I knew Dan Okrent a long time ago. Brilliant, bookish, rooted in baseball, he took me to dinner a couple of times when he was researching a New York Times Magazine piece on Orioles manager Earl Weaver in the spring of 1978. This was just a year and a half before Okrent had an idea that has forever changed (corrupted?) the magical experience of watching professional sports.
Okrent invented fantasy sports. He is the inadvertent, accidental godfather of DraftKings, FanDuel, and all the other Wild West gambling services that have partnered with professional leagues and teams, carpet-bombed media outlets with millions of ad dollars, and convinced a new generation of fans that the only way to watch sports is to assemble your own make-believe team and then root for your players to succeed so that you will make money.
It’s all about you. The games, the teams, the standings, and the champions don’t really matter to the fantasy gamblers.
Fantasy has emerged as the unchecked, runaway monster of sports, with billions of dollars changing hands, an endless loop of skull-imploding commercials (“Just pick your sport, pick your players, and pick up your cash!”), blatant hypocrisy in the partnering teams/leagues, an inevitable insider trading scandal, and impending congressional investigations and government regulation.
“I feel like J. Robert Oppenheimer, having invented the atomic bomb,’’’ Okrent said last weekend. “I meant it for peaceful purposes.’’
It all started when Okrent was flying from Hartford to Austin, Texas, a short while after Weaver and the Orioles lost the seventh game of the 1979 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I was missing baseball, and I had this idea,’’ Okrent said in a phone interview from his Wellfleet home. “It was very loosely based on when I was in college at Michigan in the 1960s. A faculty friend of mine had something where he and other faculty members would pick five hitters and five pitchers at the beginning of the season and at the end of the season, whoever had the best ERA and most RBIs, or something like that, was the winner.
“It was just to give them a rooting interest. With that seed in my mind, I came up with this idea in the offseason. I was living in the Berkshires and working at Texas Monthly. I presented it to some baseball-loving pals in Austin and they thought I was nuts.
“The next time I was in New York, I presented it to some buddies of mine. We used to have regular baseball lunches in New York at La Rotisserie Francaise on East 52d between Third and Lexington. They took to it, and we had our first baseball draft in April of 1980. The entry fee was $250.
“There were 11 of us. Ten teams. One team had two owners. We had a salary cap that represented real dollars. We could spend $250 to acquire 22 players. The winner got half the money, 1,250 bucks. Second, third, and fourth place divided the rest of the money.
“Because several of us were in the media, we got a lot of publicity that first year. We were on the ‘Today’ show, there was a piece about us in the New York Times [Okrent later became the first public editor of the Times].
“In 1981, I wrote a piece for John Walsh [Inside Sports magazine] called, ‘The Year George Foster Wasn’t Worth 36 Dollars.’ When the long baseball strike came in the summer of 1981, some of the baseball writers started writing about their Rotisserie teams and what they were missing. That helped spread it more.
“Bantam Books started publishing an annual that we wrote. I tried to get Walsh [then running ESPN] to do more of it on ‘SportsCenter,’ but he said only 1½ percent of their audience was into it.’’
Okrent estimates that he has made less than $15,000 lifetime from the concept the fantasy founding fathers trademarked as “Rotisserie League Baseball.”
“The one thing we could protect was the name,’’ said Okrent. “But in our effort to protect the trademark somebody came up with the generic term: fantasy. That was in the late 1980s. The next big leap was the arrival of the Internet. That was the thing that made it truly widespread and deep in the culture. It became so easy to play and the stats were there and you could follow your teams really closely and people built websites around it.’’
And now it has taken over the sports world.
“I got used to the fact decades ago that somebody else would make the money from this,’’ said Okrent. “I’m not entirely indifferent. I’m bemused.’’
What about the key question that big league teams/leagues and media partners avoid? Does the man who invented fantasy think it is really gambling?
“Of course it is,’’ said Okrent. “The distinction people are making . . . ‘it’s a game of skill.’ Well, poker is a game of skill. Blackjack in a casino is a game of skill. Picking horses is a true game of skill, and nobody would pretend that that’s not gambling.
“I’m sure when Congress exempted fantasy sports, they were thinking of 10 guys sitting around a bar and making a bet. They weren’t imagining this.
“The hypocrisy of people like [Robert] Kraft and [Cowboys owner Jerry] Jones [both partnered with DraftKings] investing in this while they make the speeches about sports betting is preposterous. I don’t see how they can do this with a straight face. They see their chance and they’re going to grab it.’’
Last week, it was learned that an employee of DraftKings made $350,000 with FanDuel on a $25 bet in a competition that included almost 23,000 entrants. Suddenly there is scrutiny.
“This was so ripe for corruption,’’ said Okrent. “This scandal didn’t surprise me at all. My guess is there’s a much bigger scandal underneath this. In the race to make a buck, nobody stopped to think about the possibilities.”
The possibilities are infinite, but after decades of phony posturing about the evils of sports betting, big league teams and commissioners from all four major sports have temporarily found a way to get a piece of the action. All in the name of “fantasy.’’
Fantasy it is. But the walls are closing in, and things will have to change. Insider trading is only the beginning of this mess.