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Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Updated: April 28, 2:28 PM ET
TRUM: 10-year retrospective of fantasy


So the nice thing about writing a blog that is called "Thoughts, Ramblings, Useless Information and Musings" is that sometimes you can focus solely on the "ramblings and useless information" part.

A few months back, ESPN The Magazine asked me to write the article on fantasy sports for their 10th anniversary issue. They asked for 2,000 words. I gave them 5,000. Bringing a decade of fantasy into just 2,000 words turned out to be too challenging, so they told me just to write it and they'd edit it. Which they did. If you'd like to read the edited version that ran in the magazine, you can do so by clicking here.

ESPN fantasy experts Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz provide fantasy baseball player previews, game overviews, injury reports and strategy.
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But I really liked the longer version I did. I rarely like stuff I write. (See? I do too have stuff in common with my readers!) But this turned out fairly well. And so I've been waiting for a bit of a light day to run it in my TRUM. Today is that day. And if you need actual Fantasy baseball knowledge today, I suggest our Out of the Box series, our podcast, our online Fantasy Focus video show and any of the other great fantasy columnists from ESPN.com.

Hitting the jackpot

Me.

The mere existence of me.

A little while ago, my trusty ESPN The Magazine editors asked me to write a piece detailing the past decade of fantasy sports.

"Simmons turned us down, so you're our second choice" was how they wooed me into a gig that would require me to somehow encapsulate the past 10 years of fantasy into 2,000 words. It's OK. I get a lot gigs that way. I'm like Johnny Drama and Turtle, waiting for scraps The Sports Guy turns down.

There are a couple of things I hate, and clearly, good segues are one of them. Here's another: Anytime you see a "look back in history" piece, there are constant references to what was happening then. The price of gas, what was popular at the box office. Sure, I say, we all remember that Horst L. Stormer won a share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998, but really? Do we have to go over that tired ground again?

So if I'm going to eschew the "now and then" comparisons of 1998, when Brett Favre lost the Super Bowl versus a heavy underdog wild-card team, to 2008, when Brett Favre lost an NFC Championship Game versus a heavy underdog wild-card team, how am I going to frame a discussion of the past 3,652 days of fantasy sports?

And the answer, I realized, is me. The best example I can give of how far fantasy has come is my mere existence. My official title, so the Disney bean counters don't freak out, is senior director of fantasy. But my actual job is an analyst/commentator/columnist. They pay me to dissect, discuss and predict fantasy sports. Just like ESPN pays Ron "Jaws" Jaworski to break down the X's and O's on "Monday Night Football" or Peter Gammons to bring you inside the clubhouses of every major league franchise, I am paid by the Worldwide Leader in Sports to be their lead analyst about fantasy sports.

It's insane, right? That they pay me at all? That I have basically the same job as a guy like Coach Ditka?

Or is it?

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association's latest numbers, 19.4 million people over the age of 12 in the United States and Canada currently play fantasy sports, and more than 34 million have played it at some point in their lives. Think about that. Better yet, don't think. Just compare. This past December, NBC aired an NHL game that was played outdoors, and it drew the largest TV audience for an NHL game since 1996. That rating was 2.2 -- which equals roughly 3.75 million people.

Do you know what that means (at least from my skewed perspective)? Fantasy is the fourth-largest sport in America. And it isn't even close. Remind me to act smug the next time I pass ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose in the hall.

So that's what I want to look at. How we got here, what's changed, what we loved and hated over the past 10 years. With the help of some friends, let's explore the real story of fantasy over the past 10 years. Which is the fact that it has gone from a niche, nerdy, hard-to-explain hobby practiced by thousands to something that is as common and American as Mom, apple pie and congressional hearings.

It starts on the World Wide Web

If the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Avenue Q" is to be believed, the Internet is for porn. And, after spending a good deal of time investigating this claim, I'm willing to throw my support behind that statement. But if the Internet is for adult entertainment, it's also the reason for the explosion of fantasy sports.

