MLB BECOMES MAJOR PLAYER IN FANTASY GAME - The Buffalo News
print logo

MLB BECOMES MAJOR PLAYER IN FANTASY GAME

The Green Monster is the left-field wall at Fenway Park. The green-eyed monster -- jealousy -- is what emerges when people in the fantasy baseball business think about their game's richer cousin, fantasy football.

Baseball is the granddaddy of all fantasy sports, its origins dating to a gathering at a New York restaurant -- La Rotisserie Francaise -- in 1979. Fantasy football, however, has lapped its baseball counterpart in popularity. Estimates are that 3 million to 4 million play fantasy baseball in the United States in a given year, while 12 million play fantasy football.

Partly in response to that, Major League Baseball this year decided to get in on the action, betting $50 million that it could lure more casual fans into the tent by making online fantasy baseball more accessible than ever.

Until this year, fantasy sports vendors such as SportsLine.com and ESPN.com would pay the Major League Players Association a licensing fee for the use of player names, logos and statistics. On Jan. 19, Major League Baseball announced an agreement to pay the players' union $50 million over five years for the fantasy licensing rights. MLB then invited the fantasy companies to apply for sub-licenses at various fees, depending on the size of the company. Reports say the biggest vendors obtained licensing rights for $500,000, which is estimated to be double what they paid last year.

On Feb. 16, MLB.com announced that sub-licenses were granted to 17 outlets: ESPN, Yahoo Sports, SportsLine, the Sporting News, STATS Inc., WhatIfSports, Baseball Manager, MJM Fantasy Sports, Fanstar Sports, Fantasy Sports Reality, All America Fantasy Sports, iTV Entertainment, RotoPlay, Sports Buff, the Fantasy Jungle, Electronic Ballpark Inc. and Strat-O-Matic. There is also a new partnership with America Online in which AOL subscribers get access to MLB's own fantasy games, as well as audio and video content. A few other licenses are expected to be named.

How does this affect the average consumer or fantasy manager? Not very much, at least for this season.

Prices stayed generally the same at ESPN, SportsLine and the other major vendors. Yahoo Sports continues to offer a basic fantasy baseball game for free, as well as on premium pay tiers. However, this being the first year of MLB's $50 million investment, some in the fantasy industry figure the costs will ultimately be passed on to consumers in the form of higher league fees.

Greg Ambrosius is president of the 182-member Fantasy Trade Association. Ambrosius suspects this year's prices for fantasy games will not last.

"Everybody's signing a one-year contract, so who knows how the landscape will play out?" he said. "Next year there could be fewer choices, there could be price increases. Only time will tell."

When the announcement was made about MLB's involvement in fantasy this year, there was a period of uncertainty and anxiety in the industry about the implications of MLB becoming the gatekeeper.

When the sub-licenses were announced, they went primarily to very large companies, such as ESPN and SportsLine, and to some much smaller operations, with fewer than 5,000 subscribers. Some of the mid-level companies that have been around for years, such as CDM Sports of St. Louis and Sandbox.com of Louisville, Ky., were left off of MLB's dance card. Both companies are now going ahead with their fantasy baseball offerings on their sites, though because of the licensing controversy, CDM will be not running the fantasy games for USA Today, as it has done in the past. USA Today's parent company, Gannett, is reportedly trying to negotiate a sub-license with MLB.

CDM Sports, a St. Louis company that has been in the business for 13 years, is challenging MLB's right to shut it out of the fantasy game.

When MLB announced it had bought fantasy rights this year it invited vendors to meet in New York. Charlie Weigert, one of CDM's founders, flew in from St. Louis, met with MLB, and thought things went well. But shortly thereafter, his firm was told by MLB that it would not be getting a fantasy license for this year. No reason was given, according to Weigert.

According to CMD, Major League Baseball says CDM may not run a fantasy league containing only player names and basic statistics. CDM's lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment stating that CDM is not infringing upon MLB's rights by using player names and stats. Part of the case is about whether the use of player names and statistics exists in the public domain, or whether they are the property of MLB.

MLB responds that basic statistics are in the public domain, but that the use of player names or likenesses for commercial gain is another matter. MLB has until April 5 to respond to CDM's lawsuit.

"This could have big implications," said CDM's Weigert. "(If CDM is upheld,) it could be that nobody pays for licensing (of player names and statistics) anymore."

A footnote: If you look up the rankings of the top hitters in the online draft kits, a certain West Coast slugger is identified only as "San Francisco outfielder," and he is ranked among the Top 10 players. Barry Bonds is the only major leaguer who did not consent to have his name and likeness licensed through the players' union.
e-mail: gconnors@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment