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Football Gets Arbitraged

ProTrade.com takes fantasy leagues to another level by introducing Wall Street-like trading and adding nuance with esoteric statistics.

January 01, 2006|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

To make the fantasy work, they decided to get real.

Mike Kerns and Jeff Ma wanted to create a fantasy sports game that reflected the nuances of team competition, rather than simple individual statistics such as points scored and yards gained.

The result was the upstart ProTrade.com, a Wall Street-style online trading network in which athletes are "bought" and "sold" like stocks.

The company, based in San Mateo, Calif., stands out in two major ways from fantasy leagues offered by ESPN, Yahoo Inc. and others.

First, ProTrade operates in an open-market format. Rather than a preseason draft followed by a season-long contest, ProTrade allows competitors to buy and sell players using pretend currency at any time during the season. Participants can constantly shuffle their "portfolios," and can buy an athlete even if other participants in their contest already own him. (In traditional fantasy leagues, each athlete can be owned by only one team at a time.) Contests can be as short as a weekend or as long as a season.

Second, the games incorporate esoteric statistics -- ones that aren't published in the box scores on the sports pages and are used by professional scouts and managers to evaluate how professional athletes help their teams.

To get this kind of inside knowledge, Kerns and Ma struck deals with prominent sports figures such as Jerry West and Bill Walsh to serve as advisors.

For example, West, a former Laker player, coach and executive, noted that assists in basketball weren't all the same, even if they looked that way on paper. Official NBA stats include 20 shot types, and ProTrade uses those stats to rate the assists that precede the shots. A pass that leads to a surefire slam-dunk is more valuable than one that leads to a long-range jump shot, and under ProTrade's system, it yields a higher "dividend" for the fantasy game player.

Walsh, former coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, helped validate ProTrade's football scoring system, which ranks kickers among the most-prized players. A strong-legged kicker not only boots field goals to score points, but also nets his team almost 100 yards a game in field position through lengthy kickoffs, Walsh noted.

"We're trying to quantify what guys like West and Walsh intuitively know," Ma said. "We're trying to make the fantasy game more reality than fantasy."

Kerns, who graduated from UCLA with a history degree in 1999 and became an executive with a sports agency, was inspired by the book "Moneyball," by Michael Lewis, a real-life account of how Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane used statistical analysis and bargain hunting to build a competitive baseball team on a tight budget.

"He buys low and sells high, finding athletes who will pay 'dividends' on the field," Kerns said. "That's really what our game is all about."

Kerns and Ma launched ProTrade.com in September after raising $12 million in venture capital, and they say they have registered more than 10,000 users. Some games are free, but most require a participant to kick in an entry fee of $5 to $50.

Ma said that the company hoped to grow to 100,000 registered players within the next year and turn profitable in 2007, after another round of venture funding that would help it expand its offerings. The company has a licensing deal only with the NFL, but hopes to secure rights to use NBA basketball games and Major League Baseball contests in the next few months.

Mike McGuire, research director at consulting firm Gartner Inc. in San Jose, said he liked ProTrade's technology, but was uncertain whether the company would be able to win enough registered participants to succeed.

"This is a very sophisticated tool for someone who's gone beyond the office football pool," he said. "It's going to appeal to a segment of folks, but this is not for people who sit around casually watching the game while drinking beer and eating sandwiches."

The potential audience is huge: Fantasy sports are played by an estimated 15 million U.S. adults, according to the St. Louis-based Fantasy Sports Trade Assn.

The industry generates in the ballpark of $150 million a year in revenue for a range of companies, said Greg Ambrosius, president of the trade group. Precise figures aren't available, he said, because fantasy sports services are privately held or units of public companies.

The fantasy sports business includes firms that organize and run the games, like ProTrade, Yahoo and Viacom Inc.'s CBS Sportsline.com, as well as websites, magazines and broadcasters that sell advice, news and statistical services.

ProTrade, which has 35 employees, expects to make money from several streams, including fees from participants, and advertising on its website.

ProTrade offers two types of competitions. A series run by the company charges entry fees to players, offering cash and prizes to winners.

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