Thirty years ago, when Daniel Okrent was introducing a group of friends and professional acquaintances to Rotisserie League Baseball, a game he had invented while on a plane, he viewed it as mainly a fun excursion that could earn him a few dollars if it caught on with the masses. As anyone who saw ESPN’s “Silly Little Game” can tell you, the game exploded under the moniker, “fantasy,” and Mr. Okrent, who had trademarked the term “rotisserie” instead, never made his millions. Or even his hundreds. Which is why it doubly hurt for him to discover that fast-food giant McDonald’s is sponsoring FIFA’s official fantasy World Cup game; an offshoot of a game he created.
“This is just one more confirmation of my good nature and generosity,” Mr. Okrent jokes. “I know McDonald’s needs my help, so I’m happy to do what I can for them. Of course, I also hope they die.”
McDonald’s has a presence in over 100 countries. They’ve been an Olympics partner, have deals with LeBron James, and even sponsored New York’s Fashion Week. They produced an iconic Larry Bird-Michael Jordan “Horse” commercial in the mid-90s. There is a McDonald’s outside the Pantheon in the center of Rome. And now they’re sponsoring a fantasy game for a tournament that lasts just one month.
They aren’t the only ones.
Fantasy game site RotoHog designed two games for this year’s World Cup. One is for Sports Illustrated to run exclusively on Facebook. The second was for hi5.com, an online gaming site with a huge international following.
“People like to play games,” reasons Kelly Perdew, CEO of RotoHog, in explaining why his company was asked to drum up fantasy World Cup games. “And soccer is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports outside of America.”
Although gaining steam overseas, fantasy soccer is buried way down at the bottom of the fantasy popularity charts in North America, behind even Nascar and golf. Fantasy sports, meanwhile, turned just 30 years old this year; they’re essentially the same age as Jessica Simpson. So why are companies like CBS Sports, ESPN, Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, and RotoExperts, who essentially ignored the last major World Competition—the Vancouver Olympics—so eager to throw their hats in the World Cup ring?
“The fantasy game hits a demographic target as well as a global audience,” John Lewicki, McDonald’s Director of Sports Marketing, explains. He adds that it also offers a neatly packaged means of reaching a rabid international crowd of soccer fans. “It’s a nice short, sweet window of 30 days,” he says, adding that McDonald’s is also sponsoring a contest for the World Cup Ultimate Fan, where users can submit pleas to be the greatest world soccer fan and win a trip to this year’s World Cup Finals. “It’s not just people playing the game from the countries in the World Cup. We have 110 countries participating.”
Fantasy content site RotoExperts saw the proliferation of World Cup games and decided to assign two writers, Nate Pigott and Adam Zdroik, to create fantasy World Cup content, which appears both on their site and on KFFL.com. Managing Director Scott Engel says that the company will also be producing and airing fantasy World Cup podcasts on BlogTalk radio, airing live Monday mornings at 9 a.m. Mr. Engel says that the company decided to throw their hat into the World Cup ring for a variety of reasons, including a dearth of fantasy World Cup advice in a market that’s seeing a growing number of tournament-themed games.
Mr. Engel adds that it’s simply RotoExperts being RotoExperts. They ran a series of well-read columns dealing with a fantasy English Premier League game this past season and just rode that momentum into the World Cup.
“Outside of there not being a lot of fantasy World Cup advice out there,” Mr. Engel says, “the fact that we covered the fantasy EPL game makes us more legitimate on the subject.”
Mr. Perdew cites the spread of the Internet into soccer-mad countries as a reason for fantasy World Cup games popping up with such fervor and attracting sponsors like McDonald’s. RotoHog ran a fantasy soccer game in Brazil last year and what Mr. Perdew saw was eye-opening.
“They were fanatical,” he says. While most American fantasy leagues see a marked drop-off in participation as fantasy players realize they aren’t going to win their football or baseball leagues, the Brazilian fantasy players, according to Mr. Perdew, had a surprising rate of retention, playing out their leagues even when their fantasy teams were out of title contention.
“Hundreds of thousands of people were signed up,” he says. “And most played to the very end.”
What makes the fantasy World Cup popularity a little more interesting is that this winter’s Vancouver Olympics were sorely lacking in fantasy offerings. Both the World Cup and Olympics feature international competitors, have hours of TV coverage per day, and only come around once every four years. Yet the best of the fantasy bunch, RosterSlots, represented the attitude of many companies towards Olympic fantasy sports in a nutshell: CEO Peter Wikander used the Olympics as a beta test for his addictive baseball version of the game.
Mr. Perdew thinks that the similarities between the Olympics and World Cup end once the events conclude, pointing out that soccer continues to be a popular sport with a rabid fan base after the tournament, while many Olympians fade into the background until the next set of games. “Most people are fans of the Olympics only during the Olympics,” says Mr. Perdew. “There aren’t a lot of people who go watch bobsledding on the weekends.”
Mr. Okrent once joked that his tombstone would have him remembered for inventing fantasy sports when he had accomplished so much more, including a stint as Ombudsman of the New York Times and author of best-selling books. But with one of the biggest global brands and largest world sports voluntarily attaching themselves to a game that he concocted, “inventor of fantasy sports” doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, after all.
By NANDO DI FINO