Inventing Fantasy Sports

The journalist and his friends founded the first fantasy baseball league—a development that nurtured the explosion of statistical analysis in sports.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you come up with the idea of rotisserie baseball?

Daniel Okrent:
Yeah.  I was a great baseball fan and like many baseball fans, I loved to play with numbers.  And in the off season of 1979-1980, I was 31 years old and I was missing baseball and I had this idea for a game.  And there was a game that some professors of mine at the University of Michigan in the ‘60’s played that had, it was like stone tablets and a steel chisel compared to the computer in its level of sophistication, but the idea was individuals predicting how players would perform.  And based on how well they performed or how well you predicted whether you the individual who is playing the game would win.  So, I typed up some rules, and I came down from Mt. Sinai and handed them to a bunch of baseball-loving pals of mine with whom I had regular lunches at a restaurant on 52nd Street called, La Rotisserie Français, and said, what do you think?  And a few of them said, "I think you’re crazy, or I think that’s boring, I think that’s stupid," and a few others said, "That’s great."  And we found some others and in April, 1980, we had our first draft.  

Now, eight of the 10 of us worked in the medium.  We worked at magazines, newspapers, television, books, and as a result, it got a lot of coverage because our friends would hear us talking about it and our friends worked at newspapers and magazines and television networks.  And it got a lot more attention than, you know, had we all been lawyers.  And from that attention, people began to pay more attention and by within a year or two, there were many people playing a version of it across the country and we began to publish an annual book.  And I would say that the end of the ‘80’s, it was well-established.  People knew what it was.  Big fans did.  But it was the Internet that really gave it retro-rockets.  

In 1990, the Editor-in-Chief... Editorial Director of ESPN told me they did a survey of their viewers and found that one and a half percent of them knew about or played fantasy, or Rotisserie, the original name, sports and so it did make sense for them to do a show about them.  

Well, now if you turn on ESPN during the season, I mean the amount of statistics that are being presented that are only for people who play fantasy games and particular shows devoted to it and experts that make their living, it’s enormous.  And that came about because the internet made it so damned easy to follow what your players were doing.  And in this film that ESPN has made about the origins of Rotisserie Baseball, it shows the control room at ESPN and I think at Yahoo as well, and the computer—the server farm that is handling the transactions of all the people who are playing Rotisserie sports, you know, it looks like the inside guts of IBM.  It’s gigantic.  Millions, and millions, and millions of people playing it now.

Are fantasy leagues partly responsible for the rise of statistical analysis in sports?

Daniel Okrent: Well I think that there’s no question that fantasy sports has encouraged and nurtured this explosion, this mushrooming of statistical material.  Yeah, I feel responsible, to some degree.  I once told a reporter from The Wall Street Journal who did an article about it 15 years ago.  I said "I feel like J. Robert Oppenheimer having invented the atomic bomb.  I mean, look what I’ve unleashed on the world."  On the other hand, there all sorts of good uses of nuclear power as well.  And I think though you have to look at the obsession with baseball statistics or sports statistics the same way.

There’s no question that the statistical record of the game that exists in a box score tells you virtually everything.  There’s no equivalent of that for football and the basketball box score approaches it, but you really can’t tell much about the flow of a game the way you can if you know how to read a box score carefully.  So the ability to reduce this dramatic event to several lines of type I think has really enhanced the appreciation of baseball, because I can imagine the game.  I can look at a box score and I can imagine what that game was like.  It can take me out of my pajamas and my cup of coffee at the breakfast table into the ballpark and see things in the stadium of my mind.

Who’s going to win the 2010 World Series?

Daniel Okrent:
I think the Philadelphia Phillies are an incredibly talented team.  I think the Yankees are also incredibly talented team, which is to say, I have no insight.  I've predicted two obvious teams.  Tampa I think is very, very good and they could—they are the ones.  If I were issuing... if I were a handicapper, I’d put the Yankees and the Phillies a co-favorites and Tampa very close behind.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010