Internet
Behold the awesome power of … the Internet!
If you were to put the growth of fantasy and the growth of the Internet on a graph, the curves would be fairly close to each other. All the things that made the game super-nerdy and niche -- the endless statistical bookkeeping, the manually created standings -- were no longer issues. Stats, standings, results, rosters … everything you needed to keep track of your fantasy league was available at a click of a mouse, all neatly organized. Now what seemed like a dork-filled pain in the ass was an easy-to-play and understand activity. The dork issue, however, remained.

But we'll tackle that later. In the meantime, I want you to meet Peter Schoenke, as important a part of fantasy history as any individual ever. Hyperbole? No, saying that I lost an expert league in 2002 on the very last day by half a point because stupid Luis Castillo stole three stupid bases was the most heart-crushing defeat in the history of fantasy, that's hyperbole. But while Dan Okrent, Glen Waggoneer and the founding fathers get loads of deserved credit and sympathy for inventing the game and not seeing any money for it, Peter Schoenke and his crew are right there with them.

For you see, if the reason fantasy grew was because the Internet allowed people to get info quicker and keep track of their leagues better, then someone had to put that site on the Internet to begin with. And I've got one of those guys on my instant messenger right now. Hey, Peter Schoenke, tell me how you started RotoNews.com?

Peter Schoenke: I was a stock trader in Chicago. And on the trading floor, before the Internet, they had terminals where you could look up information on any stock, get news, charts, etc. I thought what we really needed was that application for fantasy baseball so I could quickly look up info on the fourth outfielder for the Padres, since I didn't have a subscription to an out-of-town newspaper. So when the Internet came along, I bought some software and built a Web site and enlisted two friends [Jeff Erickson and Herb Ilk] who were in my league to start it up.

TMR: Not to blow too much smoke up you, but that player-news application -- an update on a player and then the fantasy take on that news item -- was as important a creation as there is in the fantasy content business. I remember being a player in '98, '99, and I was on RotoNews five, six times a day. Everyone in my league was, too. How soon after you started did you notice traffic and everything increasing? When did you first think … hey, we might be onto something here?

PS: Thanks. Our site got tons of traffic right away after we launched in 1997, and people just found us out of nowhere. We did get a few good mentions in Baseball Weekly (which was one of the only places at the time to find fantasy info). We quit our day jobs about a year later. We were in the top-10 sports sites on the Web just two years after we launched. In 1998 we launched the first-ever free commissioner leagues, and we hosted the site at a friend's place of business (getting a T1 connection was a rare thing back then), and we got so much traffic in the first few days after that we brought his company to a halt and had to go elsewhere.

TMR: So, crazy traffic, tons of leagues … but were you making money at the time? Because the thing that drove guys like Dan Okrent nuts was that no one could figure out how to make money off the thing.

PS: At the time it was the dot-com gold rush. Traffic was the goal. Although we were making decent advertising money. It's funny, because everyone in the industry hated us for making leagues free, but now it's the biggest part of the industry.

TMR: I always say, after "the founding fathers," you guys are the most imitated folks in fantasy history. Tons of sites launched (and thrive to this day) using the RotoNews style of player updates and fantasy analysis of the news item. Any bitterness? Anyone ever thank you for it?

PS: I could easily beat myself up over the money we could have made had we played our cards perfectly, but where we are now (I believe RotoWire.com is the largest privately owned fantasy sports company) is about what we had hoped for when we started. We just never expected the wild ride of being paper millionaires and bankrupt along the way. I'm not sure people who started playing recently have any idea we started a lot of this, but we still get a lot of pride seeing almost all fantasy news sites use our format and ideas (such as the "news" and "analysis" part to each player news update).

TMR: Thanks Peter. I'm sure a lot of players don't realize you guys invented that, and it's such a core part of everyday fantasy playing. And yes, I'm sure the success of Rotowire.com helps ease the pain. (Disclaimer: Rotowire.com is a content provider to ESPN.)

