Fantasy sports is a multibillion-dollar industry that shows no signs of slowing down. More than 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada alone are involved in leagues on a regular basis. It is covered as news on ESPN, and gets significant dollars from pro sports teams and leagues to keep the fires burning among fans. But when Bloomberg LP joined the category earlier this year, it unveiled, as Bill Squadron, head of the Bloomberg Sports operation explains, a concept and degree of number crunching that could drive fantasy sports to new levels.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted May 24, 2010)
Daniel Okrent is regarded as one of the founding fathers of this burgeoning business, having formed with several friends the original Rotisserie League Baseball in 1980, a happening that recently was chronicled in Silly Little Game as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 film series. But prior to that were several basic versions and one milestone game that still thrives today.
Strat-O-Matic was created by Hal Richman in the early 1960s, bringing many concepts that later were redeveloped for fantasy baseball and football to the table, using dice, player cards and stats for participants to compete against each other. An Internet version of Strat-O-Matic has brought in a new generation of fans, which is no surprise considering that the Internet fast-forwarded fantasy sports from paper and pencil to high-tech competition involving players worldwide.
The Fantasy Sports Trade Assn. was formed in the late 1990s "to provide a forum for interaction" among the fantasy companies that provide foundations for players. Among the biggest and best of these companies is Fantasy Sports Ventures, founded in 2006 by Chris Russo, who previously was svp-new media publishing for the NFL; and Rotohog, which also dates back to 2006, under the leadership of CEO Kelly Perdew.
In February, fantasy sports saw the addition of a new player, Bloomberg LP, which is using its status as a respected source of financial data and news to infuse the category with intense and of-the-moment stats and analysis. Rather than seeking to become a competitor to already existing fantasy platforms, Bloomberg Sports is working in conjunction with MLB Advance Media not only to enhance the playing experience for consumers via a stream of constantly updated stats, but also to bring new information to baseball clubs themselves, where number crunching has the end goal of winning real games on the field.
The initial products were unveiled in February, including the option of updating stats while games are in progress and a "Spider-Chart" that enables users to compare on-screen a player's various stats to the Major League average in several categories. (Cost for the current MLB season is $24.95.) Earlier this month, Bloomberg expanded its efforts and parameters as part of an effort that includes getting sportscasters to use the Bloomberg data on air; creating mobile applications for the iPhone and other platforms; and working with MLB teams to bring data onto stadium scoreboards and marketing and sales efforts. New applications also are being developed and launched.
Bloomberg Sports launched and is growing under the auspices of Bill Squadron, who knows something about sports, consumers and technology. In 1997 he co-founded Sportvision, which developed such goodies as the "1st and Ten" virtual yellow line to indicate first downs and the virtual 'Down and Distance' line, both used during NFL telecasts; the "K Zone" used during MLB broadcasts; and the "Race F/X" used by Nascar. Squadron, an attorney whose resume also includes head of advance media and technology for IMG North America and commissioner of the New York City Dept. of Telecommunications, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about working the numbers in fantasy sports.
NYSportsJournalism: You worked hard to get the project going, so how did you feel after it launched?
Bill Squadron: It was good to get out of the gate. Things are going well. We are getting great feedback on both our pro and consumer products. We're just getting started and have a long way to go, but it has been very encouraging.
NYSJ: Any glitches you did or didn't anticipate?
BS: I have been involved with a lot of business, company and product launches over the years and this one has gone as well as any I've seen. We have a great team here across the board, when you look at technical, R&D operations, customer service, PR, marketing, everything is a world class operation at Bloomberg. We've spent a lot of time and a lot of hours preparing for it. I won't say we didn't have a little bump here and there, but that's always gong to happen.
NYSJ: Given your experiences in sports and business, did you ever consider years back that fantasy sports would be the booming business and sports fanatic industry it has become?
BS: I'd have to say that I never anticipated that it would become the powerhouse industry that it has. I remember early on reading the Rotisserie League Baseball books that Dan Okrent wrote and thinking, 'This is cool.' And I was in an early fantasy baseball league with my buddies based on that book and having fun. Obviously it was the Internet and electronic media that took it to a totally new level. But I can't believe that more than a handful of people felt it would grow into a multibillion-dollar industry. Now that you have a great ability to create a social network around it, for people to stay in touch, for people to compete, to trash talk, to really get behind the scenes with sports, it is really understandable. Hindsight is 20-20. Looking at it now, you can see why it went from where it was to where it is and even to where it will keep going.
NYSJ: We need to have Strat-O-Matic in there, as well, as a founding father of the industry.
BS: I remember sitting on the floor on my apartment when I was a kid playing that game, so I'm on-board with you on that.
