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Fantasy World
Chris Ballard
June 21, 2004
These three play. Your neighbor plays. Your boss plays. Everybody plays. Once the secret preserve of stats geeks, FANTASY SPORTS are now a billion-dollar business
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June 21, 2004

Fantasy World

These three play. Your neighbor plays. Your boss plays. Everybody plays. Once the secret preserve of stats geeks, FANTASY SPORTS are now a billion-dollar business

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Thousands of feet up he had a moment of inspiration and, as he now jokes, "carved the rules into the stone tablets." After some tweaking, they were (and still are) as follows. Teams each receive a budget of $260 to draft 23 players from either the American or National League, filling slots by position: nine pitchers, five outfielders, one shortstop, etc. Players are auctioned off to the highest bidder (a nod to the then fledgling age of free agency), and each team's performance is based on the cumulative stats of its players in eight categories: batting average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, wins, ERA, saves and WHIP, the ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched (then a virtually unheard-of statistic that now, thanks to Rotisserie, has wide currency).

Eager to test his creation, Okrent introduced it to his compatriots in the Phillies Appreciation Society, an informal crew who met monthly at New York City's La Rotisserie Franqaise, a long-since-shuttered East Side restaurant (and the genesis of the game's tag). Okrent picked up a few converts and recruited the rest from among his extended circle of friends. On the first Sunday after Opening Day of the '80 season, the 11 owners of the 10 teams gathered at the home of Corlies Smith for the first Rotisserie draft (which included players from only the National League). Besides Okrent (owner of the Okrent Fenokees), the assemblage included a veritable Who's Who of the publishing world: Smith (owner of the Smith Coronas), a book editor for Viking Press; Bruce McCall, a writer-illustrator and contributor to The New Yorker (his McCall Collects lasted but one season); Sklar (owner of the Sklar Gazers), now a professor of cinema studies at NYU; screenwriter, novelist and editor Peter Gethers and co-owner Waggoner, a Columbia administrator who, thanks to his Rotisserie involvement, went on to become an editor at ESPN the Magazine (together, they formed the Getherswag Goners); Valerie Salembier (of the Flambes), now publisher of Harper's Bazaar; Michael Pollet (G.M. of the Pollet Burros), a lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court; author and then Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg (owner of the Eisenberg Furriers); Tom Guinzburg (owner of the Guinzburg Burghers), then president of Viking Press; and Rob Fleder (mastermind behind the Fleder Mice), now an executive editor at SI. By all accounts it was a heady time. "When I first saw the rules, it was like seeing the Rosetta stone translated for the first time," says Waggoner. "It was"—he pauses—"the perfect game."

To be sure, the original owners (joined the next year by then SI baseball writer Steve Wulf, owner of the Wulfgang) took the game very seriously—they went on field trips to spring training every March to scout players, and Okrent estimates he burned up more than $1,000 a year on phone, travel and other Rotisserie expenses—but they also approached the whole thing with what Waggoner calls "a sense of whimsy." At the end of the season the winner got a ceremonial Yoo-Hoo shower (said to be good for the hair), and the 11 annual editions of Rotisserie League Baseball Book, written by committee, were as funny as they were informative. As Wulf wrote of those early days in a 1984 piece in SI, "The Rotisserie' League is silly, and we know that. We also know that it has caused great changes in the lives of each and every one of us, mostly for the better. We play for money, of course, but we also play for friendship, competition, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Because of the group's media connections, Rotisserie spread at the speed of newsprint. In 1980 Fred Ferretti of The New York Times wrote about the league, which in turn spurred innumerable beat writers to start their own leagues, each of which inevitably inspired a column during the dog days of August. By '83 even major leaguers were aware of the fantasy game. "I remember I was behind the batting cage at Shea Stadium, and this shadow came over me," says Wulf, now an executive editor of ESPN the Magazine. "It was Dale Murphy, and he said, 'How's your Rotisserie team doing?' He told me he'd read the book, and he really liked the concept. That's when I knew this thing was really getting big."

