Mojo, a seven-month-old, New York-based company, says it’s looking to build a new sports stock market that lets fans bet on athletes just like stocks. Though the plan is to launch this fall, the young outfit has already raised $75 million in Series A funding led by Thrive Capital, with participation from renowned entrepreneur Marc Lore, MLB great Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Global.
The investors are betting on more than the idea. Mojo’s co-founder and CEO is Vinit (“Vinny”) Bharara, a childhood friend of Lore who previously co-founded a trading card company with Lore that sold to Topps; co-founded Diapers.com with Lore (which sold to Amazon); and more recently sold two more companies. One of these was a publisher that sold to Bustle Digital Group last year; the other was Cafe, a podcast company that Bharara founded with his brother Preet Bharara (the former United States attorney) and sold last year to Vox.
Even with that kind of track record, Mojo seems ambitious. Note that our understanding derives from conversations with gaming and financial industry veterans, a short Bloomberg story about Mojo, and a LinkedIn post published earlier today by Bharara, who writes that he and Lore have been dreaming of this company since knocking around elementary school together. (The company declined to answer our questions today, saying it’s “too early” in its trajectory.)
Here’s what we think is happening with this company, which already has 40 employees: Unlike other platforms that let you bet money on a team or whether your favorite player will have an off day, Mojo will invite users to buy futures derivatives (contracts essentially) that assign each athlete the kind of stat you might see in Major League Baseball, one that measures a player’s value in all areas of the game by trying to determine how many more wins he is worth than a replacement.
We have no idea exactly how Mojo will determine these values, but in his post, Bharara uses phrasing like “objective statistics” and “intrinsic value” and “price integrity,” suggesting that Mojo won’t just be pulling numbers out of its figurative behind.
Mojo — which maybe has a clearinghouse partner? — will apparently be on the other side of these contracts, which will invite participants to bet that an athlete’s stats will improve or worsen over time based on a slew of factors, like injuries or anticipated changes to a team’s roster or certain athletes’ tendency to get themselves suspended. (Again, we’re a little bit guessing here, but Bharara — who is running the company with former Walmart.com executive Bart Stein — uses the term “market making” in his post. He also talks in his post about “instant liquidity,” which you can’t get if you’re trying to find another market participant to take the opposite position you’ve taken.)
Ultimately, Bharara writes, the plan is to start with one sport — professional football, says Bloomberg — and eventually to “have all sports, thousands of players, and many different markets.”
As for whether Mojo needs buy-in from these thousands of players (or their players’ associations), no one we talked with today seems to think so, even while everyone agreed it would be nice if it did.
Our friendly sources also suggested it was unlikely that players could bet on themselves — something else we wondered about — given the tech that Bharara says Mojo is building. In his post, he says the plan is to throw “complex engineering, advanced data science, sophisticated market making, and cutting-edge app design” into its platform’s development, so unless Mojo does all these things poorly — it’s possible! — it will likely know exactly who its customers are.
Of course, a far more pressing question is whether state gaming commissions will sign off on Mojo. Given how much is at stake — New York has reportedly hauled in nearly $80 million in tax revenue since it opened online betting in early January — it seems likely they will, but Bharara told Bloomberg that arrangements with such regulators are a work in progress.
It’s also fair to wonder if Americans really want to bet on individual athletes.
We suspect that they will. Meanwhile, asked what he makes of the concept, Bradley Tusk — an investor in FanDuel who was once credited for “saving fantasy gaming in New York” — told us earlier today via email: “We’ve looked at various ‘stock markets for x,’ and so far, none have really added up.
“The question here is whether people would want to buy and sell derivative equity in an athlete when they can also just now bet directly on games and performance,” wrote Tusk. “It feels like Americans have a bottomless appetite for gambling and investing. Mojo better hope that applies here, too.”