With every recession that takes place, there are successful companies that pop up that simply began when a group of individuals decided to capitalize on the opportunity. The Great Recession in 2008 was no exception, as it opened the door to the founding of companies such as Uber, Venmo and Slack.
Now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 Darden MBA graduates Josh Cortez, Chris Adams and James Olsen along with two of their colleagues, Kenny Winsor and Alan Kines, are looking to capitalize on a rare opportunity with their new venture SharpRank. The website is primarily meant for sports entertainment and provides rankings of professional sports gamblers known as “sharps.”
With all three co-founders boasting very unique skill sets, they were able to collaborate and create their company.
“One of the great things about SharpRank has been the idea that we all come from very different backgrounds but have all been able to come together and work on a project,” Cortez said. “That has been beneficial and I think will in turn be beneficial to the broader consumer base of sports.”
Chief Marketing Officer Cortez attended Baylor University as an undergraduate and has experience working in advertising and consulting before starting SharpRank. Chief Executive Officer Adams has experience as a mergers and acquisitions professional and attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Chief Research Officer Olsen attended the United States Naval Academy and served as a fighter pilot in the Navy.
The trio of Darden graduates came up with the idea after listening to sports radio and hearing experts preach to the general public that they had a great record in making picks and had never lost a penny doing it. Coming to the realization that the sports betting world lacks transparency with regard to sharps, the group decided to create a product that brings clarity to the industry.
“Many [professional sports gamblers] talk about how great they are or the success rates they have, but there is really no way to go back and verify [and] there is really no organization that tracks their success rates over time,” Cortez said.
Accordingly, the three graduates hope SharpRank can provide a service similar to what Morningstar does for investing and stocks, but for sports and sports gambling. The site incorporates a great deal of functionality, data insights and various features that aim to inform and educate the public about the historical performance of various sharps.
“We built an algorithm that combs through historical data and creates a Madden Rating type of score for these [sharps],” Adams said. “Accuracy is important, but it is just one of multiple metrics that we use in our algorithm.”
With there being many sharps nationally that make projections and have thousands of followers who replicate their picks every weekend in hopes of making successful bets, SharpRank aims to be as upfront and simplistic as possible when providing rankings.
With SharpRank, there are mainly two different ways to access sharp picks. The first way is to search by sport, which is meant for users who are mainly interested in a specific sport, conference or team. The second way is to search by sharp, which allows users to view the performance of a sharp throughout the season as well as sharps listed on the leaderboard.
Another unique aspect of the site is the ability to not only rank sharps against each other, but to also individually bracket a school or professional sports organization to view sharp rankings for that specific team. This functionality is made possible by SharpRank’s proprietary algorithm that is constantly being updated and refined.
A large part of the process is data collection and keeping track of all of the sharps. The algorithm takes into account the longevity, accuracy and consistency of sharps.
“That’s just providing transparency. It’s up to the individual on how they want to use that data,” Olsen said. “We are just trying to shed a light on what the truth is out there in what is otherwise a murky industry.”
Cortez, Adams and Olsen hope to reach various demographics with the venture. SharpRank is not only for individuals deeply entrenched in the sports gambling world, but also for people interested in the informational and educational aspects of the website.
“We want to be a part of the conversation where people are able to look at us and see us as part of their normal routine for checking sports picks successes before they actually have skin in the game,” Cortez said.
Additionally, SharpRank looks to include rankings for a broad range of sports at both the professional and collegiate levels. The site currently features three of the Power 5 conferences for college football — the ACC, SEC and Big 12 — as well as all NFL teams and games.
Eventually, SharpRank will add rankings for the rest of the Power 5 conferences once they begin play, professional baseball, the March Madness tournament and college basketball. In addition to this, the team is looking to work in sharp rankings for some professional fights, golf tournaments and potentially the Summer Olympics.
For the Virginia football team’s first two games of 2020, SharpRank displayed the picks of the featured sharps. For example, for the week one game against Duke, nearly all of the featured sharps’ picks paid out, as they selected the Cavaliers to cover the spread. However, results were more mixed among the sharps for the week two game against Clemson, as the Tigers did not cover the spread.
With this methodology, the site allows users to follow specific sharps who are particularly good at selecting picks for a specific team, such as Virginia football. For more on the sharps’ picks for Virginia football, the Virginia Cavaliers page on the SharpRank website features a breakdown of past and upcoming picks for the team.
The Darden experience was critical to Cortez, Adams and Olsen’s efforts in building SharpRank. Not only did Darden help them develop hard skills such as data analysis, but it also provided an environment where they were able to bring their idea to life.
‘We used the Darden network and the professors, classmates and alumni to really hone in on what the user would want,” Adams said.
The graduates emphasized their ability to fill in each other’s gaps where if one member of the SharpRank team is more skilled in one area, then they can pick up the slack for the others and vice versa. Like the rest of the University’s student body, the group was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic when classes were forced to move online.
“[At Darden], we regularly met in various learning teams on Zoom for the entire time,” Olsen said. “In a lot of ways I felt that [SharpRank] was a learning team project, so I feel like in a lot of ways that Darden has never ended.”
Assoc. Accounting Prof. Shane Dikolli had the opportunity to teach Cortez, Adams and Olsen in an accounting course and got to hear about SharpRank as the group began the venture. Dikolli, who has experience teaching at multiple universities prior to Darden, believes that the company has a strong chance to grow going forward.
“They’ve got a great combination of skills, a lot of creativity, but they’ve also got the analytical skills as well,” Dikolli said. “So I’m really optimistic about where their venture is going to go.”
Dikolli believes that the trio can build on the venture and become a platform for all people interested in sports from gamblers to journalists. With the information that SharpRank provides, there could be various new applications for the site going forward.
“I do think that what they are doing is providing information for people that are interested in sports and interested in the outcomes of sports,” Dikolli said. “I think that sharing better and more precise information has the potential for people who are interested in the sports industry to be more knowledgeable.”
Every year, more and more states are considering legalizing sports gambling and joining the 22 states who have already made it legal. As of August 2020, four states have passed a bill to legalize sports gambling and nine more have introduced a legalization bill. In Virginia, sports betting was legalized in some respects earlier in the year and is on track to be fully legal in the near future.
As the sports betting world and ecosystem continues to grow, the SharpRank team sees many opportunities to grow as an informational, educational and entertainment site.
“One of the more impactful quotes from school was [when] one of our professors said, ‘when there’s a gold rush don’t go digging for gold, go sell shovels,’” Cortez said. “I remember thinking that that is such a great way to look at things and be part of the ever-growing ecosystem that is sports betting.”