What can the #1 sports podcast in the US teach us about automation?

Three dads started a podcast from a closet and built a million-dollar fantasy sports empire. To help them get there, they turned to a secret weapon: automation.

VP, Business Operations

VP, Business Operations

The Fantasy Footballers Podcast was started by three co-workers in 2014 as a side-project to their full-time jobs. By 2018 they had grown to become not only the US’s top fantasy football podcast, but the US’s top podcast across all sports and recreation categories. Even if you are not a fan of fantasy sports, their meteoric rise is noteworthy to say the least.

Just how popular are they? In 2018, their podcast had 100 million downloads, with millions more streams on YouTube. The hosts have also made multiple TV appearances this year, been featured in Forbes.com, and were recently quoted in the New York Times. Even Jay Griz, a seven-foot cardboard bear that fills in on the podcast when one of them is out (yes, really), has a Twitter account with over 25,000 followers.  

I recently sat down with hosts Andy Holloway, Jason Moore and Mike Wright in their studio in Phoenix, AZ to ask them to divulge their secrets to success. They did not disappoint, sharing several things we in technology and telecom can learn from their story.

Secrets to their success

The Fantasy Footballers (aka “The Footballers”) do many interviews these days, and when they are inevitably asked how they have achieved and maintained their success, they refer to the importance of the chemistry between the three of them, accurate analysis, high production quality, and the sense of community they have built with their fan base affectionately known as “The Foot Clan”. But dig a little deeper and you will also see an underlying enabler that helped them get the most out of their talent, vision and hard work: automation.

A quick introduction for the uninitiated: fantasy football is a competition in which participants (owners) select imaginary teams from NFL rosters and score points each week according to the statistical performance of those players. Although it might sound inconsequential, this game-about-a-game is big business, with an estimated $11 billion in direct revenues in 2018 according to Forbes.com.  

Fill-in show host Jay Griz with Ericsson's Dan Kerber
Photo: Fill-in show host Jay Griz with Ericsson's Dan Kerber

One of the most important products fantasy analysts such as The Footballers produce during the football season is weekly player rankings to help owners decide which players to add to their teams and play each week. Think of player rankings as a sort of stock ticker for the top 200 or so players in the league. Analysts will usually set their rankings once at the start of each week, then update them as news comes out over the course of a typical NFL week, usually several times a day. This brings us to The Footballers first major use of automation.

Major Automation #1: Publishing player rankings

Knowing that their time would be one of their most valuable resources, early on The Footballers decided to automate as many of their recurring tasks as they could. To that end, they put their player rankings into Google Docs that they then integrated with their web site so that changing their ranking on a player was as simple as updating the online doc and the changes were automatically propagated to the web site. For those with experience in software development or Robotic Process Automation, this is a relatively simple automation. For three non-developers trying to get a new business off the ground, though, it took time and determination to build and get the kinks worked out, but the effort paid immediate dividends. Saving a few minutes of work each time a ranking needed updating, multiplied by dozens of updates for each of them per week, added up to significant time savings for them. And their customers benefitted by having the rankings updated more quickly in response to each relevant news update during the week.

Major Automation #2: Calculating player rankings

Even though they could publish their rankings quickly, the process for coming up with the initial rankings was still very manual, taking them two to three days each to complete at the start of each week. So, The Footballers invested in building a configurable algorithm that mimicked the calculations they each did to create their rankings, with the ability for each of them to weigh different factors such as a team’s offensive ranking and the difficulty of the matchup that week for the player. The results are then used to automatically generate their initial rankings document, saving them each one to two days of work per week.

As their growing business allowed them to bring on a programmer to further expand their automation capabilities, they began integrating with external systems to automatically update their rankings calculations with factors such as the weather forecast and the Vegas betting line for each game. Each of these iterative improvements saved them time while improving the accuracy of their rankings, which were already very high (last year two of them ranked in the top 10 out of over 140 ranked industry analysts, and all three of them ranked in the top 20).

As Moore puts it, “our rankings are better than they used to be, and now take hours instead of days”. Holloway added that they “want to be sitting around thinking about how to be creative and entertaining on the show, not just how we [rank players].”

