Ahead of Week 1, the American Gaming Association projected that 73.5 million American adults — equal to about 28% of all adults in the United States — plan to bet on the NFL this season.
Despite increased access to traditional sports betting, one of the most popular Las Vegas-bred niches — survivor pools — will once again draw a small but significant portion of that population. Per AGA, 24% plan to bet as part of a pool, squares or paid fantasy contest.
Survivor’s appeal comes from its uncomplicated premise. No point spreads, totals, or props.
“There is a beautiful simplicity to it,” Circa Sports CEO Derek Stevens tells Front Office Sports. “It’s not an intimidating contest in any manner… The more you’re in it, the more you can really learn what the complexities are.”
Contestants pick one team to win each week, but teams cannot be repeated and a single loss results in elimination.
“It’s easy to play, but there’s a lot of nuance to it as well, which I think makes it a very popular game,” says Splash Sports co-founder Joel Milton. “There really is a fair amount of game theory that goes into it. There’s whole articles and even websites dedicated towards survivor strategies.”
The business of survivor pools can vastly differ depending on who is running them. Just ask Circa and Splash, two companies that emerged following the national legalization of sports betting.
“We opened up Circa Sports a year before we opened up our Circa Las Vegas resort,” says Stevens, a Las Vegas veteran who owns several other hotels and casinos on Fremont Street. “We did that because Circa Sports was always going to be our brand that we wanted to grow throughout the country.”
To grow that brand, the survivor contest functions as one giant advertisement — especially given Circa Survivor is no-rake, so the house doesn’t take a cut of the $1,000 entry fees.
With 9,267 entrants ahead of Week 1, the Circa Survivor pot reached $9,267,000 — the largest legal survivor prize on record and all of which will be paid out to the last person or people standing. Circa outdid its own loftiest ambitions, as last year’s contest garnered over $6.1 million and this year’s was originally guaranteed for $8 million.
“We’re the most sports-orientated casino, it’s only appropriate that we’ve got the biggest and best football contest,” Stevens says.
Splash’s survivor contests, on the other hand, are geared far more towards the general public and are therefore much more central to its revenue model.
After purchasing RunYourPool and OfficeFootballPool in 2021, Milton and fellow co-founder TJ Ross created Splash to allow contestants to use real money within the app, rather than having to exchange money offline. Splash is legally regulated under daily fantasy sports criteria rather than sportsbook criteria.
“Tens of millions of Americans are realizing that they have ways to better engage with each other, their friends, [and] their communities,” Milton says, alluding to the fact that contestants play against each other rather than the house as in traditional sports betting. “Technology plus legalization equals opportunity and growth.”
At its core, socialization and ease of access are why survivor pools remain popular even as traditional sports betting increases: While AGA’s research didn’t break it down to the survivor contest level, it did find that 7% of American adults plan to bet on the NFL as part of a pool, squares or paid fantasy contest, a 5% increase from the year before.
“Yes, they’ve been around for a long time, but you haven’t been able to play them in a way where you just go online and play against this many people,” DraftKings director of race and sports operations Johnny Avello tells FOS, noting that the company is seeing more people enter its survivor contests each year.
The survivor pool format has evolved from the days of friends entering their picks into a spreadsheet, to a huge, multi-million dollar enterprise. The deviously simple format — easy to pick up, but difficult to master — will ensure its relevance in the NFL betting ecosystem.
Editor’s Note: Front Office Sports hosts an NFL survivor contest as part of a branded partnership with Splash Sports.