< The Sporting Life


Friday, September 02, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Twenty-five years ago fantasy sports were born. Well, it was just baseball back then and it wasn't called fantasy. It was called Rotisserie. But in the years since, the concept has expanded to football, basketball, golf etcetera. Today it's a multimillion-dollar industry said to be second only to porn as an Internet cash cow. And like porn, it allows you to imagine yourself in a position real life will never deliver you – in this, owner and general manager of your own pro team. Each year at the beginning of every season, fantasy owners convene in person or online to draft players from professional rosters to assemble their own virtual squads.

During the season, owners get credit for their draftees' achievements, touchdowns, sacks, homers, strike-outs, goals, whatever. If you drafted Derrek Lee to be your first baseman, you’re in clover. If you drafted Jim Thome, who in real life was injured all season, you're screwed.

For the thrill of virtual victory and the agony of virtual defeat we can thank one man: Daniel Okrent. Yes, he's been on the program in his role as public editor of the New York Times but today he joins me as Rotisserie Baseball's founding father, reminiscing on how it all begin.

DANIEL OKRENT: I was on a plane from Hartford, Connecticut to Austin, Texas and bored and came up with an idea. And then I forced myself out into the world and proposed it to a few friends and they liked the idea, except for those who didn't like the idea. And off we went. It was called Rotisserie because we had our first meetings in a now-defunct restaurant in New York called La Rotisserie Francaise.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, we're talking 1979-1980. There were box scores in the paper every day enabling Rotisserie participants to find out how his roster had performed but there was sure no Internet. I gather that the development of the Internet changed everything.

DANIEL OKRENT: It did, although I want to take credit for one other change in media. If you talk to people who worked at USA Today, which was starting around that time, they will tell you that because they ran expanded box scores with much more detail than those which ran in most newspapers, that that really got the newspaper off the ground. It's the thing that made people more than anything else actually buy USA Today. One of the consequences in that in time is that most daily papers began to run extended box scores as well.

BOB GARFIELD: With all due credit to USA Today, let's talk about the Internet and its effect on what is now known on fantasy sports.


BOB GARFIELD: How dramatic was that effect?

DANIEL OKRENT: Enormous. You know, I, I think that the game was pretty popular through the '80s and into the early '90s but when the Internet arrived and enabled people to get their statistics instantaneously, enabled to them join leagues of people around the country, enabled them to turn over their entire lives to this endeavor it really moved into the millions who play it.

Another media institution where the principals have told me that it had an enormous effect was espn.com. At least early on in espn.com's history, maybe the first three, four years, 80 percent of its traffic came from people playing fantasy sports. And I believe that's the same at SportsLine and at si.com.

BOB GARFIELD: When you came up with Rotisserie Baseball it happened that you were in the media and writing for magazines and so forth. Did your ties to the media in any way contribute to, you know, the craze catching up?

DANIEL OKRENT: Unquestionably. My original league – I think of the ten of us, eight of us were in the media. And because we were in the media we knew other people in the media. That led to feature stories about us in newspapers and appearances on "The Today Show" and "CBS Morning News," and that really was the first step in popularizing, making people aware of it.

And secondarily in 1981 during the baseball strike – this was the second season of, of Rotisserie – by then there was a Rotisserie game in nearly every press box in the major leagues. People from various newspapers, radio stations, TV stations would play amongst themselves. And then when the strike came in the summer of 1981 they had nothing to write about. There was no baseball going on. Football hadn't started. So nearly every sports columnist filled one of his or her three-times-a-week slots with a story about their Rotisserie league. And from there it zoomed.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Dan. Well, thank you very much.

DANIEL OKRENT: [LAUGHS] Okay. I hope it works out.

BOB GARFIELD: Author and journalist Daniel Okrent dreamed up Rotisserie Baseball.

Once upon a time, sports fans were devoted to teams but fantasy sports fans live or die by the fortunes of players who may or may not be on their favorite teams. Let's say you’re a Philadelphia Phillies loyalist checking the box score to see how Bobby Abreu did last night. Hey [LAUGHS], three for four with a homer and four RBIs. But wait. He did that against John Patterson of the Nationals, the ace of your fantasy pitching staff. Are you happy or are you sad?

