Fantasy sports is a $4 billion enterprise, encompassing millions of players and such powerhouses as ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, Fantasy Sports Ventures and the NFL. But it would not be the goliath is has become without a confluence of events that included a ballplayer-turned-board game inventor named Ethan Nathan Allen, former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Rotisserie League Baseball founder Daniel Okrent and, in particular, a would-be pro athlete-turned-accountant named Hal Richman, the father of Strat-O-Matic, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted February 9, 2011)
Strat-O-Matic is a board game that for 50 years has not bored a diverse and devoted fan base that includes athletes, actors, politicians, Wall Street decision-makers, sportswriters and a consumer demography that spans the globe.
How Strat-O-Matic helped give birth to fantasy sports traces back to a board game created by Ethan Nathan Allen in 1941. Allen played for five Major League Baseball teams from 1926-38, with a career .300 average. A student of the game's nuances, he later became the baseball coach at Yale (1946-68), where one of his players was future President George Herbert Walker Bush. But his true legacy among gamers and sports fans was in inventing All-Star Baseball (Cadaco-Ellis), which used a spinner and cards depicting real MLB players and their batting averages as its primary content. A version still endures today.
Hal Richman was an aspiring athlete when, at the age of 11, he channeled his love of sports and math into designing a game that could combine the best aspects of both. He played All-Star Baseball as a youngster, but literally thought outside the box in seeing the potential to use the multitude of statistics beyond batting averages. He spent endless hours from his pre-teen years through his college years at Bucknell University honing and trying to perfect his vision.
The first Strat-O-Matic hit the market in 1961, produced in the basement of his parents' home. It featured a plethora of actual statistics from Major League Baseball players such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roger Maris, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson and Whitey Ford to drive the action. The game's legion of fans spread worldwide from Richman's home base of Glen Head, NY, where some of the most devoted fans still journey to every February to be the first to purchase each season's new set of cards. Among those who have become denizens of the Strat-O-Matic universe are Bob Costas, Spike Lee (who showed characters playing the game in his movie, Crooklyn), Drew Carey, Tim Robbins and former President George W. Bush, whose adoration of baseball came from his father.
Strat-O-Matic can also be found in the DNA of Daniel Okrent, the award-winning writer who founded Rotisserie League Baseball, the patriarch of fantasy baseball; John Dewan, founder of global sports statistics and information company STATS LLC; Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts; and Bill James, the writer and historian who redefined the importance and gave new meaning to the value of sports statistics.
Strat-O-Matic celebrates its 50th anniversary on Feb. 12 with a day-long event at the Community Church of New York (40 East 35th Street). It features such speakers and Strat-O-Matic fans as former baseball player and current ESPN broadcaster Doug Glanville; sportscaster Bill Daughtry; and sportswriter Glenn Guzzo, author of Strat-O-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game That Became an American Passion. It also includes a presentation from Bill Squadron, head of Bloomberg Sports, which created technology to mine the world of baseball statistical analytics, translating the information into data being used by MLB and NFL executives as well as fantasy sports players. (Full details here.)
Of course, the über guest of honor will be Hal Richman, who will oversee distribution of the first Strat-O-Matic 2011 card sets. Richman spoke with NYSportsJournalism from his home in Massachusetts.
NYSportsJournalism: What is the best thing about Strat-O-Matic reaching its 50th anniversary?
Hal Richman: It says quite a bit about the fans, baseball and the game. It's more than a board game, literally, because 50% of our sales are now for the computer version. We have a joint venture on the Internet with The Sporting News. It is similar to fantasy sports but not quite. Personally, it's a great thrill to see it reach 50. That's something I never envisioned back when I put the game together and was working to build a fan base. We've seen a lot of growth and changes over the past 50 years, which has made the game even stronger.
NYSJ: What is your involvement with the company today?
HR: If you're talking physically, I'm not at the office as much as I used to be. I used to work about 70 hours a week. Now probably 20 hours a week, though sometimes much more. I'm still involved in decision making. I'm usually the guy who votes 'No.' [Laughs.] I'm 74, so Strat-O-Matic has been part of my life for most of my life.
"We've seen a lot of growth and changes over the past 50 years, which has made Strat-O-Matic even stronger." — Hal Richman
NYSJ: The story is that the game came out of both your love of numbers and frustration at not being able to become a pro athlete.
HR: The roots of the game go back to when I was a kid and became involved in sports. I loved playing sports — baseball, basketball. But I wasn't going to become a professional athlete. When I was 10, 11 I had a game called All-Star Baseball. But it was limited [to using batting averages]. I began to think about ways to play baseball using dice and more of the statistics from real players. Later on, I went to Bucknell University [majoring in math] and became an accountant, which actually gave me more of the tools I needed to develop the game. The first Strat-O-Matic version came out in 1961. I was making the game cards in my basement, all the while trying to improve not only the game but the enjoyment level for players.
NYSJ: How did the game initially go from drawing board to mass market?
HR: The game wasn't selling well for the first few years. At that point I borrowed $5,000 from my father, which helped me to improve production and distribution. I put ads in Sports Illustrated, but not a lot of marketing [beyond that]. A big factor was that some of the people who played the game were New York sportswriters. In the 1960s there were many more newspapers in New York than today. So they played the game and they showed it to sportswriters from other cities. They basically spread the message and sold the game for us by word-of-mouth. Now, marketing has become increasingly more essential for us, as has the Internet.
NYSJ: Is word-of-mouth still your strongest marketing tool?
HR: It is in many ways. When you look at the people who play the game, and who are fans of the game, [word-of-mouth] is a pretty strong. [That includes] Bob Costas, Spike Lee, Keith Hernandez, Drew Carey, Tim Robbins, Doug Glanville, Bryant Gumble, Jon Miller, Cal Ripken Jr., Curt Schilling. The most high-profile person that I've heard who played was [former] President George W. Bush.
NYSJ: Is part of the challenge incorporating new media but still staying loyal to the roots of the game?
HR: Well, we have the board game, which continues to be important. But the board game has really run its route regarding how far you can take it. The computer games are based on, and are embellishments of, the board game. That's where we continue to improve and expand. We work with The Sporting News to build on and expand our online capabilities.
NYSJ: Where do you see Strat-O-Matic's role in what is now a $4 billion fantasy sports industry?
HR: We influenced the people who turned statistics into the fantasy sports category: Daniel Okrent, John Dewan, Trip Hawkins, Bill James and others all played Strat-O-Matic.
NYSJ: There are Strat-O-Matic football, hockey and basketball versions, but is it the history of baseball and its statistics what still drives the product?
HR: Yes. It is baseball that drives us, and it is because of the statistics. We have a new game coming out, the Strat-O-Matic Baseball Founder's Edition. It is an exact reproduction of the 1961 game, including all [80 player cards from the 1960 season]. Back then, the thinking in baseball was that the most important statistic was batting average. Power was important. But walks, on-base percentage and other statistics were not as important. But if you look at Strat-O-Matic cards — and I look at a lot of our older cards quite often — you will see that there have been many players who were significant players who did not have great batting averages. Look at Gene Tenace. In 1974 [with the Oakland A's], he had a .211 batting average. But he hit 26 home runs, had 73 runs batted in, he walked 110 times. His team won the World Series. That's a [Strat-O-Matic] card you would want. So I really feel we influenced a lot of baseball people by stressing the importance of statistics beyond batting average.
NYSJ: Any specific proof of that?
HR: A lot of baseball executives that I've met told me they played Strat-O-Matic at one time in their lives. Billy Beane [general manager of the Oakland A's] is a good example. He played Strat-O-Matic when he was a kid. I've never spoken with him, but I'm confident that consciously or subconsciously he used his experience with Strat-O-Matic when he changed the way executives looked at baseball by giving more credence to on-base percentage and other statistics that can really determine the value of players to their team.
NYSJ: There are players who, due to their personal situations, may never get into the Hall of Fame, such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens. Is that why Strat-O-Matic created a Baseball Heroes card set?
