About 59 million people play fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada, with roughly 70 percent of those players engaged in fantasy football, says Peter Schoenke. As president of RotoWire, an international fantasy sports information company based in Madison, he understands the appeal better than anyone.
The beauty of fantasy football, he says, is that anybody can win. The 162-game grind of a Major League Baseball season demands sustained focus and deep knowledge from fantasy baseball participants. It’s difficult for the least informed to win a league. But it’s relatively easy to follow the 16-game schedule of the National Football League — and luck into winning it all.
“I’d say fantasy football is the best competitive entertainment sport you can play in America because it’s the ultimate mix,” says Schoenke. “You have somebody who’s really into it, an expert like myself, and you can be in a league with people who are extremely casual and barely know how to play. It’s a good experience for both of us because that casual fan is going to win one out of 10 times.”
A far-reaching business
If you play fantasy sports on such websites as ESPN, Yahoo!, CBS, DraftKings or FanDuel, you’ve used data provided by RotoWire. Since launching in 1997, the company has grown into a global endeavor, with 35 full-time employees and about 150 freelance writers working from countries as far away as Pakistan and Australia. It translates soccer coverage into Portuguese and Spanish to reach players in South America. And it provides real-time updates to about 100 million people playing fantasy cricket in India.
“Cricket is all about stats. There’s probably more stats in cricket than in baseball,” Schoenke says. “If there’s anything you can keep track of, you can make a fantasy sport out of it. I mean, there’s fantasy Congress. It’s not very popular, but there’s a game where you can pick senators based on whether they get bills passed, or whatever. There’s fantasy bass fishing. You name it, there’s a fantasy sport for it.”
Since RotoWire’s market is worldwide, it usually doesn’t do much local advertising or outreach. It’s making an exception in the lead-up to football season, however, by hosting Fantasy Football Draft Night at High Noon Saloon on Monday, Aug. 26. The event includes an expert panel discussion and Q&A with RotoWire staffers Jake Letarski and John McKechnie, both of whom will give advice and talk draft strategy, followed by a live draft.
Letarski, an operations manager at RotoWire, got started as a freelance writer and is still involved with the website’s NFL podcast. This is his second year of participating in the draft night event.
“We walk around and answer questions for people debating between two players, doing the ‘Who should I pick?’ type of thing,” he says. “We help them out and ask, ‘Well, are you trying to be risky or conservative here?’ It’s pretty fast-paced, and it’s a cool thing if you’re into fantasy football and want to learn more and become a better player.”
Boom and bust, and boom again
Football is RotoWire’s bread and butter, but baseball is Schoenke’s first love. As a “speedy outfielder who couldn’t hit,” he switched to track after his sophomore year of high school and had more success. But he kept following MLB and collecting baseball cards. He was particularly fascinated with the numbers on the back of the cards, and, later, with books written by baseball historian and statistician Bill James.
After college, he and two of his buddies at Northwestern University — Herb Ilk and Jeff Erickson — lived near Wrigley Field and played in the same fantasy baseball league. They’d talk about starting a business together over beers, and eventually decided to do something “totally crazy.”
“I came up with the idea of doing fantasy sports, since we were already spending so much time on it anyway,” Schoenke says.
At the time, Schoenke was a reporter for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, covering the options and futures markets in Chicago. “Back then, before the internet really got going, the Bloomberg Terminal they had on the trading floor was like the internet now. You’d type in stocks and get all this news and data. It was like, whoa; it was a revelation. Now, of course, it’s everywhere. So, I was like, ‘Why don’t we do that for fantasy baseball, so you can type in a player and get all kinds of information?’”
And so the idea for “player notes” was born, and then came customized projections. The original website, RotoNews.com, was such an instant hit that they sold it two years later to a California-based company called Broadband Sports.
“They were going to make us dot-com millionaires,” Schoenke says, “and that company went bankrupt in a year and a half because they were totally mismanaged. That was all too typical of the time. They were just trying to go public and make money, but we were the only legitimate business out of all the ones they acquired.”
In 2001, they bought the company back, moved it from Los Angeles to Madison to take advantage of the pipeline of young, internet-savvy talent coming out of UW-Madison, changed the name to RotoWire, and started charging for most of its content. Though paywalls have become common on websites such as The Athletic and Baseball Prospectus, it was an unprecedented move at the time. And it’s paid off many times over.
“The main goal of the company is to get people to pay for the information,” Schoenke says. “Everything is clicking and working well because people see a lot of value in what we do and they’re willing to pay money for it.”
And if there’s even a small chance it could buy a year’s worth of bragging rights, it’s worth every penny.
Fantasy Football Draft Night will be held at High Noon Saloon on Monday, Aug. 26, with a panel session on the outdoor patio at 5:30 p.m. and drafting inside from 7-9 p.m.