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MIT Whiz Enters The Fantasy Football Game

August 10, 2008

MIT graduate Jeff Ma has lived the life many men dream about. His card-counting expertise helped him win millions around the blackjack table, and inspired a best-selling book and the movie “21.”

Ma, now 35, believes he can hit his next jackpot in fantasy football, a popular game based off NFL statistics.

Ma and his business partner, Mike Kerns, hope to introduce a younger generation to the game by launching a program that allows fantasy football leagues to be managed within Facebook, a popular social networking site.

Ma, who owns Citizen Sports Inc., believes fantasy sports are perfectly suited for social networking sites because leagues are typically formed by friends wishing to deepen their relationships.

The idea was so persuasive that Sports Illustrated, who spent the last decade watching Yahoo, ESPN, and CBS build popular leagues, lent its name to the program making it the magazine’s first fantasy football venture.

The Time Warner owned magazine is providing Citizen Sports with content, and is handling all the promotion and advertising sales for the new idea.

“We think this can change the fantasy landscape,” said Jeff Price, president of Sports Illustrated’s digital operations.

Drawing fans from other fantasy football websites will prove to be the biggest hurdle, as most fantasy football fans are involved in leagues that have been running for years.

Price believes it will be easier for players to switch over to Citizen Sports because their program will run through Facebook, where millions of people already spend hours every day, This will “bring fantasy football to the player.”

Yahoo leads the fantasy football field.  Its football site drew 6.6 million U.S. visitors in the first month of last year’s season.  ESPN.com followed with 2.6 million visitors.

Yahoo is doing its best to stay on top.  This year the company has created more tools for its service, including audio alerts, and graphics to make it easier to play on mobile phones.

“It’s a daunting task,” Ma said. “Do you look at what Yahoo has been able to do and say, ‘It’s just not worth taking a chance?’ Or do you look at the advent of social networks and say, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”

Ma made his fortune at a young age by taking the risk of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  At the institute, Ma created a card-counting system that allowed him to tell when a blackjack deck had a higher percentage of face cards remaining, shifting the odds of winning in his favor.

The formula paid off, and spawned the 2002 book “Bringing Down the House.”  Last year the book was turned into the movie “21.”  Ma wasn’t named in either one, even though he made a cameo as a blackjack dealer in the movie.

After being invited to a friendly poker game that Ma would be attending, Kerns read “Bringing Down the House” in one evening.  After finishing the book, Kerns was determined to recruit Ma as a business partner.

Ma hopes to get a piece of the fantasy football action.  Though the concept may seem frivolous, it has turned into a profitable market for the web sites that run the leagues.

Although some sites charge fees, most of the money is made from advertisers hoping to connect to the mostly male audience.  The men in this demographic are appealing to marketers because they have above-average incomes, and consume a lot of technology, fast food, and beer.

“It’s a rich and robust audience,” said Clay Walker, founder of the Fantasy Sports Association.

San Francisco based Citizen Sports is projecting a sevenfold increase in profits with the release of the new fantasy football program this year.

Sports Illustrated has already sold sponsorships to AT&T and sporting goods chain Finish Line Inc. The magazine hopes 250,000 people participate in the Facebook fantasy football program, Price said.

Almost 100,000 people have already downloaded the program after just a few weeks on Facebook.  The interest is expected to grow as the NFL season approaches.

Citizen Sports’ financial backers include Jeff Moorad, owner of the Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks, and Kevin Compton, owner of the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks.

The new fantasy football program isn’t Citizen Sports’ first attempt at cashing in on the fantasy market.  In 2005, they introduced an electronic trading market called ProTrade.  ProTrade used complicated computer models to estimate the value of professional athletes, similar to the way shares in a publicly held company are appraised.

ProTrade still is around, although it never caught on the way Ma and Kerns had hoped.

“It’s just a little too obtuse for most people,” Walker said.

Ma and Kerns understand that getting people to switch their fantasy sports program isn’t an easy task either.

“It’s just us, with a slingshot, going against the big guys,” Kerns said.

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