HR: There are a lot of players who have great statistics but are not in and may never get into the Hall of Fame. We put together a set of 117 cards of players, each based on the average of their best seven seasons. So you get Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Clemens, McGwire. Also players who I believe will be in the Hall of Fame but are not yet eligible: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Frank Thomas. And a group of players who may never get in but are at the next level: Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Ron Santo and others.
"I personally did not want to include players [such as Bonds, Clemens and McGwire who were linked to steroids]. But we opened up the discussion to our fans and they wanted them in the set. So they were included." — Hal Richman
NYSJ: What is your take on the steroids situation in baseball, and has that affected Strat-O-Matic at all?
HR: I was very upset by that as a fan and also as someone who has been involved with the statistics of the game for so long. Bonds, Clemens, some of the others, they hold some of the most sacred records in baseball. When it came time to put together our Baseball Heroes set, I personally did not want to include those players. But we opened up the discussion to our fans and they wanted them in the set. So they were included. We always want to listen to our fans. And with the computer and online versions, we get a lot of good ideas and input from our fans.
NYSJ: What about Pete Rose, who would be in the Hall of Fame if not for his association with gambling?
HR: If he were eligible, I would not vote Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame. He was a tremendous talent and had a tremendous career. But what he did was detrimental to the game of baseball. He is included in our Baseball Heroes set. So is 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with the Chicago 'Black Sox' and the 1919 World Series.
NYSJ: The Negro League played a major role in the development of baseball. What type of response are you getting to the Strat-O-Matic Negro League card set that came out last year, which gives people the opportunity to have, for example, the New York Yankees' 1927 'Murderers Row' bat against Satchel Paige?
HR: A great response. I wanted to put this set together for a long time. The problem was the statistics we needed to make it work were not available. There was almost nothing. We needed the same depth [of statistics] we had for our other cards. But we were fortunate enough to have one of our players, [sportswriter] Scott Simkus, do the extensive research and find 3,000 box scores from Negro League games. He then went through the box scores to compile an extensive amount of information. So we had all the information, all the statistics, we needed to put together a great set of cards. There were many tremendous players in the Negro League who never got the recognition they deserved. Who never were given the opportunity to play Major League Baseball. There are players everyone knows — Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, 'Cool Papa' Bell — but there are more than 100 great players in the set. So that was important for us but, I believe, important to the history of baseball.
NYSJ: Did any of the men who played in the Negro League get to play the Strat-O-Matic version?
HR: Unfortunately all but a few were deceased when the game came out. But there was one player, Art Pennington, who played in the 1940s, who lives in Iowa. After the set came out, Scott went to visit him and they played the game. Scott told me that was a great experience.
NYSJ: Who is your favorite player of all-time?
HR: Joe DiMaggio. But as far as Strat-O-Matic, the greatest card we ever had was by far the Barry Bonds 2001 card [included in the 2002 game]. That year he hit 73 home runs and he had all those other great statistics that we look for [including 177 walks, .863 slugging percentage, .515 on base percentage]. In 2002, on the first day the new set was available, we created a six-foot version of the Bonds card and put it on display for the people who came to our headquarters to purchase the set. We still have that card. But I'm so angry with him that I keep it hidden in a back room.
NYSJ: What do you think about the big bash being held for the 50th anniversary?
HR: Honestly, I never like to be the center of attention. All the honors go to the fans who have played the game and supported it and spread the word over the past 50 years. It is a great moment for the company. And a great moment for the kids who learned something about baseball by playing Strat-O-Matic with their dads or their friends.
NYSJ: What are you looking forward to for Strat-O-Matic over the next 50 years?
HR: [Laughs.] I don't know who will be there. Certainly I won't be there. But the game itself will be there and will be strong. The board game will still be played. The computer version will continue to evolve in how it looks and the way fans interact with it and with each other.
"This is a great moment for the kids who learned about baseball by playing Strat-O-Matic with their dads, their friends." — Hal Richman
NYSJ: You sound as if you are as excited about the game now as when you first conceived it and put it on the market.
HR: I am. I've been doing something I love for all these years. So I have been very fortunate.