September, 2009

Business Profile: Fantasy Sharks

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Company: (Sharks Fantasy Sports, LLC.)
Launch date: Late summer 2003
Became full-time operation: 2007
No. of employees: 45 compensated contributors

At a time when many fantasy sites switched to pay models, entered the industry with free content. Creator and industry veteran Tony Holm recently took some time to tell how he goes about keeping the still-free site afloat.

(Disclosure: Holm — representing — is one of the fantasy pros in RapidDraft, which is part of the company that owns
1. First of all, where does the name come from? What separates sharks from chum?
When I decided to open my own shop after spending a decade with sites like, and, I was looking for a name that was short, applicable and had related URL’s that I could also purchase. The “sharks” reference comes from a card “shark,” which, of course, is someone talented at cards. So, why not a fantasy “shark”? When I discovered that, and were also available, that sealed the deal for me. I’ve since acquired,,,,,,,, and a whole bunch more sharks.coms!

Our tag line — “There are two types of fantasy football owners: sharks and chum.
Which are you?” — came in the early days from a couple of guys that help with the site. I pulled up the site one day, it was there on the front page, I liked it and it’s been there ever since.

2. What was the impetus for the site’s creation and what were your goals at the outset?
I felt the time was right. I had been toying with starting my own business in the fantasy space for a few years and the more I thought about it the more it made sense to mobilize some volunteers and go after it. I was fairly confident that the hobby would turn into an industry, and when it did, I wanted to be there. I’ve only had one guiding principle throughout this wild, roughly 15-year ride of providing a resource to the fantasy community and that is: As long as it grows I’ll keep doing it. When it stops growing, I’ll stop, too. So far I’m happy to report that we and I have grown every year in this industry, so you’re all stuck with us for a little while longer.

3. Free content seems to be a key component of Fantasy Sharks. How hard (or easy) has it been to get and stay viable without the benefit of subscriber fees?
We’ve always been free, and, unless something drastic happens that I don’t see in the landscape, always will be. Philosophically, I run the site a little different than a for-profit business. Yes, we are for profit and we do try to grow all our metrics including revenue. But, quite honestly, it’s never been the focus, as I’ve always felt that running a company from the bottom line up is fool’s gold. The model that we opened the doors with was one of many contributors taking pride in both their own work and the site they represent, all helping to entertain and inform the fantasy community. The current success of FantasySharks and future growth or decline rests squarely on the folks that contribute to the community. As long as the community is healthy and accepting of new additions to it and we focus on being an indispensable service to the fantasy community at large, then good things will happen. I’ve resisted the tug to charge for services because I’ve thought charging is a short-term solution to a cash-flow problem vs. a long-term free solution like we have in place now, where we tightly control costs but I believe will ultimately be more successful because of the model.

When we opened as free it was just us — and shortly thereafter — as the other sites had all converted from free to pay. That one decision was, I think, the best decision we could have made as it defined us and gave us a big niche to swim in almost entirely on our own. We achieved critical mass fairly early on, something new sites today have an impossible time accomplishing, and that was almost completely due to the free-model decision. Today, if I were starting a fantasy company, I’d go about it completely differently as the landscape has changed dramatically. But for us, the free shoes continue to fit.

4. How big a role do the contests play in site revenue? What kind of audience do you get there?
They’re really nothing more than community involvement games that help keep the community engaged and give them more fodder in the forums. Our forum is actually one of the biggest in all of fantasy sports and something we’re quite proud of as we have succeeded where so many have failed. Many don’t realize that our forum is our crown jewel and as popular as the rest of the site, as it is a valuable year-round resource to the fantasy community and chock full of good people willing to help.

5. How integral are merchandise and ticket sales to the site’s revenue? When did those components enter the picture?
We added those to the mix early on. They don’t contribute much, but we knew that going in. The benefit is that they do add to the appearance of being a full-service site even if they aren’t well-trafficked locations, so we leave them up. If we just had a page of RB rankings, what fun would that be? But the fact that you can purchase a thong for your wife/girlfriend/self certainly gets a few laughs, so we leave it. When people do check us out for the very first time, the merchandise is actually one of the first things they look at — though they never have a plan to purchase any of it. I think some judge our quality partly by how our logo looks on a polo shirt and if that looks good, then the rest of the site may be worth checking out, too. People are drawn to pictures. Building that all-important trust relationship with your customer is paramount for retention and growth, and we still make sure we cater to the individual and make sure each member is pleased with their experience.

6. What exactly is Fantasy Sharks’ relationship with Fantasy Sports Ventures? When did that deal take place?
They handle our ad sales primarily. We’re completely privately held, with no VC [venture capital] or Angel investing, as we’ve been profitable since we started. (Granted, those first couple years we made enough to get the extra cheese wiz on the nachos, but technically we were profitable!) This will be our third year with FSV. We do a lot with FSV, working with them on various initiatives and they’ve been great to work with. They turn to me for guidance in areas that I know a bit about and I turn to them for guidance in areas they know a bit about. It has been a tremendous two-way street for us and they’ve opened up opportunities for the business to grow. That and the free drinks at the FSTA conferences go a long way.

