How Playing Fantasy Sports Landed One Fan Ringside at the Fight of the Century

Who says setting a roster is a waste of time? 

Landon Wayne Mitchell lowered himself into a bath last Sunday to ease away the stresses of his life. A 37-year-old used car salesman in Abilene, Texas, Mitchell does not hide his concerns.

“I hate my job,” he says. “I absolutely can’t stand it. I was in hotel management in Dallas and I loved it. I came down to Abilene because it was the best chance to make money. I’m scraping by.”

One of Mitchell’s main forms of escape is FanDuel, the world’s most popular daily fantasy sports website. Since beginning in 2009, FanDuel has elevated fantasy sports from a nerdy Internet gambling distraction to a necessary partnership for professional leagues. Unlike the season-long commitments required by traditional websites, FanDuel offers daily contests with cash prizes, where users select athletes playing for just that day. For $1 entry, a fan can compete against thousands of other users and win up to $1 million. 

FanDuel’s emergence has been rapid and undeniable. It dominates 75 percent of the daily fantasy sports market, according to Forbes. FanDuel states that from 2013 to 2014 it increased revenues from $14 to $57 million. It officially partnered with the NBA last year and has collaborated with several teams in the other major sports on branding and events. 

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During last year’s NBA playoffs, Mitchell won $600. The daily cash prizes dangle as his easiest and most lucrative opportunities to forget his financial worries for an evening.

With the Cavaliers and Wizards clinching their first round series earlier in the evening, Mitchell sat up from the bathtub and grabbed his phone to eye his total points as the Mavericks and Rockets, the final game of the night, began.

He was in 163rd place, his best ranking to date. He’d normally be overjoyed. But this contest featured 86,000 users with the largest stakes FanDuel had ever offered for a top finish: $10,000 plus an all-expenses paid trip to Vegas to meet Floyd Mayweather and score two tickets to his Fight of the Century against Manny Pacquiao.

Recently, FanDuel has cunningly enhanced its top-prize opportunities. In addition to the cash prize for select contests, top finishers have won unique experiences to meet athletes and attend events in-person, like a party cruise with New York Jets players and day with the Mavericks’ general manager. After Round 1 of the N.F.L. Draft, FanDuel transported two brothers to Philadelphia to meet wide receiver Nelson Agholor, picked 20th by the Eagles. For 2015 N.B.A. Finals, winners will attend games with Bill Walton.

Elation and panic overwhelmed Mitchell when he realized he could win the Mayweather contest—a bundle that even a billionaire would have trouble arranging. This could change his life. He bolted from the bathtub, threw on clothes, gathered some friends, and sat two inches from his television.

Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, and Paul Pierce had propelled his fantasy team with their performances earlier. Now Mitchell’s hopes relied on the Mavericks’ speedy short guard duo of J.J. Barea and Monta Ellis.

In the final minutes, Mitchell captured first place. He clung to a 1.5-point lead over a user who had more players in the game, meaning more possible fantasy points to gain.

Mitchell figured he would lose in the last minute. But Barea and Ellis dazzled with 48 combined points and clutch baskets down the stretch. As the Mavericks dribbled out the clock for their 121-109 win, they closed out another victory in Mitchell’s living room.

“That was the most exciting moment of my life,” he says. “I’m blessed to have been lucky enough to hit that No. 1 spot.”

He drove 15 hours to Las Vegas a day before the Mayweather-Pacquiao weigh-in along with his friend Anthony, who will get the second ticket. Mitchell actually wishes he could have brought his 70-year-old mother instead. He moved back to Abilene to care for her, as she’s been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis since 2006 and is slowly losing her faculties.

She had no interest in the fight until her son called her on the best night of his life. She then surprised him back: she revealed her brief but passionate interest in Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard in their heydays.

On Saturday, she will buy Pay-Per-View and likely cheer loudest if she spots her son in the crowd. She knows the sacrifices he has made for her, and was so moved by hearing him so happy on the phone that she almost cried.

Mitchell has no idea what he may say to Mayweather or how he will feel exactly. And it’s all from a $2 bet on Fan Duel.

“It’s going to be the best weekend of my life,” he says.