How Fanatics Betting & Gaming Built a Precision Data Culture

By Jason Rushin

Published on January 16, 2024

A vibrant sports stadium scene with a crowd of fans in a moment of celebration

It’s easy for us in the data realm — data scientists, chief data officers, IT leaders — to take technology for granted. On the other hand, our colleagues who need data insights to do their jobs are less likely to trust and use the data without a clear understanding of how it came to be. It creates a challenge that can block progress and lead to inaccurate assumptions.

Maddy Want, VP of data at Fanatics Betting & Gaming, an Alation customer, embraces this challenge. As a Master of Public Administration (MPA) student at Columbia University, Maddy was far removed from a world of technology and tech evangelists and immersed with fellow students unfamiliar with and untrusting of technology. It changed her perspective on applying technology to solve problems and prompted Maddy to write the book, Precisely: Working with Precision Systems in a World of Data, on framing technology in ways that are accessible to non-technical folks. 

After a master’s degree, co-authoring a book, and building a new organization and data culture from scratch, Maddy has a unique and valuable perspective on how others can approach technology across organizations. Maddy shared those insights with Alation CEO Satyen Sangani on the Data Radicals podcast.

A lens of precision to make every worker more comfortable with data and technology

While working toward an MPA degree at Columbia and coming from a background in technology product management, Maddy quickly found that not everyone shared her understanding of and enthusiasm for technology. The tech sector is rife with workers who like to experiment, thrive on new approaches, and take innovative concepts for granted.

Outside of technology — the industry and the department — workers have dramatically different interpretations, with even outright skepticism and resistance to technology. That requires a much different approach to helping them understand, use, trust, and embrace the technology needed to do their jobs.

“Every time I would describe a new emerging technology, its potential impacts, just helping people understand how to think through technology, I would notice that I was using basically the same framing of, ‘There was an old way of achieving something, and now with this new technology, there is a new way of achieving that same thing’,” said Maddy. “The best way to think of it is through the lens of: it is a step function increase in precision, in our ability to do things precisely.”

Explaining the value of technology, Maddy pointed to examples of precision many of us have likely heard of, such as: 

  • Zipline using drones to help remote communities move from slow, inefficient land-based deliveries of life-sustaining healthcare products to fast, incredibly precise deliveries of needed supplies.

  • Zest AI analyzing data on less desirable borrowers with low credit scores to identify traits that signal less risk precisely, and therefore more lending opportunities, than traditional credit scores imply.

  • Uber disrupting the traditional taxi model of phoning for a ride with obfuscated pricing and a driver that might never show up and replaced it with highly precise insights into available rides, costs, and times for consumers.

The theme, Maddy said, is that precision creates more accurate, favorable, and tailored outcomes for the requestor, be it an executive, a data consumer, or someone hailing a ride.

Knowing that data governance is the key to building a data culture

Maddy graduated from Columbia and, in early 2022, joined Fanatics — the sports apparel retailer — to help launch Fanatics Betting & Gaming, an online and brick-and-mortar sports betting and online casino platform. The retail side of the business had an established data culture, Maddy recalled, but with a decidedly supply chain, manufacturing, merchandising, and sales bent.

“The business model that a betting and gaming site or experience works from is engagement-based,” explained Maddy. “You want people enjoying the app. You want them coming back and spending time and interacting.”

It was a drastically different perspective that relied heavily on data and data-driven decision making. Even more, the betting industry is highly regulated, with onerous reporting and financial auditing requirements. If this endeavor was to be a success, data governance had to be job number one from day number one.

“There was no maturation period that would have been acceptable for [data governance], where we could have said, ‘Oh, we're not quite there yet’,” said Maddy. “The first people that I hired were engineers and data governance analysts and people who could build out the reporting and visibility that we give to regulators and financial consumers. But it would not have been enough to say, ‘That's what we're going to spend the first six months doing, and we'll get to other things after that.’”

Maddy then quickly hired seasoned, senior-level people who had “done this before” and could get a platform swiftly deployed to enable the business to launch and thrive. Hiring for experience added risk and expense, but it paid off and provided a stable data governance base quickly for creating and enforcing rules, sharing data, managing access, defining standards, and more. Having a clean slate didn’t hurt, either.

“[H]ow often do you get to walk into a brand new company and hire the entire team from scratch?” Maddy asked. “I may never get to do this again. It's very different [from] inheriting an existing team or an existing operation.”

Betting on data governance

Every company is a data company today, or so goes the adage. Technology firms rely so heavily on data that they sometimes take it for granted. That’s a mistake, especially for technology companies catering to non-technical markets or users. Just as the technology must be articulated in ways buyers and users can understand, the data it produces must be understood, trusted, and accessible. 

Great data cultures are built on data governance, particularly in organizations where many may be skeptical of data and the technology delivering it. Maddy Want understands that implicitly and chose to create her team at Fanatics Betting & Gaming from the perspective of data governance. 

We think that’s a sure bet! 

  • A lens of precision to make every worker more comfortable with data and technology
  • Knowing that data governance is the key to building a data culture
  • Betting on data governance
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