2012 marks the end of an interesting run for myself and U-Sports which were one in the same for much of the past 17 years. What started as a group of recent college grads bemoaning the lack of college fantasy football turned into a bit of niche industry within fantasy sports. While U-Sports grew, I grew along with it.
I was fortunate to lose my first fantasy dispute with my good friend, Mark Outten. Back in 1996 he was sure the concept would take off and be a profitable endeavor. I was happy to play and administer our house league, but I thought we reached the limit of college-crazed fantasy fans within our small circle. I, of course, was wrong on that point.
After several years running more and more leagues offline, I launched U-Sports online in 1999. That site was a travesty in design, usability, and everything else by today’s standards. I charged $40/player and hired stay-at-home moms to parse college stats every Sunday morning. While barely breaking even, I did notice that there was demand for this crazy idea.
Each year after that U-Sports had tremendous growth and I continued to reinvest time and profit into making each next season better and keeping up with the expectations of the maturing fantasy industry. I learned a lot about technology, marketing, legal, accounting, and most importantly - customer service.
Personally U-Sports had a large impact on me and my family. As U-Sports grew from a small side project to a near full time job, many sacrifices were made along the way. The idea of turning your hobby into a job sounds appealing until you realize that you just took the fun out of your hobby. I went from stalking every bookstand in June for Athlon’s preseason magazine, and with it the next college football season to arrive, to dreading each upcoming season knowing the work and stress involved with getting thousands of leagues registered, paid, drafted, and have stats flowing flawlessly on opening weekend.
U-Sports became successful enough to be worth investing in and growing, but I couldn’t justify cutting the cord on my growing career in interactive development. In 2008 I came to a very hard decision point. I couldn’t focus enough on my family, my career, and U-Sports to make them all successful. I had to pick one to give up. So I decided that 2008 would be my last season running U-Sports. If by the start of the 2009 season I didn’t find a buyer, after I already spurned some offers to sell, I would shut U-Sports down despite its success.
That conviction paired with a good dose of luck eventually turned into a sale to Athlon Sports and an interesting opportunity to run U-Sports full time as my career.
While Athlon was headquartered in Nashville, they had a small sales office in Atlanta right down the street from my house. I was working for a sports company I greatly respected, putting my full time effort into my creation, and having a great commute. I had combined my career and U-Sports. This was a good moment.
I found myself getting involved in Athlon’s other technical endeavors and relished the opportunity to help “mother Athlon” grow from a print-centric company to one that could thrive in the post-print era. After a lot of thought and planning with my family we decided it was a good time to move to Nashville and accept the role as Athlon’s Interactive Director.
There were a lot of great people at Athlon, some that had spent their full career there, some who who sacrificed higher paying jobs to do what they loved, and some who newly arrived with a lot of enthusiasm to make Athlon even better.
There were also a lot of agendas at Athlon that conflicted with each other and created barriers to success in any one direction. Not long after completing my move to Nashville I discovered that a college fantasy football game was one of those directions that wasn’t going to succeed at Athlon. After two seasons with Athlon, I was helping them look for a buyer and new home for college fantasy sports, while I explored the career market in Nashville.
U-Sports was fortunate to find a home at Insider Sports Media for the 2011 season. I know these guys well. ISM specialized in college fantasy content and did a great job collecting, presenting, and disseminating this content to the growing college fantasy football market. I frequently used them as an example at Athlon of how we could better leverage emerging medias. The tech guy at ISM once launched a competitor to U-Sports - which I thought was really well done. It scared me immensely and forced me to rush in some new features ahead of schedule. But while he and I competed on the “field” and had different allegiances at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, we shared a rare bond of dealing with similar pressures of the tech side of fantasy and commiserated at several Fantasy Sports Trade Association gatherings.
Insider Sports brought back the U-Sports name and continued providing great customer service. Unfortunately, 2012 has turned into a year when the niche of college fantasy football has been successfully replaced by the big brands. CBS entered the market with a bang in 2007, and while first a surprisingly weak offering, has put the same innovative muscle behind it that they brought to NFL fantasy football. The environment for providing boutique college fantasy games or service is now on the decline. Many of my friends in the industry are sharing the same fate as U-Sports.
It was a great run from being a non-believer myself, to convincing others of the beauty of college fantasy football, to fending off cease and desist letters from USC, the NCAA, and even my alma mater (Florida), to eventually selling the business - twice, and meeting countless great people along the way. While I am in some ways sad to be seeing the end of an endeavour I poured so much energy into, I am doubly grateful to have had the experiences the journey has taken me on and survived.
I now am in my second year managing a team of developers working on IT applications for a large dialysis provider. Sure it’s not as sexy as interactive sports applications, but I find it tremendously more impactful for my users’ patients who are surviving a much harder battle.
I had the idea of thanking people by name through this post. But I decided the list of people who I am thankful for encountering along the journey could not be cut off at any reasonable point. Suffice to know if you are reading this, you are probably one of them.
Thanks for your support over the years and being a part of this journey.
There were actually many details I choose not to bore a reasonable audience with, but I’d be happy to share more details of the behind the scenes at U-Sports. Feel free to reach me at: