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How the Box Score Created a Multibillion-Dollar Fantasy Sports Industry

Abe Stein Author, Kill Screen

The ultimate metagame brings stat geeks and sports fanatics together.

 

The explosion in popularity of fantasy sports in the past decade exceeded anyone’s expectations. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) suggests that more than 41 million people play fantasy sports in North America. There’s even a sitcom about it.

Fantasy sports players are less about the beer-guzzling, body-painting, high-fiving sports fan stereotypes, and more into number crunching, eyeglasses pushing and calculator pounding.

How did we even get to this point? What strange mixture of cultural factors lead to the growth of a statistically focused sports metagame?

On October 25, 1845, regular readers of the New York Herald saw something new, and perhaps unfamiliar, on page three.

Beneath the headline “Base Ball Play” was a short description of a game played between the New York Base Ball Club and an unnamed Brooklyn team. But below that, divided into columns were a list of the last names of players on each team, and next to those the “Hands out” and “Runs” they contributed to the game.

The columns of numbers were neatly tabulated, like an accountant’s ledger, and the sum at the bottom told the outcome of the game. The New York Base Ball Club won by a score of 37 to 19.

This primitive data table stands as one of the earliest extant examples of a baseball box score in an American print publication. The statistical emphasis of fantasy sports owes much to the specific data visualization of a baseball game.

Like many things in history, the birth of the box score — and the related emphasis on statistics — is the result of a mixture of cultural influences colliding at the same time. As baseball grew in popularity in urban areas throughout America, the country also experienced a renewed popular interest in quantitative analysis and statistics.

In the later half of the century, social reform movements were using quantitative data to influence policy change.

The fervor for statistical analysis subsided in the 20th century, but the effect on baseball persisted.

Fast-forward 160 years, and consider fantasy sports today.

Faster computers and Internet access allowed for asynchronous multiplayer fantasy play; a steroid-infused explosion of record-breaking resurrected the sport after the demoralizing morass of a prolonged players strike, and the expansion of 24-hour sports networks provided a constant drip-feed of data.

The statistical heritage of fantasy sports, grounded a century earlier in larger cultural shifts, took a new life at the turn of the millennium.

Fantasy sports are now a global phenomenon, becoming increasingly popular across the world.

This rapid growth in an arcane, statistical metagame parallels a renewed modern interest in quantitative analysis that bears a striking resemblance to the cultural shifts of the late 19th century.

Statistically obsessed uber-geeks of the sports world crawled out of their basement caves and into franchise front offices. Each year, MIT hosts the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where owners, managers and professionals from teams, media and other sports industries discuss the increased influence of statistical analysis in sports. Always seeking an edge, professionals in sports are interested in discovering novel ways to read statistics and big data.

For many fantasy sports players, the joy of the game is in finding new ways to engage in sports fandom. Channels like the NFL Red Zone spawned an entire cottage industry of strategy and prognostication websites and interactive media.

 

The original story was written by Abe Stein. Images courtesy of Boston Public Library, Journal of Sport History, and Keith Allison.

 

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