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February 25, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Financial Planning

by Jim Baker

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As I write this, my oven is going full blast. I am churning out sheet after sheet of cookies and dozens of brownies as well as a few layer cakes and pies. I'm sure you're curious as to why I'm about this business, so I'll tell you. It's for the big day on Saturday: my annual bake sale to raise money for my fantasy league entry fee. Of course, I don't advertise that fact. Instead, I hire a couple of local waifs and have them man the table. When people ask what the bake sale is for, they don't say, "it's so some guy can pick players at a slave auction and bet on their achievements."

Instead, I have trained them to tell the nosy types it's for their youth team or surgery for their little, crippled puppy. That gets the pigeons spending. You'd be surprised how many people will shell out two dollars for a baggie with three chocolate chip cookies in it after hearing that. (You'd also be surprised how cheap it is to make those cookies when you use store brand flour and chips and when you borrow the sugar from a neighbor.) After a 12-hour day of selling, my proxies go home with a crisp fiver and lots and lots of people have had sweeties and been made to feel good about themselves for buying them. Most importantly, though, I have, once again, raised enough money to participate in fantasy baseball for another season.

You might be wondering why I have to go to these lengths to raise the money. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, I rarely win anything, so it's not like I have anything to roll over from the season before. When I do win something, it usually only just covers my entry fee and besides, any profit I make in October is going to be long gone by March. Then there is this: the desire to keep gambling monies separate from survival money. This is an important consideration for these keen on sleeping indoors and driving places rather than walking or hitchhiking.

Which brings up another question: is playing fantasy baseball actually gambling? Some would argue that it is while others would argue that it isn't and a third group chooses not to argue at all because they're busy watching television. I kind of think that it isn't and here's why: real gambling (not buying life insurance, for instance) has instant gratification. When you're in it for the action, your gratification needs to come almost quickly, either in a horse race that's going off within a few minutes of placing the bet or in a game that takes place within 24 hours. Fantasy and roto, on the other hand, take six months to play out. You can argue that anything where you contribute money that could end up in someone else's hands is gambling, but what you cannot argue successfully is that it's the kind of thing that leads to addictive, compulsive gambling. Perhaps it leads to joining more and more fantasy leagues, but, since they only start up at the beginning of the seasons of major sports, there's a built-in governor of how deeply involved one person can get.

How do you know when you've joined too many fantasy baseball leagues? When at least once an inning, you are torn when the pitcher and batter are both on at least one of your teams. At that point it's time for your friends and family to have an intervention.

This brings up a whole other situation regarding fantasy baseball and that is who should and shouldn't be allowed to profit from the use of player names. Not that this should bother you that much while you're focusing on your own team, but Major League Baseball is looking into limiting access for fantasy leagues, with the exceptions of some of the big names in the industry. This was covered nicely last week by BP's own Neil deMause. It brings up a question that I think was answered 80 years ago when radio first came to the fore and again 60 years ago when television made its presence known. In those days, owners worried that broadcasting the product would make the live ticket less desirable. What they failed to envisage was that these media actually served to promote the game.

Cannot the same be said of fantasy/roto baseball? In this case, nobody is trying to shut down any fantasy leagues for fear that they are keeping fans at home. No, it's a simple matter of missing out on money that is being made by private citizens at the "expense" of the game. Aren't there benefits, though, to having so many people enjoying a byproduct of the game? Doesn't fantasy/roto actually promote major league baseball?

I would argue that the game's upward surge in interest is driven - at least in some part not easily calibrated - by the existence of make believe teams. I'm not saying that it's the only reason, but it has helped to create a class of fan that pays attention to the game more so than the masses ever did before. Does this translate into ticket sales?

What should baseball do? Should they take the minor financial hit and let the independent league runners have carte blanche? Or should they shut them out? As a participant, I go for the former. Baseball might not know it, but it needs the make believe stuff.

You'll have to excuse me now, I have to get that stuff wrapped up for the big day.

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