From small to big

Now, if the five most basic questions are "what, why, how, where and, of course, when do we eat," then we're at the "why" part of our story. We know the game's exploded … the question is why? Why has the game exploded the way it has. Hey, Sports Guy Bill Simmons. Other than the Internet, why has fantasy become so popular?

BS: The biggest thing has been the male bonding. For a lot of people, it's the only way they keep in touch on a daily/weekly basis with their buddies from high school and college, and the drafts are really more fun than humans should be allowed. I also think a lot of high school and college kids were doing fantasy in the '90s (and getting ridiculed by everyone who was older), and now, those people are adults and comprise most of the market (and they're not getting ridiculed anymore). Really, the only people who should be ridiculed are people who write fantasy columns. Sorry, Matt.

TMR: Hey, I don't have to take that. I know other famous, funny people who play fantasy. Like Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." So Jeff, why do you think it's become so big?

Jeff Garlin
Jeff Garlin, of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame, fancies himself a fantasy aficionado. Say that 10 times fast.
JG: Because most people get married and need an escape.

TMR: And can't watch porn at work.

JG: [laughs] Yeah. I'm 45 and I find it incredibly relaxing. It's my Calgon. I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't gamble … other than spend time with my wife and kids, this is what I do.

TMR: So you're into it.

JG: Oh yeah. I've been playing for eight years, and last year, in one of my leagues, I made 148 moves. The next highest was a guy who made 68. I'm on it all the time. But it works. Eight years of playing baseball in two different leagues and I've won 12 of 16 titles.

TMR: You are hard-core. Who do you play with?

JG: One league is with Brian Leach, who is one of my best friends in the world, and a bunch of our friends, and one is with a bunch of actors and comedians in Hollywood. I'm the commish of both. I thought that scene in "Knocked Up" where Paul Rudd gets caught doing fantasy was hilarious because I was like, "Hey, that guy's in my league." It's just a great way to keep in touch with friends.

TMR: I agree with you and everyone else on the keeping in touch with friends. I am still in my very first league ever. Formed in 1984, the Fat Dog Rotisserie League of College Station, Texas (NL Only, 23 / $260, 4x4) was my first introduction. Tommy Connell and Beloved Former Commissioner for Life Don Smith are to blame for sucking me into fantasy. Eight of the original 12 members play in that league to this day. But we're a young league compared to the Walter Mitty League. Here's Bruce Rabinovitz.

BR: The league was formed in 1980 by a group of guys that all worked for Continental Airlines -- or had some connection to Continental -- at its then-headquarters in Los Angeles. It was always a draft league, and in the early days was a keeper league with teams allowed to keep up to 18 players from year to year. The draft was always in Phoenix during the kids' spring break, and the families would show up for a week of golf, family fun and spring training games.

What's new?

TMR: No matter what you're doing, 28 years is a long time. But apparently we're only worried about the past 10 for this magazine. Theme, schmeme, I say. Of course, then my editors say "want to get paid, schmaid?" And then I say, "Why are we talking like this?" And they say, "Quit procrastinating and write something interesting."

So, you know … hey there! What's changed in fantasy over the past 10 years? We know it's big, we know the Internet played a big part, but what's the biggest difference? What say you, Tim Lilly of the Walter Mitty League?

TL: The league owners are much more informed. Trade talk by telephone has gone down significantly. Most everything is done by e-mail now.

Bill Simmons: I think it's amazing that I can make roster changes on my Blackberry. It's incredble, when you think about it. Twenty years ago in football, my buddy Camp mailed out the scoring once a week and we weren't allowed to make any changes. Now I can be drinking at a bar at 12:59 p.m. on a Sunday and benching guys with my cell phone. Also, I love what message boards and e-mails bring to the table because they are crueler and more elaborate ways to ridicule your friends than just calling them at work or at school and mocking them because someone on their team got hurt. And I love the weekly waiver-wire results. Is there a more underrated moment than checking the waiver-wire results?

TMR: Wow, you even speak long.