7. What role do the showcase leagues serve, and how long have they been around?
We started a tiered approach to fantasy football leagues where if you do well, you are rewarded with an elevation to a higher tier. If you do poorly you are kicked down. It’s all a big pyramid so that at the very top, our Great White Shark League, we have 12 proven league champions facing off in the same league. It’s the ultimate in competition, and some very smart folks have clawed and scraped their way to the top by winning their leagues multiple times.

The Shark Leagues yet again are a community involvement piece that gives our folks something to play for free and allows them to post with peers about their experiences, their triumphs and their defeats.

8. What led you to enter your Lineup Coach via the open API? How did your partnership with MFL evolve from there, and what does it mean for Fantasy Sharks?
We have a Lineup Coach and Draft Coach application that utilize the open API to do some pretty cool things helping owners manage their teams. There’s also a Waiver and Trade Coach in the wings and a very innovative “Who Sharks Are Starting” application that inspects FantasyShark site and community leagues’ starting-lineup decisions and gives lineup recommendations based on them. We developed the Coach tools to fill a hole as there weren’t any robust solutions in the marketplace at the time. I’ve known Mike Hall at for some time, as we have been sounding boards for each other over the years. That partnership blossomed and grew to the point that I now work full-time with Mike and Kevin Austin at managing content, helping with the League Management product and the business in general. For Fantasy Sharks it means continued tighter integration with league management, and for MyFantasyLeague it means continued tighter integration with content, which is a win-win.

9. What part do any other partnerships and/or content-share agreements play in the Fantasy Sharks business?
It’s a big piece as it continues to help not only get the word out but promotes our writers in a variety of media. I don’t charge for our content usage, as one of my goals is to make sure our writers are promoted and I look at promotion being my job. Their job is to write. If they hit it big like some of our writers have, all I ask is that they remember us and put a good word in. We have content shipping out to a number of places like,, USA Today, a variety of iPhone app developers, some contest development folks — a number of places.

10. The site is centered on football, but there is content mixed in for other sports. How much attention do you guys pay to other sports, and is there any plan to or thought of expanding the non-football presence?
Good question. We plan to focus on football with some baseball sprinkled in. If contributors come out of the woodwork that want to leverage the fairly large audience to pimp NASCAR for example, then I won’t stand in their way. I’ll help them get the initiative off the ground, invest in it and counsel when direction is needed. That’s the spirit at Fantasy Sharks, as it takes community initiative and involvement to make an idea go — and, I would argue, also gives it the best chance of success. But I also back off and let the community go in the direction they feel we should go.

It is my conclusion that the folks that try to cover all sports (apart from an ESPN-type site) are more times than not chasing a pump-and-dump strategy with their business. The numbers tell you that chasing all sports is a losing proposition, but it sure makes you more attractive as an acquisition target to a larger business — which, granted, is all part of the small-business modus operandi. I certainly don’t fault anyone for going down that road; it’s just not the road we’re on. I’d like to see continue to grow virally based on our own merit so we’ll continue to focus on fantasy football and, hopefully, be known for what we do best.


FSB Daily 9/14: Charch on NPR, WFG on Games Panel

Monday, September 14th, 2009

A roundup of recent posts on the FSB News page.

- There’s swimming in the mainstream, and then there’s cracking the NPR news lineup. A quick piece in the technology portion of NPR’s All Things Considered on Monday afternoon discussed the increase in female fantasy football players — including sound bytes from FSTA president Paul Charchian.

- Our own Jeff Thomas, CEO of World Fantasy Games, will join representatives from two other Wisconsin-based game companies on Sept. 22 for a panel discussion on the health of the industry in their state.

Send all of your news, job postings, stories and profile ideas to [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter (FSBcom).


RotoHog-Sporting News Partnership Off to Rough Start

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

About a month ago or so, I did a football draft over at with the fantasy staff there and had a pretty bad experience.

Multiple participants (including me, for most of the draft) couldn’t see by the draft window when it was their turn to pick, multiple service interruptions made the 12-team effort take somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

In the early morning hours Thursday, sent out a message to all fantasy users about the issues with its Draft & Trade Football commissioner game. Here’s the opening paragraph:

As many of you are aware, Sporting News embarked on a massive rebuild of its fantasy games platform a few months ago in an effort to add more features and offer an updated environment. Part of that strategy was to have Sporting News management and personnel work with RotoHog, one of the country’s leading games developers. Despite the best efforts of both parties, the Sporting News Fantasy Football games have been inaccessible or unstable for more days than we feel is acceptable. The latest problem followed what appeared to be a deliberate attempt by someone to undermine the game platform.

The message went on to say that new sign-ups have been frozen until further notice — which could all but seal the customer base for the season-long game now that we’re at the dawn of the NFL regular season — and that those who have paid for teams and leagues will be refunded. Players at the prize-eligible “platinum” level will remain eligible for those prizes.

Salary-cap games Ultimate Fantasy Football and Fantasy Football Challenge appear to be unaffected by the issues with Draft & Trade.

For what it’s worth, I was able to set my lineup Thursday morning without issues for that team from the aforementioned draft.