For the answer, we turn not to a sportswriter but a fantasy sportswriter. Matthew Berry, also known as The Talented Mr. Roto, doesn't hang out in press boxes but he has his own website, a column in "Sporting News," a radio show in Los Angeles and a TV presence on such shows as ESPN’s "Cold Pizza." Matthew joins me now from a fantasy sports conference in Las Vegas. He says that from where he sits among several TVs watching several games, fantasy has not charged the reality of how sports are covered.

MATTHEW BERRY: It's basically statistic and player-based. So that's always been the case. Since the advent of cable television and frankly SportsCenter it's about the dunks and the home runs or the touchdown celebrations. It's not about the, the great offensive line play. And, well, you know, frankly, welcome to the world. You know, if Payton Manning throws three touchdowns on Sunday, that's going to get covered regardless of whether it has an impact fantasy-wise or not. That's the lead story of the Colts game.

BOB GARFIELD: Is it doing anything to the nature of fandom so that the attention is now off of teams and only on individual players who, you know, happen to be performing in team sports?

MATTHEW BERRY: If anything it's just increased awareness and appreciation for the sport. I'm a huge Washington Redskins fan so I'm always going to watch the Redskins. But if I didn't play fantasy football that's all I would do is I would just watch the Redskins game. But because I play fantasy football I have a rooting interest in every single NFL game. How did my player do? How did the guy I'm playing, his players do?

BOB GARFIELD: You raise an interesting question and that is of conflict of interest. When the Skins are playing a team with one or two or several of your fantasy-league players on it do you stop rooting for the Skins and start rooting for your fantasy team players to perform well against the Redskins?

MATTHEW BERRY: No. It's the Redskins above all else. But, you know, the Redskins can win a game seven-nothing or they can win it 35 to 34. It's still a victory for the Redskins. So if my fantasy players happen to do well against the Redskins I don't have a problem with that.

I have heard the argument that it says that, well, people start rooting for their players instead of teams. But you know what? In a case like that it just basically means your fandom and relationship with a team isn't that strong and the team hasn't done enough to warrant your fandom. And its easy to point the finger at fantasy-leaguers but, you know, trust me, people that are playing fantasy sports, they're huge sports fans. They want something to root for.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Point taken. However, I must share a little from my personal experience. I was in a fantasy baseball league and I am a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan, but I didn't have a great number of Phillies on my fantasy team roster.


BOB GARFIELD: And I would go to the Phillies' box score and I would see that Jim Thome had hit two home runs and knocked in six and instead of going [LAUGHS], "Oh, yeah, Jim Thome, Philadelphia Phillies," I was going, "Oh, my God, I just got behind six runs in the RBI race and, you know, two homers in the home run race" because he was competing against my slugger. Has the purity of my fandom been compromised by fantasy sports?

MATTHEW BERRY: It would sound that way. My argument is, is that's sort of on you. For a guy that watches as much Phillies baseball and as the lifelong fan you are, how you could be depressed that Jim Thome hits two home runs and six RBIs for Phillies is beyond me.

BOB GARFIELD: I feel weak and small after 45 years of suffering at the expense of the Philadelphia Phillies.

MATTHEW BERRY: [LAUGHS] Phillies fans have a tough lot in life as it is. So I don't mean to pile on.


MATTHEW BERRY: But I will say, I will say this: at the end of the day in a macro sense I think it's okay. I, I mean, because like from major league baseball's point of view, you're paying closer attention to that game. You care about that game. You're a passionate fan. What's wrong with that? I don't see anything wrong with that. That's the part I don't get when I hear that kind of criticism.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. One final question. What should I do about David Bell?

MATTHEW BERRY: You're still hanging on to him?

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I think you've answered my question. Matthew, thank you very much.

MATTHEW BERRY: My pleasure, Bob. Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Matthew Berry, also known as The Talented Mr. Roto, can be found at talentedmrroto.com.