Expanding beyond rankings

With their continued success, The Footballers began increasing the number of things they automated, including:

  • Tracking and auto-pushing recurring social media messages with merchandise advertisements, fan club promotions, and other marketing updates
  • Systematizing the way their 13-person writing staff submits articles for their web site, gets them reviewed by the editor, and publishes their work to the web site

A journey, not a destination

Despite all the pieces they already have in place, The Footballers are not resting on their automation laurels.

They estimate that they still invest an average of 10 to 20 percent of their time working on ways to improve and expand their automations and integrations. As Moore says, the principle they follow is that “everything that can be systematized, should be”. Holloway further explains that they are always thinking “what else can we do that changes the way our week works?”.

The Footballer’s early and aggressive investment in automation has clearly saved them time, allowing them to invest more into improving the show and building their business, while getting better, faster analysis to their customers. For a small business that initially only had the three of them to do everything, this was a crucial enabler to their success in a hyper-competitive industry.

Dan Kerber, Andy Holloway, Jason Moore, Mike Wright
Photo: From left to right: Dan Kerber, Andy Holloway, Jason Moore, Mike Wright

The Footballer’s game plan applied to telecom

Most companies understand that automation is important, especially in a fast-moving, highly-technical industry like telecom. According to Ericsson’s 2019 Mobility Report, the number of cellular IoT connections will grow from 1 billion devices in 2018 to 4.1 billion by 2024. This will leave communications companies with no choice but to increasingly rely on automation to handle the enormous volumes of business-critical data flooding their systems. Otherwise, these multibillion-dollar industry giants may quickly feel like their expansive operations have been reduced to three guys working in a closet, but instead of recording a podcast they will be trying to read the digital equivalent of every book in the library of congress every five seconds.

So how is Ericsson helping our customers meet this automation and data challenge?

In January of this year Ericsson’s Managed Services group unveiled its new Operations Engine, an AI-based platform that aggregates massive amounts of data from our customers’ networks enabling them to quickly predict, analyze and prevent costly failures and service interruptions while reducing operational costs. Just as The Footballers use automation to quickly combine data from multiple sources to give their followers the fastest and most accurate rankings possible, network operators use the Ericsson Operations Engine to increase their responsiveness and reliability and improve user experience.

Explore our Operations Engine on our Managed Services page.

The Footballers described several ways they leverage automation to free up their most precious resource: time. In the same way, when Ericsson Managed Services engages with a telco operator to support their network, rather than immediately overwhelming the customer with billable consultants to run the various parts of their operation, the first thing they do is explore which aspects of the operation can be automated. Working with Ericsson SMEs to aggressively deploy automation from the start can pay huge dividends for operators in cost efficiency and hours saved, allowing them to invest that time in other areas of their business.

Lastly, for The Fantasy Footballers, automating their player ranking updates not only saved time and money, it made it possible for them to get more accurate updates to their followers faster and more frequently, a crucial differentiator in an industry with hundreds of competing voices. Likewise, in its Quest for Easy, Ericsson Digital Services has significantly expanded its use of automation in their Service Delivery CI/CD pipeline over the last two years, reducing billable hours to its customers by over 10% while simultaneously increasing quality and reducing the cycle time between each software release, getting critical feature updates into its customer’s hands faster.

Post-game comments

As we wrapped up our discussion in their studio, I asked The Footballers if they had any final insights to share with Ericsson.com readers, and Holloway offered this on the value created by automation: “Margin in your time is more valuable than you think. Because that’s when creative thinking happens. You’re creating margin for yourself and your company to be creative.”

Great insight, and hard to argue with their results. So, where else can you leverage automation in your business to create more margin for yourself and your company?

Read more about Ericsson

Listen to our operation engine podcast series to hear how data and AI is being rolled out to automate future networks.

Visit our Managed Services and Digital Services pages to find out how we’re innovating greater levels of automation across wider telecom. 

Read more about The Fantasy Footballers

The Fantasy Footballers podcast is an award-winning, year-round independent podcast. As the number one sports and recreation podcast on Apple Podcasts in 2018, The Fantasy Footballers Podcast has won many prestigious industry awards including the People’s Choice Podcast Award for best overall podcast in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and Best Sports Podcast from the inaugural IHeartRadio Podcast Awards in 2019.

Visit The Fantasy Footballers website, or follow them on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

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