NYSJ: Are you getting any responses from players as well as consumers and the clubs and businesses you are targeting?
BS: Everybody has embraced it. It did take a little while for people to understand where it fit within the industry and how it captured fans in the right way. But now organizations and the players themselves are using it. From our standpoint at Bloomberg, when we looked at this part of the market, it really spoke to everything that we do well. It's all about data analysis and being able to look behind the curtain and being able to look historically at what has happened and also to predict at what is likely to happen. To analyze performances. The technology that Bloomberg has developed over 25 years for the financial services industry is beautifully suited to providing fans with a lot of fun, interest and value in sports.
NYSJ: Do you feel you are reaching the audiences you were aiming for, casual as well as intense fans, and also from the business perspective?
BS: From the consumer side, we have really tried to come at it both broadly and deeply. There is enough richness in the product that the really avid and knowledgeable fan can dig as deep as they want and get more out of it than they ever could with any other tool. But it is also very visual so that a fan who just wants to follow his or her team and learn a little bit more in terms of some cool facts or to understand the team better will also find it compelling.
The pro side is totally different. We have a huge history here of working with professionals in the industry. We've had a lot of dialogue with professionals in the baseball world to make sure the product meets their needs. And we are rolling out new features based on the feedback we get. So on that side it really is about serving their needs to run their business.
"The technology that Bloomberg has developed over 25 years for the financial services industry is beautifully suited to providing fans with fun, interest and value in sports." — Bill Squadron
NYSJ: So you see it as a work in progress?
BS: Absolutely. It is a constant process, and that is very consistent with Bloomberg's approach on the financial side. Bloomberg, which is the world leader in providing financial analytics, rolls out a couple of new features every day across the board. So what we are doing is consistent with the company's DNA to always be looking for ways to add or improve. But beyond that, what we are doing in sports is new, so there is no way we are going to come out with something that hits every point right out of the gate.
NYSJ: How strong is the interaction between Bloomberg Sports and consumers?
BS: We want feedback. We want people to try the product and tell us what works and what they see that could be added, tweaked or changed. As an example, we were sitting with two national baseball broadcasters after the launch and going through the product to show how it could help with analytical insights for their game telecasts. And they asked three questions regarding things that the tools can do but for which we hadn't yet written the application. We hadn't thought about coming at it from that direction. But now our developers are doing it. Certainly, we are going to continue to work on it as we go along.
NYSJ: How important is social media and the feedback you get from consumers via those channels?
BS: Very important. We have Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and we hear from them all the time. Most of it, fortunately and gratifyingly, has been positive. But some of it has been suggestions for things they want to see us add. As an example, when we started the consumer product, we had auction values on the development timeline, but it wasn't part of the initial release. But we got immediate feedback from bloggers and fans that it was going to be important for their draft. So we pushed it up in the priority chain and had it released in time for people to conduct their draft. So it is a critical part of how we see the development of the product. And, honestly, it is one of the things we see as a unique strength of Bloomberg, because we do have such a strong set of resources that we are able to provide support 24/7 on the pro side, and on the consumer side if somebody sends an e-mail with a question about how to use the application or sends a suggestion they will get a personal response within 24 hours.
NYSJ: What also seems unique is that others in the industry are not seeing it as a competing product but as a way to enhance what they are doing.
BS: That is the way we envisioned it as we configured the product. That it would supplement a lot of the great stuff that is already out there because we are able to use the technology to take what existed to another level. So our goal has not been to address some of the core games that have been done so far but to provide another layer of fun, value and insight. It is meant to be inclusive so it is designed to incorporate everything and to work with partners. After we unveiled the product we heard comments about whether we were competing with one or another of the operations already out there. But we feel that what we are doing is growing the pie by adding something that could even bring in new fans.
NYSJ: When you look at the industry, do you ever feel that there is stat overkill, or that consumers at some point could feel that crunching more and more numbers might get in the way of the game itself?
BS: No, because we are not forcing anything on anyone. We are simply giving them the tools to enjoy it. One way to look at it is that nothing is for everybody. Each person has their own concept about how deeply they want to dive into this, how much they want to take advantage of the tools that are out there. All we are really doing is proving tools and some fun for people to use as they like. I have had experiences with this. When Sportvision introduced the yellow first down line in football, some people questioned whether we needed what they saw as more clutter on the screen during the game. But it developed to the point where it would be hard to imagine a broadcast without it. Things that were considered overdone when they were introduced are now commonplace. So it is really a matter of timing, getting the right audience.
NYSJ: The focus has been baseball, but are you considering football and other sports?
BS: Certainly. Bloomberg is a global company and the sports industry is big, vibrant and growing. So we certainly are going to look at what the next sport would be.