Jade Roper-Tolbert, a past contestant on the reality TV series “The Bachelor,” won a $1 million fantasy football contest over the weekend, but controversy ensued shortly after and an investigation has been launched.
Tolbert, who is in her first season regularly playing fantasy sports, entered the maximum 150 lineups into the DraftKings’ “Millionaire Maker” contest on the weekend’s four NFL wild-card games.
To play, contestants fill out a roster of eight players and a team defense/special teams. There were more than 105,000 entries into the weekend contest. Tolbert bested them all with a winning lineup featuring Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf. She finished with 180.79 points.
Tolbert’s victory has sparked allegations of collusion with her husband, Tanner Tolbert, a known high-volume daily fantasy player. The couple met on the second season of “Bachelor in Paradise” and got married in 2016. Jade and Tanner reside in California, where they work as social media influencers. This past weekend, they combined to submit 300 lineups at $25 per entry into the DraftKings’ contest.
Fantasy insiders, who analyzed the Tolberts’ entries, point to a lack of duplicated lineups and alleged that the couple had strategized together to enter unique rosters as a way to circumvent the maximum entries allowed. Out of the Tolberts’ 300 lineups, 298 were unique.
“We take the integrity and fairness of our contests very seriously and are looking into this matter,” a DraftKings spokesperson said in a statement.
According to Tanner, DraftKings informed the Tolberts on Monday that the company would be reviewing the case over the next 24 hours. The prize had not been paid as of late Monday afternoon.
The Tolberts deny any wrongdoing and insist they did not coordinate their lineups to avoid duplication. They said they respect DraftKings doing their due-diligence, but wondered if there would be this much scrutiny “if the winner would had been male and someone who wasn’t already in the public eye.”
“It is incredibly important for us to establish that Jade’s win is nothing more than pure luck,” the couple said in an a email to ESPN on Monday night. “We are confident that DraftKings will determine the same.”
They each entered the maximum number of entries every week of the NFL season.
“We each put in our separate players, in our separate accounts and rooted for own players,” Tanner told ESPN in a phone interview Monday. “No one has ever said a peep about us when we lost for 17 straight weeks. Then, of course, somehow Jade picked the right lineup, got the million and the spotlight got shone on it. And people, especially since she’s a woman, assume that I do it all for her. If I had won, I bet no one would’ve raised a flag.”
DraftKings considers group play designed to gain an unfair advantage over others to be “unacceptable behaviors,” including the following:
• “Team-building complementary lineups which serve to work together AND executing a strategy that may create any unfair advantage over individual play.
• Entering the maximum number of entries in a contest, type of contest, or even, and having a 3rd party, regardless of their relationship, put in additional entries for you.”
The primary concern from many DFS players about the Tolberts was the lack of duplicated lineups between the couple. Having unique lineups — especially in a contest built on four games — is considered an advantage, albeit to what degree is debatable.
Jade and Tanner’s lineups included many of the same players, except for quarterbacks. Jade primarily rostered quarterbacks in the AFC wild-card games, while Tanner stuck with NFC QBs. Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Watson were on 143 of Jade’s 150 lineups. Tanner’s lineups did not include any of the AFC quarterbacks. He instead used Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz at quarterback in 148 of his 150 rosters.
Tanner told ESPN that he simply believed the NFC wild-card games (Vikings-Saints, Seahawks-Eagles) were going to be higher scoring than the AFC games.
“I thought Drew Brees and Carson Wentz would have big days,” Tolbert said. “Obviously, I was wrong. But Jade definitely wanted to go with the other quarterbacks. I think partly she likes rooting against me.”
Tanner acknowledged that he discusses different players with his wife throughout the week. They also use roster optimizers to create lineups. “She does put her own input into it,” he said.
Group play and allegations of collusion have been a hot-button topic for years in the daily fantasy industry. Edward Fear, a veteran of the fantasy industry and now a director at Global Daily Fantasy Sports Inc., is convinced the lack of duplication with the Tolberts’ lineups is evidence that something untoward took place, but says it’s nothing new.
“It is certainly endemic,” said Fear, who also hosts a nightly stream called “Live Before Lock.” “It is something that happens in every significant contest by lots of people. It is an open secret.”
Jade’s interest in fantasy and sports overall increased this season. She wanted to get involved with her husband’s hobby, which he calls an obsession.
“She hated sports for the longest time,” Tanner said. “She decided to get into it this year, and it’s actually made her more of a sports fan. She never really cared about the games until she had a rooting interest.”
Excitement grew late Sunday at the Tolberts. One of Jade’s lineups was in the top 100, heading into the final game between the Seahawks and Eagles. She surged to the top of the leaderboard on Metcalf’s 53-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
DraftKings tweeted to Jade on Sunday night, offering her a rose as is accustomed to winners on “The Bachelor.” The tweet has been deleted.
The reaction on social media to this week’s controversy has been polarizing. Many acknowledge that groups working together is prevalent throughout daily fantasy and that policing it is extremely difficult. Yet, it has not slowed the vitriol aimed at the Tolberts.
Tanner said they’ve even received death threats on Twitter.
“Crazy stuff,” Tanner said. “It’s sad. Honestly, it’s taken a lot of the fun out of it.”