February, 2010

High-Stakes Baseball Events Approach

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Football enjoys a much larger share of the fantasy market than any other sport, so it’s no wonder that the live-draft, high-stakes football events continue to grow, increase and draw more coverage.

This American moment (just wanted to pretend we were NPR for a second), however, presents an interesting time in the life of high-stakes fantasy baseball.

Baseball, in general, tends to stand much closer to the center of the fantasy stage right around now than for most of the rest of the year, with pitchers and catchers reporting and everyone but Royals and Pirates fans getting their hopes up for shots at the World Series. The “national pastime” is in particular focus right about now for fantasy industry heavies WCOFS and Fanball.

Gridiron Fantasy Sports (the company that owns the World Championship of Fantasy Football) will put on its first WCOFB (I’ll let you figure out the “B”) in 2010. Just like in the WCOFF, the main event will take place in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, high-stakes veteran the National Fantasy Baseball Championship will not only be calling Vegas home, but also hosting events in four other cities. The big change for the NFBC this year, though, is that it will be the first run since Fanball’s acquisition in August. Of course, leaders Greg Ambrosius and Tom Kessenich also went to the new parent company in the deal, so things should remain familiar to returning players.

Here are the full schedules for each set of events …

National Fantasy Baseball Championship live events
March 19-21, Las Vegas
March 19-21, Atlantic City, N.J.
March 19-21, St. Louis
March 26-28, Las Vegas
March 26-28, Chicago
March 26-28, New York City

World Championship of Fantasy Baseball
March 26-28
Las Vegas


Business Profile: FFPC

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Company: For Players - By Players LLC (dba Fantasy Football Players Championship)
Launch date: March 2008
Became full-time operation: April 2008
No. of employees: 3

The World Championship of Fantasy Football introduced us to the gathering of high-stakes fantasy football players for annual drafts in Las Vegas. The Fantasy Football Players Championship has used that model as a starting point and expanded to varied entry points into high-stakes play — both online and in-person. Co-founder Alex Kaganovsky took some time recently to tell FSB.com about his company’s entry into a growing market and what differentiates it’s platform from others.

1. What did the FFPC bring to the high-stakes market that you guys thought was missing?

As high-stakes players ourselves who participated in other events for many years, we felt that we had a pretty good feel for what was missing in the high-stakes market. The FFPC brought to the table the highest payout percentage in the industry in all its league offerings. Prize security and customer trust were also an important issue for high-stakes players, so the FFPC was the first and only high-stakes contest to place the entire Main Event prize pool in an attorney escrow for the duration of the season. Lighting-fast prize payouts was the FFPC’s motto. Our award winners had their checks in hand just days after winning their prizes. The FFPC offered a great community feel on its message boards, where players could gather and talk about any issue they deemed important. Customer service was a priority as well. All requests were answered within a matter of hours. And last but certainly not least, the FFPC league format, rules, scoring and prize structure were created to be as player-friendly as possible and were very well received by the high-stakes players.

2. How long was the idea in the works before the launch for the 2008 season? What kind of preparation and particular steps were necessary to bring the idea to fruition?

This is something we are probably most proud of, because the FFPC went from the initial concept to a ‘soft’ launch in a matter of about two months. In February 2008, we had our first phone conversation about starting a new high-stakes event. By April of 2008, we had a website built, rules and format created and Caesars Palace booked. We took our first Main Event signup on April 13.

3. What sort of experience with other high-stakes events did the founders bring to the creation of the FFPC?

Alex Kaganovsky and Dave Gerczak are the very definition of high-stakes veterans. Both have played WCOFF since its inception in 2002 as well as other contests like NFFC, AFFL, Fantasy VIPs, Fantasy Football Masters, Antsports and probably some others that they can’t even remember. Both have always been active members in the high-stakes community, as well as having pretty good success as players themselves. Dave achieved the pinnacle of high-stakes fantasy football by winning a national contest in 2008, along with its $100,000 grand prize.

4. What percentage of revenue comes from the main event entries? How important — financially and/or otherwise — are the various other play options?

The Main Event is probably the greatest single source of revenue and will continue to be so, but it’s also important to have a large selection of satellite leagues, tournaments and various contests. This obviously creates additional revenue but also offers something for everyone and allows players of all financial means to participate in the FFPC experience.

5. Did you consider any venues other than Las Vegas for the main event’s live draft, or was that always the focus? How much of the main-event participants opt for the online version?

Las Vegas was always the first and only option to host the live FFPC events. We’ve since talked about other locations, but Vegas will always be home. Surprisingly, more than 50 percent of our Main Event teams draft online. I say surprisingly because I personally expected that ratio to be more like 75/25 in favor of the Live draft. But we found out that there are a great many players out there that are very excited about drafting from the comforts of their home.