Bill Simmons: [Technology] changed everything because it turned fantasy into an everyday thing and made it infinitely easier to keep score, make moves and everything else. I also think all the fantasy writers inadvertently leveled the field -- it's more of a crapshoot now because everyone likes the same guys and has the same sleepers. I don't like that aspect of it. Personally, I would have all fantasy writers killed or at least tortured. Sorry, Matt.

TMR: Yeah, read the comments section on my ESPN.com Conversation (beta!) sometime. Half my readers are way ahead of you. Anyone else wanna comment here?

Peter Schoenke: The technology has made it so that the masses can play, but at its core it's still largely the same. You want to compete to show people in the league that you know more about a sport than they do. [One big difference] is that before this decade, the pro sports leagues didn't like fantasy sports. They prohibited their players from talking about it and thought of it as some form of gambling. But after awhile they realized fantasy sports fans are their best customers: They consume more television and league-related products than the average fan. In 2002 there was a survey from the NFL that showed fantasy football fans watch more hours of NFL games. The NFL then started running commercials with players promoting fantasy football. Major media companies started to get more involved. It became mainstream. Friends in college who looked at me like I was inviting them to a Star Trek convention when I asked them to join a league were suddenly playing in three fantasy football leagues.

Not just for nerds

TMR: And so we come, full circle, to the "dork factor." Told you we'd get back to it. You mention the NFL and the fact that not only do they not shun fantasy, they embrace it. And that was the start of fantasy becoming cool. You know that section in US magazine called "Stars! They're just like us!" and then they show pictures of celebrities doing normal, everyday stuff like Reese Witherspoon grocery shopping or Tom Cruise watching his kids play soccer in a $10,000 dollar suit? Well, when they show a picture of Vince Vaughn slumped over a bunch of cheat sheets, screaming out loud because the last decent second baseman, who he's been waiting on for his past 19 picks to swing back around, finally goes one pick before him, then we'll really have something.

But until then, a big thing that has helped the "fantasy is now cool factor" is that a number of actual professional athletes play fantasy now. Ben Sheets was in this very magazine as the commish of the Brewers fantasy football league. Joe Borowski told me he's in 10 leagues. Brandon Marshall told me he knew he was going to have a big year last year when Jay Cutler picked him (Marshall) way too early in the Denver Broncos league. And another athlete who plays is the tight end of my favorite team, the Washington Redskins. So, Chris Cooley, how long have you been playing?

CC: Since my junior year in high school ('98). Three or four of my buddies were in a general high school computer class and we were all huge into football.

TMR: And it made you get even more into football, right?

CC: It changes the way you watch football. It makes every game exciting.

TMR: Yeah, Tim Lilly agrees with you.

TL: People are much more likely to watch a game they normally wouldn't be interested in because of the fantasy impact. Oddly enough, I've seen my own interest in the NFL playoffs drop because I have no fantasy interest in playoff games.

TMR: Thanks, Tim. But it just occurred to me Chris Cooley is much more famous than you, so back to him. OK, Chris, how many leagues are you in?

CC: Four. I'm in a league with my little brother; my fiancée has a league with her entire family, so I'm in that one; I always like to join an anonymous, free league; and then I did this league last year for charity with a bunch of other players for the NFL Players Association.

TMR: And have you found it's changed the way fans watch the games? How they interact with you?

CC: Absolutely. It's an easy conversation starter for fans. I hear all the time, "Hey, I have you on my team," or "I always have you on my team." When I walk into the stadium, 50 percent of the fans talk to me about fantasy rather than the upcoming Redskins game. "Hey Chris, I own you on my fantasy team. I need three touchdowns today."

TMR: You bring up an interesting point, because to me, that's one big thing that has changed over the past decade. Strategy. And certainly, going to a game and yelling out at a player that you need three touchdowns is one way to try to ensure victory. But for the less insane among us, what have we learned over the past 10 years about drafting and winning, Sports Guy?

"Dominate your league!"

