Father of fantasy sports never profited from his creation

Here's how to cheat at fantasy football
Here's how to cheat at fantasy football

The father of the multi-billion fantasy sports industry never imagined it would be more than something he played with a group of like minded baseball obsessed friends.

Which is the reason why he never made any money from it.

Daniel Okrent, a writer and baseball fan, came up with the idea for fantasy baseball in the winter of 1979-80. He and his friends would choose real baseball players to fill out the rosters of their fantasy team, then compare stats to see who had picked the best team. Each would put up a $250 entrance fee and the top finishers would split the prize money.

Stats were compiled by hand once a week when the Sporting News came out. Okrent and his friends dubbed the name "Rotisserie baseball" after the New York City French restaurant, La Rostisserie Française, where they held the first player draft.

Because most of the participants worked in media - Okrent would eventually serve a term as public editor of the New York Times - the creation started to get some attention in the press, which helped spread it to other fans. By 1983 books were being published to help fans pick their teams.

daniel okrent
Daniel Okrent, who created fantasy sports 36 years ago.

"It wasn't until the explosion of the Internet that it really took off," he recalled.

But he and his friends never really figured out any way to profit from their creation. The concept was not something that could be patented or sold. The term Rotisserie baseball was copyrighted, which prompted others to start using the term "fantasy baseball." The creation spread to other sports as well, with fantasy football soon outpacing fantasy baseball.

But Okrent said he never regretted being unable to cash in on the popularity of his creation.

Related: Fantasy sports fans wonder if the games are rigged

"I long ago resigned myself to the fact I wouldn't get rich from this," he said. Okrent was more frustrated by the fact that in the 16 years he participated in the first fantasy sports league, his team never once finished first.

Fantasy sports has grown into at least a $1.5 billion industry, according to estimates. Disney's (DIS) ESPN, Yahoo (YHOO) and CBS (CBS) are major players in the game. Two upstarts - DraftKings and FanDuel - have each raised about $300 million recently from investors including Major League Baseball, the NBA, major media companies including CNN owner Time Warner (TWX), as well as owners of NFL and NBA teams.

DraftKings and FanDuel both have valuations of more than $1 billion each.

Related: Me and my buddy won $100,000 on fantasy football

But those companies were hit by a scandal this week when it was revealed a DraftKing employee had won $350,000 in a FanDuel NFL game, raising questions about whether the employees were benefiting from insider trading.

"I consider it gambling at the level it is now played," Okrent said. "We learned this [week] it's not so much a game of skill, it's a game of inside information."

Related: Fantasy sports - What is it, anyway?

Still Okrent said he believes all sports gambling should be legal, even though he doesn't gamble himself other than going to racetracks.

"I wrote a book on prohibition. There's a parallel," he said. "You can't stop people from doing something they want to do that doesn't hurt anyone else, so why not legalize and tax it?"

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