6. How important are your strategy variations: 1.5 points per reception for tight ends, “Dual Flex,” etc.?

An FFPC participant, Rich McClellan wrote an excellent strategy article where he talked about the 1.5 ppr for TEs, and the Dual Flex. It was written in 2008, before the inaugural FFPC draft took place, but Rich was very astute in breaking down the format and its possible effects on strategy:

“First, let’s examine two of the major changes that will affect both your draft and your lineup management: the 1.5 point-per reception TE rule and the FFPC Dual-Flex. This is a PPR league and to add some pizzazz to the TE position, the TE’s will receive 1.5 points for a reception instead of the standard 1 for WRs and RBs. This makes the TE significantly more valuable and that means owners are more likely to draft a TE early which leads to more variation in the somewhat predictable draft order we all face. Last year six TEs caught more than 60 passes and with Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez both flirting with the century mark in catches, it seems the perfect time to elevate the tight ends value in fantasy leagues. Even mid-level TEs with 40-50 catches can produce numbers that rival some 3rd and 4th WRs which means that this slight change will cause a ripple effect throughout the draft. Perfect timing to reemphasis the TE in fantasy football just as the position is surging in the NFL as well, nice job FFPC.

Now add on an even bigger change in lineup management, the Dual-Flex. It means exactly what it sounds like; instead if the typical one, you get to play two flex positions in your lineup, to join the required, 1-QB, 2-RBs, 2-WRs, 1-TE, 1-K and 1-Defense. These two flex positions are chosen from RBs/WRs/TEs as usual but this feature opens up the sky to possibility for a creative owner who may also draft with a specific team-type in mind. Are you a hoarder of RBs? You could actually start four RBs in this league. Fancy a fleet of fast WRS? Bombs away, you could start four WRs as well. Did you fall in love with the TE rule above and snake Witten and Gonzalez to play a double or even a triple TE fantasy formation? It’s all yours. An owner also gains the ability to target his favorite late round sleepers based on his team type, for example gambling on late RBs if the team has gone the RB-heavy route in the draft.

Here’s another interesting angle the FFPC Dual-Flex presents. Normally, if you already have 3 solid starting running backs on your roster, you need not look in the direction of another RB who just happens to pop up on the waiver wire. Sure, you’d love to get him for depth — who wouldn’t? — but is it worth spending a large portion of your blind bidding bucks on a player who’ll just ride the pine for your squad as a 4th RB? But what if you can actually start him? Well, that possibility changes everything, doesn’t it? Not only would you be cornering the RB market in your league, but you’d be building a powerhouse roster in the process. The same goes for the TE position. With 1.5 point per catch and the FFPC Dual-flex, you can now try and go get that Eric Johnson or Tony Scheffler off the waiver wire as not only your second, but even your third starting TE.

As you can see, while the Dual-flex is just a subtle adjustment to the lineup requirements, it doubles the number of lineup configurations, allows for very individualized draft & free agency strategy and also provides for better bye week coverage. Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?”

7. Do you see the high-stakes segment as a growing market, or are you competing primarily for the same players? How has the recent economy affected business?

There is a fairly large base of high-stakes fantasy players, who play various contests including the FFPC — but new players are steadily entering this market. Many new players had no idea that the high-stakes industry existed prior to finding us. It’s pretty cool to hear their reactions when they first start to immerse themselves in the FFPC. I remember very well what that felt like back in 2002.

8. The FFPC sports various partnerships with other fantasy sports companies — Mock Draft Central, My Fantasy League and Titlecraft among them. First question: How important are the deals with MDC and MFL to keeping each season running smoothly? Were those deals in place from the outset?

We approach the selection of affiliates and partners in a very careful and meticulous manner. Titlecraft is the FFPC official trophy maker and one of the very few companies that we have chosen to affiliate the FFPC with. MDC and MFL are the FFPC’s most important partners. MDC provides an excellent live draft platform for all our live drafts, and MFL hosts all our leagues. We’ve been working with both from the beginning and are very happy with the results.

9. Next question: What do the more peripheral elements — the trophies, the Pros-Joes Challenge, etc. — do for the FFPC?

Pros vs Joes Challenge was a great way to introduce the FFPC to fantasy football industry pros, and it ended up being a pretty cool concept in the end. It’s definitely something we’ll continue for the future. Another interesting contest that we’ve offered is called Field of 64, which is a supplemental contest to the Main Event. Teams are placed in a March-madness type of a bracket and play in weekly H2H matchups against other teams. There’s a live bracket that we custom build exclusively for this contest, which is probably the only one of its kind in the FF world. These types of offerings differentiate the FFPC as an innovator in the industry. We believe that you need to continue creating new and exciting products for your customers to stay ahead of your competition.

10. What does the future look like for the FFPC? Any designs on branching out into other sports?

Our passion is fantasy football. We know how to play it, and we know how to run it — well. And we know it’s also our customer’s passion. We might look at other sports like baseball in the near future, but right now our goal is to continue pressing forward with football.


