Pursuit of Perfection

Two words. One category. The only thing separating me from a perfect Oscar ballot was the Academy Award for Costume Design. In my prediction piece I had this to say about the lesser-known categories:

“As for some of the other categories: Best Song to Frozen, any technical category (cinematography, sound mixing/editing, visual effects) and original score to Gravity, production design to The Great Gatsby, but costumes—and well-positioned tape—will undoubtedly go to American Hustle (they have to win something tonight, right?) while makeup and hair will fast forward a decade, leaving New York City for Dallas. The shorts are always a crapshoot but I’m putting my money on The Lady in Number 6 for documentary and Helium in the über-competitive live action category.”

Guess I was wrong about American Hustle not getting shut out at the Oscars. Though that wayward prognostication kept me from perfection, I can’t help find it quite fitting considering I also named Hustle the most overrated film of the year. Victory—and vindication—were mine in what I thought was a fantastic night at the Oscars!

A Welcome Reality 

Editor’s Note: I found the piece below while combing through old clips from grad school. Considering it was written nearly nine years ago, on June 14, 2005, I found it very prescient: 

Donald Trump meet Brian Sabian. Sabian, the General Manager of baseball’s San Francisco Giants, has found an innovative and fascinating method of choosing an apprentice. And for participants of fantasy baseball, it is a welcome reality.

Sabian’s decision to hire the winner of an elite 12-team fantasy league as his new special assistant for baseball operations is a major boon to this already booming industry.

As both a fantasy sports columnist and radio talk show host for The Sporting News, Kevin Wheeler has an important perspective on this fantasy genre.

A participant since 1994, he believes they are “the perfect combination of a strategy game and gambling. The gambling part is only a small fraction of the attraction to fantasy sports, but is a part all the same. The challenge of maintaining a team over the course of a season and doing it better than your competitors (usually friends or co-workers) is what keeps me coming back.”

Fantasy baseball uses the statistics of real-life players to simulate actual game play. In many respects, running a fantasy team—from draft day through the World Series—is remarkably similar to a Major League Baseball season, featuring an identical player pool, free agency, and even trades between fantasy GMs. This verisimilitude, coupled with the high baseball IQ of many fantasy team owners, undoubtedly figured prominently in Sabian’s decision.

Winnowed down by a few trivia questions and a strategic problem-solving test case, the league gleaned owners from all across the country to compete for this dream job for fantasy owners. Joining their peers who play fantasy hockey, basketball, and football, they represent 7.2 percent of Americans—and they are growing. Extrapolating from the 2000 census, such remarkable growth means at least 25 million Americans are currently participating in this billion-dollar industry.

A prime example of this growth is Scott Larson. A Madison resident working toward his master’s degree in theology, he is now a two-year veteran of this burgeoning enterprise, but initially resisted playing fantasy sports just because of the name. To him, fantasy sports were simply “a jock version of that Dungeons & Dragons game all the nerds played back in high school.”

At the prodding of his friend, though, he demurred, eventually joining a fantasy football league last year. Obviously, he enjoyed it.

“There is nothing better than fantasy football, especially when money is involved,” he confessed. There “is a surge of interest that can only be matched when your real life favorite team is in the playoffs. And since I’m a lifelong [Chicago] Bears fan, well, you know.”

Fellow Bears fan Dave Yazbec agrees. An education student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yazbec has participated in fantasy sports since 1991.

“I started playing around the same time as my brother. He was the commissioner [the league’s director] and had to compile the weekly scores and stats by hand. Oh how times have changed.”

His reference to the Internet and—by its intrinsic nature—the sprouting of these fantasy sports from this incredibly fertile host site, has blossomed into a phenomenon. Glimpsing the incredible profits on the horizon, Goliaths such as Yahoo!, ESPN.com, and The Sporting News have begun to tailor their marketing and content to these fantasy owners.

This is quite a change from fantasy’s earlier days. Bill Yazbec, older brother of Dave, started that first aforementioned football league from a booklet in a case of beer.

“We made up some of our own rules as supplements to what was in the booklet. I turned over control of that league in ’94 when I moved away, but it is still in existence with many of the same people. It’s based in Indianapolis now.”

Such entrepreneurship and dedication epitomize this expanding passion. Currently teaching fiction writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Bill Yazbec still enjoys playing in leagues with his friends scattered across the country, especially when his brother is involved.

“They [fantasy sports] do maintain relationships though, especially for someone like me who is far away. During football season Dave and I talk on a fairly regular basis just about the league. It’s fun for me to compete with him especially.”

The Internet has changed the game. Now there are also those relationships that are not familial nor friendship-based but instead originated from fantasy leagues themselves.

JD Uhler, a web designer at the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, has participated in fantasy sports for 14 years, devoting an estimated 40 hours a month on research and development on his players and cultivation of his teams. Through these experiences, he has acquired “a few friends that are almost exclusively fantasy sports friends.  We love to chat about players, their values, and the sports they play.”

Despite all of the tangible benefits—not to mention hefty profits for the winners of money leagues—to this new-fangled obsession, one major drawback consistently emerges: time. Or, more accurately, lack thereof.  According to nearly all of those interviewed for this piece, fantasy sports affected their relationship with their significant others.  Often benign, these disruptions nonetheless have also become an unwelcome reality in this budding genre.

“I think they are very helpful maintaining relationships with your buddies, [but] not so much with the ladies,” confessed the younger Yazbec. “Luckily, mine doesn’t seem to mind that much.”

More ominously, though, Kevin Wheeler notices a more sinister trend.

“In extreme cases, some fantasy players lose touch with what sports are really about. They focus so much on numbers (very much like addicted gamblers do) that they forget about what made them a sports fan to begin with. They stop caring about who wins or loses, or about the beauty of the game, and they focus solely on who ‘puts up numbers.’”

The elder Yazbec agrees—to a point.

He believes the “ubiquitous nature of sports culture in this country is a big reason” for this occasional break from reality.  “ESPN has played a big part too.”

Conversely, though, “it allows everyday Joes to see how smart they are (or not) in terms of their ability to gauge the sport.”

According to Scott Larson, the media have also played an important role in the fantasy boom and—paradoxically—bringing fans closer to the game.

“I think the reality is that a lot of people like sports but are sick of the constant hype and media blabbering that comes with them. Fantasy sports is a way for fans to reconnect to the in-game action.”

Wheeler thinks this distinct attribute will only enhance the staying power of fantasy sports.

“It is a long-term viable industry so long as there are professional sports in this country. In my mind, fantasy sports are as much a part of the sports world today as traditional betting is. Now that fantasy sports have taken off, I see no reason for them to decline in the future. Fantasy sports are no more a passing fad than the Internet is.”

No wonder, then, that Brian Sabian—recognized as one of the sagest GMs in baseball—would once again be tapping into a new talent base, thereby staying one step ahead of the Donald Trump’s of the baseball world.

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5 Responses to Pursuit of Perfection

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