In 1987, while enjoying pollo asado for lunch at Versailles restaurant on S.W. 8th Street in Little Havana, Paul Rico said, “You should join John’s Rotisserie Baseball league.” John was Paul’s son, recent graduate from Boston College and working for World Jai-Alai. I asked, “What the hell is Rotisserie Baseball?” only knowing I liked rotisserie chicken at Pollo Tropical.
In 1980, a small group of friends, one of which was a huge baseball fan, created a game while dining at their favorite French restaurant in New York, La Rotisserie Francaise. It involved the statistics of individual players during the baseball season. This innocent diversion evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry monopolizing the time of a huge segment of the American population later to be called “Fantasy Sports.”
I had almost no interest in baseball. I was a casual fan of the White Sox and the Reds growing up, mainly because they trained in Tampa. Baseball was too slow, could not compare to football. But Rico convinced me to do it.
My college roommate and closest friend, Mike Singer, was a big Dodger fan. I asked him if he would be my partner in the league and help me with the draft. He immediately accepted.
Next thing you know, I became familiar with every player in the American League (our Fantasy League was American League-only). I could recite their batting averages. I learned starting pitchers from closers. Mike and I even could name the prospects in the minors. All because of Fantasy Baseball. (My love affair with Fantasy Baseball would continue for 25 years.)
Almost 15 years later, I’m sitting in my office at Dania Jai-Alai frustrated. John Knox (GM) and I have tried everything to bring back the disappearing Jai-Alai fans. We have had multiple Jai-Alai tournaments with rival Miami. Sure, we would get a bump in attendance the nights of the tournaments. But nothing seemed to carry over beyond that.
Dania Jai-Alai’s best promotion was called “Secret Saturday,” where fans would get an envelope when entering the fronton. The envelope contained discounts, prizes, and a free bet that could be anywhere from $2 to $500. This promotion would attract a huge crowd… but only for that night.
There just wasn’t anything that could seem to rekindle the interest in our sport since the strike. Cheap hot dogs and beer, free promotional gifts, free admission… nothing. We were facing an ever-growing expansion of Indian gaming and other competition. Frontons throughout the state were all in a downward spiral and it appeared we could not hold on much longer.
I had one idea that had never been tried. I was waiting for the right time to pitch it to John and owner Steve Snyder. The idea was Fantasy Jai-Alai! And this was the time.
One problem for me was that “fantasy” sports was still in its infancy. It still had not become mainstream. Some articles had been written about it, but few really had heard of Rotisserie Baseball. Fantasy Football was almost unknown. I needed approval for prize money and a way to track the Fantasy Jai-Alai statistics. I, also, had to come up with a complete structure for this brainchild. But the most important thing would be a full endorsement of the project by not only John and Steve, but by everyone on the staff.
So, I sat at my desk and created the first Fantasy Jai-Alai League ever. I put together a short presentation for Snyder and Knox showing them how, with this small investment (about $7,500), we could get fans interested again in the players. This would lead to them wanting to watch them in a live setting, hoping they do well for their fantasy picks, and ultimately making bets on them. This, in my opinion, was the only way to, again, create fan interest and possibly bring back the business. It worked for me in baseball.
My next step before seeing them was to talk to Manny, our computer consultant, who had set up the Dania stats system. Manny was one of the smartest guys I knew, and he was a Gator. We hit it off from the beginning. Could Manny make a simple way for us to track hundreds of Fantasy Jai-Alai teams with a variety of statistical categories? Within days, Manny called me and said he had found a simple way for us to do it, utilizing our nightly inputs for our regular stats.
I set up a meeting with Snyder and Knox to make my “pitch.” The first thing I showed them was a Sports Illustrated article saying there were about 4 million Fantasy Sports fans throughout the country. Then, I reminded them that we have always been trying to not only create new fans but bring back the old ones. All the frontons had been trying to make the players a major focus. This would lead to more attendance, more betting. Fantasy Jai-Alai could accomplish this. Plus, Fantasy Sports are dominated by younger sport’s fans. We needed “new blood.”
They stared at me. John Knox was vaguely familiar with the onset of Fantasy Baseball. Steve had never heard of it. Steve’s first question was cost. “I believe we need to have at least $6,000 in prize money and no charge to enter,” I told him. I really wanted a lot more but was afraid to scare him away. “Then, there will be some costs in promotional flyers, peripheral printing costs,” I said. “Probably need about $7,500 to budget.”
Finally, after a pause, Steve said that they would think about it. I was happy that he didn’t immediately say “no.” But, at this truly minimal cost to save our sport, I was amazed that neither was as excited as I was. Could it be I was living in a fantasy? Was there anything that could rejuvenate Jai-Alai? I was sure Fantasy Jai-Alai was the answer… would I get my chance to try it?