Personal Profile: John Diver

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Name: John Diver (pronounced like “river”, not “diver”)
Nickname: “Div”
Job title: Director of Product Development, ESPN Fantasy Games
Full-time in fantasy: 15 years
Age: 40
Education: Washington ‘92 (English)
Family status: Married two kids (Ellie 6, Gavin 4)
Favorite fantasy sport to play: ESPN Fantasy Football
Favorite sport to watch: College Football
Favorite team (any sport): Washington Huskies
All-time favorite athlete: John McEnroe
Years playing fantasy: 20

I got my start in the fantasy industry when: Early in 1996 a friend who was working for a Paul Allen startup (Starwave) over the lake in Bellevue called and said they were looking to build online fantasy games. My interview consisted of showing the rules pages and spreadsheets from the “paper” leagues I’d been running. They explained how live stats, roster locking, standings, etc., could all be automated and managed real-time over the Web. I was hired and started the same day, writing the rules for what would be ESPN’s first fantasy baseball game.

Since then, my fantasy résumé includes: Almost every possible role other than writing software code. In all I’ve contributed to the launch of over 300 fantasy games titles for ESPN and probably won as many leagues. Here are the official job titles I’ve held:

Senior Director, Product Development - Digital Media
Director, Fantasy Games
Production Manager, Fantasy Games & Go Communities
Product Manager, Fantasy Games
Associate Producer, Starwave League Sites
Associate Editor, ESPNet SportsZone

Three questions

1. What were ESPN’s plans for and expectations of the fantasy games unit at the start back in 1996?

From the business side back then it was primarily about subscription revenue. As such our first task was to build a unique player-ownership fantasy game engine that would support the four major sports in a pay-to-play model. Our first year of fantasy baseball (1996) we had just over 7,000 teams join with an average price point of about $20. Fantasy football brought in about 15,000, the next season of baseball matched that and we created a nice little revenue stream for ESPN.

When the games started drawing sponsorship interest, we diversified and built “minigame” engines, i.e. “pick’em,” “challenge” and “bracket.” The first of such games was the salary-based Baseball Challenge 1997, and our strategy was to get users first into the free games then upsell and convert them to play the full-season pay games. Around 1998, the TV producers started to see the upside in creating games to help drive promotion/ratings for their products, and we extended the engines to work for such events as The ESPYs, Summer/Winter XGames and NFL Draft. By 2000 we were releasing over 25 game titles per year.

2. At what point did ESPN decide to get into offering commissioner-based games? What was the logic in making the games free to play?

The initial development for commissioner games started soon after we moved the group back East in 2002. At this time all our fantasy games were “standard,” in that everyone played with a fixed rules set and we played commissioner (ruling on protested trades, etc.). Our two main competitors — SportsLine and Yahoo — both offered users the ability to customize their league settings, so we started development of our own “League Manager” platform. At first we took the SportsLine model of charging on a per-league basis and launched Fantasy Football League Manager in 2003. However, after a couple of (difficult) years with little growth we changed direction and decided our best long-term strategy would be to offer both standard and custom leagues totally free of charge. SportsLine was charging about $120/league and Yahoo was still charging about $10/user for live stats, and we figured by going free with our marketing reach and brand name we would eventually win the never-ending battle for market share. The first year under this free model, our fantasy football unique users increased over 1,200%, and each year since over 25%.

3. What’s different about developing and producing fantasy games today from 1996? What hasn’t changed?

On the product side, the biggest difference is definitely scale. In the mid ’90s, we only had about 100,000 users playing fantasy football. By 2009, that number had increased to more than 3 million. As such we needed to re-configure our data models and hardware to match the load. Another thing that’s changed — especially over the last 3-5 years — is the acceptance of fantasy as a viable subject matter for TV content. Back in the ’90s ESPN never would’ve thought of producing an hour-long TV show on Sunday mornings dedicated exclusively to fantasy football.

On the “what hasn’t changed” side, fantasy football is still king. Fantasy football traffic rolled up is about equal to all our other games combined. Also, to this day, the single most-important factor in any fantasy product’s success is stability — especially when it comes time to do online live drafts and having accurate real-time stats on NFL Sunday’s. We’ve spent countless days/months/years working to ensure the games work to the level of quality users expect from an ESPN product.

Bonus: How long did it take before ESPN allowed fantasy guys to eat in that cafeteria we always see on the Sportscenter commercials?

Well really about 7 years, since the entire fantasy group was based in Seattle until one day in 2001 when we were told our operation was moving east to Bristol, Conn. Since then we’ve been allowed into the café where on any given day you’ll find yourself in the sandwich line with the likes of Hannah Storm, Bob Ley, Karl Ravech, Scott Van Pelt, Jamal Mashburn, Jalen Rose, etc. Every month or so you’ll see the Wieden+Kennedy folks filming a commercial for the This is SportsCenter campaign. And every now and then you’ll even see some random college mascot roaming the halls.


FSB Daily 2/19: CBS is Hiring, DynastyGuys Arrive

Friday, February 19th, 2010

A roundup of items recently posted on the FSB News page.

- CBSSports.com is in the market for a new marketing manager. Candidates should have four to six years experience in the industry and will handle “campaign planning, creative development, program deployment, tracking, and MROI reporting and analysis for initiatives promoting sign-up and revenue targets of CBSSports.com fantasy and live video products.”

- Footballguys.com writer Jeff Pasquino (a 2008 finalist for FSWA football writer of the year) and a partner have launched DynastyGuys.com, aimed at fantasy football players in year-to-year dynasty formats. Site content includes contributions from several of his fellow Footballguys.

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