Toby Mergler had a choice to make. Laid off from his D.C. law firm during the spring of 2009, he could plunge back into a Great Recession job market flooded with other unemployed lawyers in hopes of latching on to something in a profession he found uninspiring.
Alternately, Mr. Mergler could pursue his entrepreneurial dream: starting his own online fantasy-sports business, a unique, self-designed game in which players like himself would be able to compete against each other across different sports.
“It was a little illogical to pursue, but I was convinced of the idea,” Mr. Mergler said. “And if I wasn’t going to find a job, I needed this to become my job.”
Mr. Mergler worked out a business plan and tested his brainchild among friends. To stretch his shoestring budget, he outsourced his website’s programming, hiring a software development team in India.
Forty minutes into his first overseas conference call - after breaking down his game, the scoring system, how trading New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg would actually work - he asked his new developers if they had any questions.
Yes, they replied. What is football?
“That’s the first time I knew I was in real trouble,” Mr. Mergler said. “Do I retreat, or is the only way out to go in? I dived deeper in.”
Three years after attempting to explain touchdowns and field goals to overseas programmers weaned on cricket, Mr. Mergler is finally about to launch his startup business, the League of Leagues, just as the real Major League Baseball season gets under way.
At a time when the unhappy lawyer embarking on a second career as an executive chef or cupcake baker has become a cultural cliche - and a reality-TV staple - Mr. Mergler’s story serves as a corrective case study in the oft- anxious, occasionally humorous process of turning one’s passion into an actual livelihood.
“My generation grew up to expect the Hollywood ending,” Mr. Mergler said. “Man gets laid off. Turns that into a business break. This is going to end well. But what if it doesn’t? Those are the stories that never get told. It can be an incredible amount of stress.”
A cross-sport fantasy
Winston Churchill honed his speeches in a bathtub. Mr. Mergler’s fantasy sports brainstorm came in the shower. An avid gamer himself, he realized there was a way to potentially make the hobby more engaging and fun.
“Crossing sports,” Mr. Mergler said. “People had talked about it, but no one had really tried to do it.”
A quick primer for the uninitiated: In fantasy sports, players draft and manage teams of actual professional athletes, competing on the basis of said athletes’ real-world statistical production.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, more than 32 million people in the United States and Canada were active fantasy players as of last year, a 60 percent increase from 2007. The fantasy industry is reportedly worth more than $2 billion - estimates go as high as $4 billion - and the hobby cemented its mainstream cultural status with the 2009 premiere of “The League,” a cable-TV sitcom that revolves around the lives of Chicago-area friends and fantasy players.