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Fantasy sports conference rekindles memories of early years

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Recent posts by William Del Pilar

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By William Del Pilar

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) winter conference took place Jan. 16-17 and featured Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who took part in the "Power Tweeters" panel. There was an experts baseball draft, awards and honors were given out and a good time was had by everyone involved. 

The trade conference has been going on for years, and its origins go back to the Fantasy Insights '98 Fantasy Football Convention. Geared toward fans, that convention, we were told, could draw tens of thousands of attendees. Then, that number became thousands, and finally the day before it began, we were told how strongly they were advertising and expecting an influx off the street. To say early ticket sales were down would be a gross understatement. Looking back, I would guess 20-50 individuals came through the two-day event. No one was upset. There was too much excitement generated just by meeting one another in a new industry and understanding we were trailblazers. It was an exciting time.

Now that I'm older, I have an appreciation for those days and what we were doing. We could sense a great future, though we knew there would be battles in the beginning to convince the government that fantasy sports was not gambling.

Some of the exhibitors began to talk about forming an association, and that was the logical move. Especially since the NFL was sending out cease-and-desist letters to both content and commissioner sites. The league claimed it owned the rights to statistics but didn't exclude content companies from its attacks. Eventually, the NFL came around, and it was MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) that was taken to court.

CBC Distribution and Marketing Inc., the parent company of CDM Sports, was denied a license to use player statistics, forcing the company to sue. This brought the elephant in the room to the forefront in a decision that would make or break the industry. Realize this: We were a young industry, and many could have lost years of work and jobs. Once we had built an industry, the professional leagues were now ready to take control of it. 

The issue was license fees for statistics. At the time possibly a dozen companies were paying fees, but that number always changed. The ESPNs and Yahoo!s of the world  and the venture-backed companies usually had licenses. Those who could afford it. The leagues were generating a fraction of the dollars they felt they should, but they were generating some fees. Now, everything was on the line. This helped unite the industry, and the courts eventually ruled against the pro leagues. It was a great day, and I remember the association at a conference giving Charlie Wiegert, the face of CDM, a thunderous round of applause. Who says the little guy can't win?

The FSTA has gone through many changes in leadership and members, but the core group of individuals are still there. Now many are being honored yearly with induction into the FSTA and Fantasy Sports Writers Association's halls of fame. It's always special and exciting to see friends, including employees of my now-former company, to talk shop and look toward the future while enjoying the present. It's hard to believe it's going on 14 years since the first time this industry informally met, and it's still growing in stature and respectability.


FSTA winter conference highlights

SiriusXM Radio broadcast the FSTA experts league baseball draft live, and it was the second time it did this. There's no better way to maximize a draft than having a radio show dedicated to it. It's a big step forward as experts leagues are all about their drafts and analyzing them. Once a team drafts, everyone's mental frame moves into in-season mode, and those outside the players don't care who wins. Maximizing the day of the draft is where the focus should be.

While the draft is a big event, if you're not involved in it, you usually have no interest. Bottom line: Do you want to stand in a room and listen to a person pick a team that you have nothing invested in? Not really, and that's just human nature, so the radio format makes sense.

The Power Tweeters panel was when Maurice Jones-Drew made his appearance with Steve Gardner of USA Today and Matthew Berry of ESPN. It was a lively debate, and they gave tips on how they feel Twitter should be used, how they view themselves within Twitter and the pros and cons they've experienced.

MJD was asked about his Twitter comments regarding Bears QB Jay Cutler and his injury in the 2010 NFC championship game, and Berry talked about having to write a retraction after passing information along without first verifying it. The point to remember is that you can't take back what you post on Twitter. For those who know me and my love of politics, that point is well taken by yours truly.

MJD is not tall but stocky, yet you would never think he's a professional football player. There's no denying his passion and heart to play his profession and how much he's had to overcome. He's someone for all of us to look up to. He enjoys the game of fantasy football, and there was a good back-and-forth on where Berry had him ranked. MJD was stating his case to be the No. 1 running back heading into 2012.

Remember, he led the league in rushing in 2011. For me, seeing MJD is one of the perks of the association as it has brought in personalities from MJD to Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon to the former head of the MLB Players Association, Donald Fehr. Being in the industry, I hear the stories the public often doesn't. Nothing major, just more detailed insight from those who know a person or have worked with him before. It's just a part of the job that makes it more enjoyable.

Although not of much interest to most attendees, being Latino, I found the Latino market pitch interesting. The Elevator pitch is when new companies highlight who they are and what they do. is providing fantasy soccer in Mexico. Latinos have a passion for soccer, boxing, basketball and baseball, and not in that order, depending on what country you're in. The numbers are nowhere near where they need to be, but it's a different market, and one that will require patience and financial support before a profit that would interest investors is possible. They're slowly growing and are looking for ways to expand. Eventually a company like that will catch the eye of venture capital or as a possible acquisition by a larger organization. Fantasy sports continues to grow around the world.

Tableau Software is a technology I found interesting, and it's been used in other industries. When the company opened it up to other users, it found a big response from the fantasy sports community, the stats guys, but this industry is merely a drop of their real revenue. I'm glad someone over there at least introduced it to the fantasy community. It allows the user to create maps, bars and line charts among its many features. This tool has the potential for bloggers to relay visually what they're trying to say with normal charts and columns created quickly and in various formats. It's a software that I am looking forward to trying as I always use statistical numbers to back up my points. You can see some of the visual samples Tableau can do here.

There was so much more information and companies to network with. If you're a company in the industry and you're not attending the conferences, it's a shame, as you're missing out on a lot of information and networking opportunities.

In fact, when the conferences first began, most of the companies would gather at the hotel lounge, as Las Vegas was where most of the events were held early on. It was a great time, but that stopped for many years as most would go off on their own and enjoy an evening with work friends or business partners.

However, this year was like old times as many ended up in the same lounge at the Mirage in Las Vegas instead of going out. It was nice because most of those individuals were the ones who founded this industry. It was great to see RotoWire, Yahoo! Sports, KFFL, ESPN and Fantasy Diehard's Emil Kadlec, who co-founded the high-stakes industry and is the publisher of the longest-running fantasy magazine still around. While different, it was reminiscent of old times for this industry veteran.

As we were chatting, I looked over and mentioned this to Kadlec and jokingly wondered if age had anything to do with the familiar faces around. Once young and single, many of us are now married, and some have kids. With receding hair lines and expanded waistlines and after a hearty dinner and awards banquet, going out all night on the town in Vegas and making new memories took a backseat. Most ended up relaxing, talking shop with old friends and enjoying the past and present, as well as eying the future with a positive outlook. 

Since its formation in 1999, the FSTA remains the same at its core, with many of the industry's founders still actively involved. It's easy to stay part of an industry when most of us feel we have the best jobs in the world. I can't end this without a hearty thank-you to Paul Charchian and Megan Van Patten for putting on an outstanding event.

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