By the late 1980s the game had surpassed its cult status. In '89 The Sporting News estimated that nearly 500,000 people played. Mario Cuomo was in a league, Bryant Gumbel played, the Philadelphia Phillies' front office took the game nearly as seriously as their actual jobs, and Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans became a fantasy player and reportedly traded himself for pitching help late in the season. So many Roto freaks were calling teams to get injury reports that they were overwhelming p.r. staffs. In an attempt to realize some profits from their creation, Okrent and the other founders trademarked the name Rotisserie and made halfhearted efforts at running a stats service. None of it came to much. "The brilliant thing about the game is that the rules are so simple that all you need are the rules," says Okrent. "That's also why we never figured out a way to make money off the thing."

Others eventually would. By the early '90s Rotisserie baseball led to Rotisserie football and basketball, which spawned a multitude of other fantasy sports. But the number of leagues and players was limited by the man-hours required; stats had to be calculated by hand or laboriously entered into Excel spreadsheets. The late '90s Internet boom changed the game: Now all a player had to do was wake up and check his team's stats online, after which he could shoot off a couple of ludicrous trade proposals by e-mail. "It used to be thought of as [something for] just geeks and hard-core fans," says Greg Ambrosius, the president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA). "But this isn't a small closet hobby anymore. This sumbitch is a big, big industry, and it's all due to the Internet."

Were it not for the explosion of fantasy on the Web, a guy like Clark Olson would not be asked his opinion regarding Alfonso Soriano's tendency to swing at bad pitches. And he certainly wouldn't have been in Vegas in March wearing a matching hat and T-shirt embossed with 2003 ESPN FANTASY BASEBALL LEAGUE CHAMPION and toting a Fujitsu Stylistic ST5000D tablet PC while inspiring fear and reverence, expressed in whispered tones. No, Olson would be renowned primarily—and rightly—for his work on the Mars Rover. First at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and now as an assistant professor of computer and software systems at the University of Washington's Bothell campus, Olson has worked with computer vision, mobile robot navigation and terrain mapping techniques to make the Rover more effective. But no one cared about that in Vegas.

Olson is part of the new generation of fantasy player. Thirty-five years old, he looks a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio, were DiCaprio to play the role of a bookish rocket scientist. Olson began playing fantasy sports 18 years ago as a student at the University of Washington and, after some early success, started competing in the ESPN.com �ber, a sort of fantasy pentathlon in which players accumulate points based on multiple entries from 33 games offered. The prizes include an expenses-paid trip to the ESPY Awards. Out of hundreds of thousands of players, Olson finished third in 2002 and was second last year. To do so, he says, he competed in 12 baseball leagues, one hockey league, six basketball leagues and about 10 football leagues, at a cost (reduced by discounts and packages) of $400.

Do the math, and it's easy to understand why so many companies are suddenly so smitten with all those fantasy geeks. Players like Olson and Meat Loaf—himself a top-200-ranked Uberplayer on ESPN.com—spend hours each week scrutinizing websites to track their multiple teams and, not so incidentally, have plenty of disposable income.

The new fantasy economy was on full display at the trade association conference. Given the reputation of Roto players, one expected a brown-bag-lunch crowd—a bunch of friendly (if nerdy) guys who, had they been toting comics rather than preseason fantasy guides, could have been mistaken for the X-Men Appreciation Society. But while there was a whiff of dorkiness about the whole affair, it was overwhelmed by the scent of enterprise. Website managers in sport coats passed out business cards with the eagerness of Times Square hawkers offering fliers. Thirtysomething men in Dockers spoke of "cross-media synergy" and the promise of "dashboard technology" (wherein a fantasy owner's Web portal features warning lights that turn red if, say, Jim Edmonds's average dips below .250). In all, 150 people paid $300 apiece to attend the conference, and representatives from major spenders of advertising dollars, such as Comcast, were among them.

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