more specific like where to pick up a shuttle to a specific hotel.

The feature is being rolled out to start with tonight’s Home Run Derby and tomorrow’s All-Star game, but it should start arriving in more parks after the All-Star break as different stadiums begin to implement it. MLB has been experimenting with a number of different features to enhance the ballpark experience via smartphone, including, notably, the addition of an AR stat feature.

Apple snuck a Raptors tribute into its Canadian home page

The Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Championship last night, which is probably not news to you if you’re A) Canadian (like me) or B) a basketball fan. But unless you’ve starting your Friday off shopping for Apple gear on their Canadian website, you might not have noticed this subtle ‘Easter Egg.’

If you go to https://apple.com/ca, which is the Canadian localized version of Apple’s home page, you’ll be greeted by a fleeting animation that pushes down from the top of the screen and lasts only a moment – at first I was confused and only half-paying attention so I figured it was some kind of weird Father’s Day promotion.

Then I reloaded and watched again and noticed that the animation was actually made up of swirling dinosaur, Canadian flag and basketball emojis. Because I’m super smart, it only took me about 15 more minutes to put all the pieces together with last night’s NBA Championship final and the basketball team that calls my city home.

Anyways, it’s fun, and probably done with the approval of headquarters in Cupertino – though there’s likely a fair number of Golden State fans there who aren’t thrilled at the reminder of who took home the win.

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

Delane Parnell’s plan to conquer amateur esports

Most of the buzz about esports focuses on high-profile professional teams and audiences watching live streams of those professionals.

What gets ignored is the entire base of amateurs wanting to compete in esports below the professional tier. This is like talking about the NBA and the value of its sponsorships and broadcast rights as if that is the entirety of the basketball market in the US.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “play versus”) wants to become the dominant platform for amateur esports, starting at the high school level. The company raised $46 million last year—its first year operating—with the vision that owning the infrastructure for competitions and expanding it to encompass other social elements of gaming can make it the largest gaming company in the world.

I recently sat down with Founder & CEO Delane Parnell to talk about his company’s formation and growth strategy. Below is the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Founding PlayVS

Eric P: You have a fascinating background as a serial entrepreneur while you were a teenager.

Delane P.: I grew up on the west side of Detroit and started working at the cell phone store of a family friend when I was 13. When I turned 16 or so, I joined two guys in opening our own Metro PCS franchise. And then two additional franchises. And I was on the founding team of a car rental company called Executive Rental Car.

Eric P: And this segued into tech startups after meeting Jon Triest from Ludlow Ventures?

Delane P: He got me a ticket to the Launch conference in SF, and that experience inspired me to start a Fireside Chat series in Detroit that brought in people like Brian Wong from Kiip and Alexis Ohanian from Reddit to speak. Starting at 21, I worked at a venture capital firm called IncWell based in Birmingham, Michigan then joined a startup called Rocket Fiber.

We were focused on internet infrastructure – this is 2015-ish – and I was appointed to lead our strategy in esports. So I met with many of the publishers, ancillary startups, tournament organizers, and OG players and team owners. Through the process, I became passionate about esports and ended up leaving Rocket Fiber to start a Call of Duty team that I quickly sold to TSM.

Eric P: What then drove you to found PlayVS? Did it seem like an obvious opportunity or did it take you a while to figure it out?

Delane P.: What esports means is playing video games competitively bound to governance and a competitive ruleset. As a player, what that experience means is you play on a team, in a position, with a coach, in a season that culminates in some sort of championship.

FanDuel partners with fuboTV to bring sports betting data to the live streaming service

Live sports streaming service fuboTV today announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with daily fantasy sports provider FanDuel, which will see the latter’s betting data integrated into fuboTV’s streaming platform. The deal also includes a media buy and a carriage agreement that brings FanDuel -owned horse-racing networks TVG and TVG2 to fuboTV, as well. The deal is only live in New Jersey, but fuboTV says it will be able to integrate sports betting data on the platform in other states where betting is legal over time.

The partnership makes FanDuel the exclusive sportsbook, online casino, horse racing, and daily fantasy sports partner, meaning fuboTV won’t be doing similar deals with competitors. And FanDuel will be the exclusive advertiser across all those categories on fuboTV.

This is the first time the sports betting service has formed a strategic partnership with an over-the-top streaming service — but it’s one that makes sense given the likely overlap in both of their user bases.

The TVG network, meanwhile, will be added to fuboTV’s base package ($54.99/mo) and TVG2 will become available in the Sports Plus add-on package that offers a couple dozen more channels for $8.99/mo. The channels will bring horse racing industry coverage, as well as programming on sports betting and fantasy news, which includes TVG’s sports betting-focused show “More Ways to Win.”

The channels are set to launch in the coming weeks.

Also the weeks ahead, FanDuel’s betting data will become integrated into fuboTV — including under fuboTV-branded channels and FanDuel’s TVG channels, plus on content detail pages, in the programming guide, and elsewhere. This same data will later roll out to other U.S. states, where legal, as it’s a national deal.

Other channels will receive the betting data integration over time.

That means, for the time being, the betting data is only displaying on two fuboTV-branded channels — fubo Network and fubo Cycling — in addition to the horse racing channels. This is a fairly limited integration, given that fuboTV’s base package today include 95 channels across a range of sports. It also means the betting data is limited cycling, soccer, and horse racing to start, as those are the only sports covered by the aforementioned channels.

But fuboTV says it expects to expand to other channels and sports in time. Of course, it will need to broker further deals to make that happen.

To be clear, only sports betting data will be provided to fuboTV viewers.

FuboTV is not facilitating the actual betting, nor will the FanDuel ads offer some sort of clickthrough experience that would direct viewers to its own site.

The company declined to share the deal terms, only noting FanDuel’s advertising buy.

“We’re partnering with fuboTV to demonstrate how FanDuel can enhance the live viewing experience by allowing cord-cutting sports fans to view the content that matters to them the most from their TV, phone, tablet or computer,” said Adam Kaplan, FanDuel VP of Content Business & Operations, in a statement. “FuboTV is a sports-centric company, focused on live sports and entertainment content, making them a natural partner. By integrating our odds and data on fuboTV’s platform, we are truly changing the way people watch live sports,” he said.

“We are always looking for ways to add value for consumers and enhance their premium experience with fuboTV,” said Min Kim, fuboTV VP of Business Development, added. “Gaming and sports are natural complements, and fuboTV’s industry-leading product offerings will be further enriched with FanDuel’s innovative entertainment solutions.”