The Rise of Dream 11: How a fantasy league became big enough be main title sponsors of real IPL

On Tuesday, fantasy sports league company Dream11 were named as the official title sponsors of the 2020 edition of the Indian Premier League, which is all set to take place in the United Arab Emirates on September 19, 2020.

When you think about it, despite rumours doing the rounds that Patanjali may officially sponsor the tournament, it comes as no surprise to see Dream11 be the official sponsors, replacing Vivo that lost out because of the vocal nationalism and calls to ban Made in China products, following June’s stand-off at Galwan Valley.

Dream11’s association with the BCCI has been for quite a few years now, with fantasy league cricket reaching a new high during last year’s World Cup and IPL.

I remember speaking to Harsh Jain, the founder of Dream11 way back in 2017 in his Lower Parel office building. “I would look at the way fantasy leagues would play out in the United States while I was doing my MBA. There were fantasy baseball leagues, fantasy basketball leagues, and fantasy football leagues (NFL). Even Europe would have fantasy football leagues for the English Premier League, La Liga, Serrie A, and the Bundeliga. India is a cricket-crazy country, and we didn’t have the concept of a fantasy league through which you could make money. That’s how Dream11 was born in 2008.”

Jain told me that the concept of a fantasy league had begun in India at the start of the 21st century when ESPN India had started its fantasy league called Super Selector. “They started too early. I feel. What we have to our advantage is of course the cash prize and the advantage that India had more smart phone users with internet access when we began Dream11,” Jain said.

The story was fascinating, and while I saw potential in the business model, I did not expect to scale the way it did. However, since its launch, Dream11 has posted a growth on the back of its official partnership with Indian Premier League (IPL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), among other sports leagues, Financial Express reported. Added to that, it is the official fantasy league partner of the BCCI. According to a report in The Ken, Dream11 has grown from 2 million users in 2016 to over 20 million in 2018. It holds 90% of the market share with revenues going up from around Rs 83 lakh (~$114,245) in FY15 to Rs 62 crore (~$8.5 million) in FY17.

According to a Times of India report last year, Dream11 was valued at $1 billion.

Notably, Jain is the son of Anand Jain, a close confidant of Mukesh Ambani. Also known as ‘Dhirubhai’s third son’, the senior Jain has quit RIL, but still remains close friends with the Ambani family, and is known to go on holidays with them. There have been social media posts that Harsh did not use the Ambani influence despite his family’s close proximity to the first family of India. Venture Intelligence shows that Dream11’s initial funders included Vani Kola-owned Kalaari Capital and Think Investments, a San Francisco-based firm. Other investors include Steadview - a leading India-focused investment firm, Tencent - which claims to use technology to enrich lives of internet users and is founded in Shenzen, China in 1998, and Multiples - an India-focused investment advisory firm that managers Private Equity Funds, according to WION.

Data provided by research firm Venture Intelligence shows that Dream11 has secured an undisclosed amount of funding from early-stage venture capital firm Kalaari Capital and San Francisco-based investment firm Think Investments. It has also raised $22 million from private equity firm Multiples Alternate Asset Management.

Interestingly, Dream11 and Fantasy Sport is not considered gambling, according to a verdict by the Punjab & Haryana High Court that ruled that while there was money involved in fantasy sport, it was not betting, stating that fantasy sports ‘is a game of considerable skill.’

Following that ruling, the number of fantasy leagues in India has gone up to 70, and Dream11 – with the numbers and associations with the BCCI – will continue to remain the big dog for the years to come.

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