It’s March—any college basketball fan’s favorite time of year.

But different from many sporting events, the NCAA tournament manages to capture interest far beyond fandom. It’s all because of the NCAA tournament bracket—the opportunity to test your knowledge and luck against coworkers, friends, family or strangers and win bragging rights and maybe even some cash.

But there’s a problem with the game of predicting the often unpredictable. People inevitably lose interest when their brackets get busted.

A Chapel Hill startup wants to solve the problem and keep fans engaged in the Madness and other fantasy sports. Called Sideline Fantasy Sports, the company is launching its second game in time for March Madness, with up to $10,000 in cash prizes. Its first, during the 2016-2017 NFL season, managed to keep 82 percent of participants engaged throughout the entire season.

This screenshot shows how players pick teams and allocate points in Sideline. Credit: Sideline

It all comes down to simplified team drafting mixed with Vegas-style betting (not gambling), says co-founder Tyler Eshraghi (pictured top), who dreamt up the concept in UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA program with classmate Tom Boettner.

“We wanted to change the way people play fantasy,” Eshraghi says.

From class project to Sideline, the backstory
Eshraghi and Boettner started work on the project in year two of the MBA program, during the StartUp-UNC  (formerly Launching the Venture) class led by Center for Entrepreneurial Studies’ Director, Ted Zoller.

The course guides students in how to build a startup—from idea formation to funding the business—over the course of one year. To participate, you have to have an idea you want to pursue or be willing to join another team.

Along with a couple other friends, the men found a topic they were all interested in but frustrated by—fantasy sports. Though more than 57 million people play every year, participation flattened for the first time in 2016 and engagement has dropped. Eshraghi explains the drop is likely due to the time and energy it takes to keep up with a fantasy team throughout the season. What starts as a fun way to connect with sometimes distant friends and family often becomes an annoying and time-consuming process. So a player either disengages or spends an exorbitant amount of time on the game (sometimes to the dismay of family members).

Work slowed down after the founders took full-time jobs in 2015, but the men eventually found a technical co-founder in David Haupt to complete web development (an app will come later). After the successful 2016 NFL beta, Eshraghi and Boettner decided to go full-time, quitting their day jobs at IBM Watson and StreetShares in DC, respectively. Eshraghi writes about the tough decision to leave his job here.

Haupt stayed on part-time, and the others left the company.

They’re now participating in Launch Chapel Hill’s seventh cohort. It’s an experience Eshraghi says, “turned (the business and team) upside down in the best possible way.”

In addition to all the advice they’ve received from the accelerator, Eshraghi and Boettner rounded up an impressive list of local and national advisors—Justin Miller of WedPicsRobbie Allen of Automated Insights, Scott Albert, a partner at Aurora Funds, and Will Brinson, a senior NFL writer at CBS Sports. The most consistent feedback they’ve received from advisors and experts is the need to demonstrate an ability to acquire and retain users. It’s this feedback that led the team to jump into March Madness with a basketball-tailored version of the game.

Eshraghi says, “we had no intention of doing basketball this year, but saw the opportunity and seized it.”

How to Play Sideline
The first major difference between Sideline and other fantasy sports games is that it is tailored to the individual sport.

For the NFL, participants joined a ‘league’ with friends, family or co-workers or started their own. Instead of drafting a team of players to form a team week after week, they chose the NFL team they’d like to bet on each individual week.

Sideline Fantasy Sports’ NFL Fantasy Game

Then, for each of the 15 weeks in the regular season, the players went head-to-head, rotating who in the league they played against each week. They were given 1,000 points to divide between five types of betting “cards”: two spreads (betting on the final scores of a game), two straights (betting on who will win), and one parlay bet (a combination of multiple types of bets i.e. points + winners, etc.). Whoever won the most points won the week.

Though league captains could design their own postseason formats, the built-in setting sent the top six teams to the playoffs and included two wild card spots for the top points-earners of the season. This small feature encouraged continuous engagement—even if a player didn’t win a game, cumulative point score could ultimately outrank other players.

The points are devoid of any monetary value and Sideline does not transfer payments for any personal financial bets players make with their league-mates. That makes it entirely free and legal to play. Potential revenue could come from ads and subscription tiers, but the men are only focused on delivering a positive, engaging user experience for now.

What kept players’ interest was the opportunity to get back in the game by placing new bets weekly, and in fact, Eshraghi says engagement increased throughout the season, different from traditional fantasy sports.

He’s hoping for the same during the NCAA tournament, and he’s sweetening the deal with prize money. Starting with $500, Sideline adds another $1 to the pot for each person who signs up to play.

For this game, players choose eight teams, then allocate 1,000 points across them. The team’s seed acts as a multiplier, so if a player puts 500 points on the Tar Heels, a #1 seed, she wins 500 points each time the Heels win. The reverse—making riskier bets on lower-ranked teams— would result in more points for each win.

The Sideline team doesn’t expect to displace the bracket—Eshraghi is an avid fan himself. Instead, they hope to add a simple but engaging way for fans to participate in March Madness activities, from start to finish.

“Like everything else we do, it’s really simple and really fun,” he says.