FANALYTICS: The Story of Tout Wars, Part 2
My Wikipedia page says this:
"Shandler created Tout Wars in 1997 after being fed up with the lack of promotion USA Today gave its annual LABR fantasy baseball experts league."
It is a throwaway line from the Fantasyland book. It is incorrect and glosses over a rather complicated story. I began the story six weeks ago, here. It continues now...
Bill Meyer was the owner of USA Stats, one of the leading independent commissioner services at the time. His representative in LABR was Mike Vogel, the writer whose only appearance was a title-winning performance in 1995. Meyer was as frustrated as the rest of us when it came to how the leagues were being run.
However, he saw an opportunity to help Baseball Weekly (BW), the leagues as well as his own business. On December 3, Meyer sent a proposal to Keith Cutler, then the publisher of BW. He wrote:
"I have been thinking about the LABR leagues and the possibilities they offer to promote both rotisserie baseball generally and our respective businesses. I can attest to the level of interest in the rotisserie community about these leagues based upon the repeated inquiries and comments that we received from our clients and others last year. This interest exists despite the paucity of promotion the LABR leagues received last year. With some promotion, the interest can only increase."
Meyer then listed the objectives of his proposal: to promote rotisserie baseball generally, to promote BW and increase readership, to generate ad revenue and to increase the visibility of USA Stats. The specifics were exciting: the creation of a LABR web presence and logo, contests whose prizes were seats at the LABR draft table, and merchandising opportunities. USA Stats would bear the burden of the effort, including paying for the website design, maintenance and logo. All BW would have to do is help promote it. All ad revenue would go to BW.
Cutler responded just one week later:
"We certainly believe in the power and interest in fantasy baseball leagues with our readers. So much so that in 1998, we're creating a Baseball Weekly branded rotisserie game (you may have already seen the teaser ads for the "Baseball Weekly Diamond Challenge").
Our reader research has told us that readers (overwhelmingly) would rather play in their own leagues and compete against other fantasy players, rather than just read about the fortunes (or misfortunes) of our LABR leaguers. This should be great news for your business too!
We believe that also, and will leave the LABR league as is—a periodic mention or feature in our "Fantasy Insider" column."
Of course, LABR was never intended to replace the individual competition experience, and the fact that Cutler responded in that way was perceived as condescending. But as much as offering the Diamond Challenge was a step in the right direction, BW still didn't have a handle on the industry. The BW-branded version of CDM's Diamond Challenge would fail after several seasons.
I did not know about Meyer's correspondence with BW when I started contemplating my options for 1998. One thing I did know was that BW could not claim a monopoly on the concept of an experts competition.
But who would play in a competing league? It was not like I could assemble a different group of experts; LABR already had most of the better players. Some of those who dropped off the grid when LABR abandoned the conference calls might be prospects, but likely not enough to fill the owner rosters in a competing league.
I decided to send out an email to a carefully selected list of current and former LABRites to see where they stood on the possibility of starting another league.
I scanned four years of owner rosters; it was an exercise that revealed how much LABR was an eclectic group of people from a variety of disciplines. The owners fell into these general categories:
a. Legitimate Rotisserie Baseball experts
b. Legitimate experts in other fantasy games, but not Rotisserie
c. Free-lance writers proficient in narrow interest areas
d. Business owners looking for exposure
e. Media personalities needing to keep their face out in front of the public
f. Employees of large industry corporations that wanted to have a public presence
g. People who were there only because they had always been there
I then sorted each name on the list into one of three groups. There was a core of owners who had been vocal about the problems in the league; they formed the prime target group for my email. A second group included those who were not as vocal but I thought would be open to another league. A third group of LABRites would not get the email. This group included owners who I thought would cause problems and a few who really had no business being in an experts league anyway (all of those in category "g" and a few others across the other categories). BW's John Hunt would not get an invite.
The missive went out on January 22, 1998. At its core, it was no more than a fishing expedition, seeing if there was any interest in starting another league. But I had to build a case in order to convince enough people that it was worth the effort.
It began: "If you are receiving this email, you are on a hand-picked list of present and former participants in LABR..." and went on at length about the value of the experts league concept. I set down a mission statement, of sorts:
The goal of this experts league would be to leverage our individual areas of expertise to help
a) enhance a positive image for fantasy baseball
b) further the continued growth of the fantasy baseball industry
c) provide exposure for our own products and services
I talked about how we needed our own home—a league website—and a formal promotion plan. I finished by making the argument that "ownership and control of this league should rest in the hands of those who participate in it" and proposed that the entity be run by democratic process. Then I asked everyone to indicate their interest with a simple YEA or NAY.
I wasn't sure what type of response I would get; everyone had different motivations. As an independent business owner, I was concerned with getting the most "bang for my buck" with promotional expenditures. I couldn't just be dropping hundreds of dollars to travel to LABR drafts without getting something out of it.