Bill Simmons: The biggest one has been to get the guy you want even if you think it's a round or two early. Just get him. People always try to get cute with sleepers or guys they like, and you just have to draft him. The second-biggest one has been to go with young guys over old guys. Young guys stay healthy, old guys get hurt. That's why the 2008 Oscar winner was called "No Country For Old Men." The third-biggest one is to target the bandwagon guys and stay away from them -- the Rich Hardens and Andrei Kirilenkos of the world. You never want to jump on a guy two rounds too early that everyone else likes but has never really done anything.

Peter Schoenke: Playing in a league used to also involve a lot of time to figure out who was the fourth outfielder for teams. Now that info is readily available. Of course, that's forced everyone to dig deeper to remain competitive. It's not just knowing all the players now. It's finding statistics that could be a leading indicator of a breakout season. It's scouting players in college so you know who to take in the pros.

Jeff Garlin: Yeah, what's great about fantasy is you have to know the second-string catcher for the Rockies (it's Chris Ianetta, incidentally).

Chris Cooley: I always draft the best player on the board. And I never draft more than two guys from the same team. But I always tell guys, "Draft someone who means something to you." And if you can get a good tight end, that always helps. Every team has good running backs, but there are only three or four tight ends that are any good.

TMR: And you're one of them. So, when you play, how often do you draft yourself?

CC: I don't go out of my way to draft myself. I mean, if I'm there in the fifth or sixth round, OK, that's decent value, but I'm not gonna reach for me in the second or third. That's way too early for a tight end.

TMR: Indeed it is, my friend. Speaking of strategy, there are lots of theories. From running back/running back to my point guards and power forwards hoops strategy and a million in between, there's no end of suggestions on how to win. But over the past 10 years, the most famous strategy (and the first widespread one) has to be the universally known LIMA plan (for fantasy baseball), as invented by Ron Shandler of BaseballHQ.com. Tell a brother something about it, Ron.

Ron Shandler: The LIMA Plan is a resource allocation strategy that allows you to target high-skilled pitchers at minimum cost while maximizing your offensive investments.

In the mid-1990s, I had been noticing that many marginal pitchers were posting identical peripherals to the studs who were going for mega-bucks in the auction. When Denny Neagle, a perennial 5.00 ERA end-game pick with high skills, broke out in 1995, I started following these guys more closely.

I decided to eschew all high-priced arms for the first time at the Tout Wars debut draft in 1998, with Jose Lima being one of several targets. His success, and my dual win in both AL and NL leagues, is when the light went on.

It took a few years for LIMA to take hold because most folks either thought I was just lucky or were too timid to leave their draft without a stud arm on their team.

TMR: And I can tell you it works, as does my twist on your LIMA plan, which I call ZIMA (and write about it in my "Draft Day Manifesto" in the ESPN.com 2008 MLB Draft Kit).

But what is fantasy really about…

But I think more than strategies, the thing we remember most are the wins and losses. The players who killed us or made us look like geniuses. I mentioned Luis Castillo above. It was in a 12-team, NL-only experts league, and at the All-Star break I was 13 points … out of 11th! That's how far back I was. So I tried a Hail Mary. Traded every single player for every underperformer, hurt guy, you name it. And every single one of them turned it around, had huge second halves, and on the next-to-last day, I was actually in first place by half a point over my now-colleague, Brendan Roberts. And then, in a meaningless game, Castillo steals three bags, I drop a point in steals and Brendan wins by half a point. Crushed me. I also lost a league on the last day by half a point when a guy had three closers, all of them blew saves on the last day and all of them got vulture wins. He tied me in wins, dropping me half a point and allowing second place to pass me and win by half a point. Who gets three vulture wins on the last day?

Anyway, the ones I remember are the firsts. The first time I won my longtime football keeper league, the first expert league I won, in 2003, thanks to my one-dollar Scott Podsednik pick, that sort of thing. But enough about me. I want to hear some other stories of celebration and heartbreak.