It was different for others. Greg Ambrosius was a magazine editor who got a regular paycheck. Irwin Zwilling was a partner in a CPA firm. Alex Patton was an English professor. In fact, I was one of the few who depended upon a fantasy baseball product for his livelihood.
Still, I hoped others would see that there were motivating factors beyond the financial. LABR had been poorly run; at minimum, the owners had to want a better league experience.
The response was immediate. Zwilling raised his hand and suggested we create a full-fledged draft media event. He wrote: "We can get sponsors so nobody will have to kick in any money" and offered to spearhead the effort. Peter Kreutzer volunteered and immediately dubbed the project the RotisseriE Baseball Experts League, or REBEL. Meyer mailed me his BW correspondence—it would be the first time I'd seen it—adding that he was "ready, able and most willing to help in any way."
Within a day, a core group of potential owners had come forward.
I knew that the only way to get another league off the ground was to lay the foundation well in advance of John Hunt sending out his February LABR invites. Time was critically short.
The REBEL league entered February with 11 firm commitments:
John Coleman (Sandlot Shrink)
Peter Kreutzer (ESPNet's Ask Rotoman)
Bill Kulik (Forever Baseball)
Larry Labadini (Fantasy Baseball Scouting Report)
Keith Law (Baseball Prospectus)
Steve Moyer (Pro Sports Xchange)
Mat Olkin (STATS Fantasy Advisor)
Alex Patton (Baseball Snapshots)
Ron Shandler (Baseball HQ)
Steve Zipay (Newsday)
Irwin Zwilling/Lenny Melnick (Pennant Chase)
It was the beginning of something, but far from a real entity. What type of league should it be—Mixed? One single league? Two single leagues? Should it be a live draft, online or phone? When should we schedule the draft? Reinforcing my proposal that this would be a group effort, all these questions would be resolved by vote. So I started emailing out questionnaires every few days.
Early results determined that this new competition would be two single leagues (in fact, responders said they'd only accept a mixed league if it had 24 teams!). It would be a live draft on the weekend of March 28.
There was resistance. A day after the first questionnaire was emailed, Bill Kulik wrote: "Planning this late is just not going to work for everyone. I know we want the publicity, but sometimes in year one it is not a great idea to show yourself in public. We are bound to have problems, make mistakes, whatever, and you don't want to show this to the public. I suggest we make things easy for everyone and conduct the draft online. Next year we'll plan much earlier."
There were a few others who agreed, but momentum became a far greater force.
As people started hearing about the project, more volunteers emerged. Some could not make a live draft but were interested in participating if we opted to draft via phone or online. Vogel wanted to join the live draft, as did Greg Faulkner of Spin Stats and Art McGee, author of "How to Value Players for Rotisserie Baseball." Before long, we had populated about one and a half leagues.
Meanwhile, Zwilling was phoning all over Manhattan to find us a venue and rounding up the media. As February was winding down, it was clear that we needed to give this league a firm identity. It was time to make it official.
I sent out an email soliciting names for the new league and website URL. REBEL was still on the table, and while rebel.com was already taken, rebelleague.com was not. I assumed that this would be a fait accompli; after all, we had been using the REBEL moniker consistently from the beginning and it seemed that we had all gotten used to it. Alex Patton suggested Tout Wars as an alternative, a homage to the Star Wars movies. In the end, we had four choices to put up for a vote.
As I was about to send out the questionnaire, Zwilling emailed the group: "Let's be careful that we don't create an edge with LABR. We are not in competition with them; we just have different goals."
I felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. I had presented the entire concept as a competitor to LABR, but was that not how others were viewing this new league? I had become too close to the project, so I opted to abstain from the vote.
Sixteen others cast theirs:
By a margin of two votes, we became Tout Wars.
As the results were announced, Zwilling also confirmed that he had secured the All Star Cafe in Times Square to host—and sponsor—the draft. The Cafe offered to set us up in their conference room with an adjoining gallery for spectators. They'd feed us, put the draft grid on a large wall screen, conduct intermittent Q&As with the audience and send out press releases to all the local media. Major League Baseball Productions would send a camera crew. Proposals had been sent out to several high-profile celebrities to act as auctioneers. Zwilling was going to pull off a major event; it would be promoted as "All Star Cafe's TOUT WARS! The Rotisserie Baseball Experts League."
The only downside was we'd have access to this venue for one day only. We could have only one draft at the All Star Cafe. We decided to hold the National League draft there; the American League draft would be held as a 2-night conference call a few days earlier.
A company called rotoball.com offered to design a logo, and create and maintain a website for Tout Wars. The purpose of the site would be "to provide a consistent distribution channel for information, to entertain and educate. It would provide draft results and regular standings, and links to real-time information (boxscores, transactions, etc.). For those of us with products to sell, it would provide promotional opportunities and individual bio pages. There would be a weekly column that all the touts would contribute to on a rotating basis."
Other features considered were a Q&A "Ask the Experts" column, contests, polls, chat room and discussion groups, but these options were for down the line. We also considered taking in paid advertising, but the venture would still be not-for-profit; revenues would just go to pay for support services with any excess earmarked for some mutually-agreed-upon charity.
Support vendors stepped up to get in on a piece of the action. USA Stats would handle the stat-keeping for the National League competition. All Star Stats would handle the American League. Peter Hershberg and Joshua Stylman of rotoball.com would act as SWATs.
Still, the success of this effort would have to rest in the ability of all the participating owners to promote the league in their columns, web sites, publications and media outlets, and to link to the toutwars.com website. While this and word of mouth was working well (note that "going viral" was not as easy back then), it was decided that we also needed to invest in some advertising. So we placed a display ad to announce the draft in, of all places, Baseball Weekly.
Things were starting to fall into place, but Tout Wars still was missing one critical item, something that LABR had gone without for its first few years. We still needed a league constitution.
I sent out the first rules questionnaire on March 4. I decided we should start with the standard, by-the-book Rotisserie rules as a foundation. I also decided that we should not toy with officially sanctioned roster sizes and structures, the $260 budget, and innings (900) and at-bat (4,250) minimums. From there, everything else was up for grabs. I wrote:
"While we want to make this as enjoyable for us as possible, these leagues still do have a purpose in presenting something valuable to the public. So, when voting on rules, we should strive to find a balance between what is fun, logical and accessible. In some cases, this may mean instituting a rule that is in opposition to what the Founding Fathers intended or marketplace norms, but if it makes more sense, then we should do it. As a league of experts, what better position are we in than to make changes for the good of the game?
"(However,) let's try really, really hard to make these rules as simple and straightforward as possible. When voting on a particular issue, consider whether that rule will be easy to administrate. The last thing we want is to approve a great new rule whose only function is to breed loopholes."
And with that, the first rules questionnaire was sent out. In the initial wave of results, it was decided that Tout Wars should be a redraft league (87% in favor), be 4x4 (87%), have 5-game in-season position eligibility (93%), would include a reserve list (87%) and use $100 FAAB for free agent acquisition (80%).
The handling of players getting traded into the other league during the season generated some spirited discussion, multiple proposals and required two votes. The results:
(30%) I get to keep his stats. Period.
(46%) I get to keep his stats. However, the player(s) coming into the league are NOT available to be bid on.
(15%) If his draft salary is $21 or greater, I get the option of EITHER keeping that player's stats, or receiving ONE of the incoming players involved in the same trade. If my player's salary is under $21, then I lose him and the incoming players are up for grabs like always via FAAB.
(8%) Same as above. Draft salary cut-off is $15.
Several rules tweaks and new ideas were proposed. 69% voted that FAABed players must immediately be put on a team's active roster. 71% opted for free access to reserve lists (as opposed to access restricted to DL and demotion moves). 64% approved the use of $0 FAAB bids.
Finally, in answer to the question, "Should we make FAAB dollars a marketable commodity?"—43% said yes, 43% said no and 14% said they'd go along with the majority. I wrote: "Since we're going to have enough to do to get this league off the ground, I'm going to move my own vote to the NO side of the ledger and defeat this proposal. This year." The issue would come up for vote again and be passed several years later.
The official constitution was assembled from all these votes. Under "Section XII. Responsibility and Governance," we gave a veiled diss and a nod to LABR:
"For the purposes of maintaining the integrity of this league, the following positions of responsibility will NEVER be filled by a participating owner. They may be filled by a vendor of fantasy support services or any impartial third party, as agreed upon by league members: Auctioneer, Commissioner, Secretary of Waivers and Trades (SWAT) and Statistician.
"This constitution was adopted from the original model described in Rotisserie League Baseball and from the Official Constitution of the Leagues of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR). Tout Wars honors the LABR leagues as the industry's first official league of experts."
As for LABR, they conducted their fifth annual draft on March 6 and 7, at Disney's Official All Star Cafe in Orlando, FL. Although the venue's name was the same, the two drafts could not be more different. Tout Wars was planning a media event. LABR was just using a room in a restaurant.
Noticeably absent was Ron Shandler, Larry Labadini, Peter Kreutzer and Alex Patton. Other future Touts, including Irwin Zwilling, Lenny Melnick and Steve Moyer, would still fly down to Florida for the event. Moyer once told me that he kept going because he still got a kick out of seeing his picture in the paper.
BW would stop running those photos in 2004.
As for the LABR draft, well... Thanks to several owners who could not find the restaurant due to "Disney World's ingenious roadway system," the draft started late and ran long. Allegedly, it was a less-than-cordial Goofy who kicked the LABRites out of the Cafe before the auction was complete. They had to finish it online at a later date.
FINAL INSTALLMENT COMING SOON: The First Tout Wars Draft