Chris Cooley
… and with that touchdown, Chris Cooley knocked himself out of the playoffs.
Tim Lilly: In 2006, I lost first place in the Walter Mitty league on the last day of the season because Kaz Matsui got four RBIs.

Chris Cooley: Well, I lost to my fiancée in the semis this year. Three years ago (2005, Week 15), I was in the semis of my league and the guy I was playing had me as his tight end. I ended up scoring three touchdowns in the game against Dallas, so basically, I knocked myself out of the playoffs.

Bill Simmons: My greatest loss was losing my basketball league in 1998 by something like six total points because David Robinson missed four games right at the tail end of the season with a concussion. How do you miss four games with a concussion? I don't think I've ever hated anyone more, ever. All he had to do was play one more game and get six points and I would have won. David Robinson, I can't forgive you and will never forgive you. My greatest win happened this year -- my West Coast football league -- when everyone mocked me for picking Wes Welker and it got so bitter that I went home and rush-ordered a Welker jersey to wear when I watched the Week 1 games with them. He ended up being a top-10 receiver, and he helped me to the title along with Adrian Peterson, who I now want to marry. Hey, in some states, it's legal.

It's hard for someone to stand out because there are multiple fantasy murderers every year … but you really have to look at what Daunte Culpepper did in 2006. I've been writing the "Sports Guy" column since 1997 and that's the only time I ever remember writing an entire column about how someone had murdered tens of thousands of fantasy teams across the country. Actually, I turned the column into a fake support group meeting for all the bitter Culpepper owners. Daunte, if you're reading this, I don't think I ever hated anyone more. … except maybe Robinson. I will never forgive either of you.

Tim Lilly: I was watching a game with my league partner. (Mylanta Braves, 1998). Our closer, Armando Benitez, came in to finish out the game, gave up a single, walk and home run to blow the save. Then, he drilled our first baseman, Tino Martinez, with the next pitch causing a brawl. Benitez was suspended for 10 games and Tino Martinez was never the same since. We took second that year.

TMR: That's a great story. And the thing I love about that story is that only guys who play fantasy understand it. If you play fantasy, you're nodding your head. You totally understand me when I tell you about being in some small restaurant in rural Italy, on a romantic vacation with my then-wife and seeing, on a CNN International ticker, that Carlos Beltran had been traded to the NL. The biggest non-trade deadline, interleague trade of the past decade and I'm in Italy, nowhere near a computer and on a romantic vacation. Finally, I find a pay phone and call my brother long distance, make him log on as me and put in a bid. Hmmm. I wonder why I'm no longer married.

Once, when I was flying cross-country, I was still going to be in the air when my trade deadline passed. So I used one of those air phones to call, negotiate and make a last-minute deal in my longtime keeper football league. The call ended up costing more than what the winner got. And I'd do it again. In a heartbeat.

In trying to decide how to wrap up something talking about the history of fantasy over the past 10 years, I realized that we're a unique group. We're growing by the day, we're cooler and more accepted by the day, but we're still a unique group. When I meet someone and I tell them what I do for a living, I can instantly tell within 30 seconds whether they play or not. Some folks will tell me they do … but they don't.

Bill Simmons: I think my fantasy highlight of all time was trying to swing a trade for Ichiro Suzuki while walking the carpet at the 2004 ESPYs. It was one of the five most ridiculous moments of my life and couldn't possibly be explained to any foreigner.

TMR: Exactly. And if you've never played fantasy, you're shaking your head saying, "Bill, it's a huge awards show. It couldn't wait? Are you insane?" But to those of us who play? We understand exactly what he's talking about. We've been there. And we don't have to explain it.

And we wouldn't have it any other way.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is ESPN's senior director of fantasy. He was just as surprised as you to find out it's a real job. He is a multiple award winner from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, including a Writer of the Year award. He has been playing Fantasy sports for more than 20 years, writing about it professionally for more than 10. He currently appears on or in ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN Mobile TV and, as soon as he learns to say "ground-ball/fly-ball ratio" in Spanish, ESPN Deportes.

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