League of Leagues takes fantasy sports one step beyond

Laid off lawyer launches unique cross-sport competition online

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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.

For many fantasy players, the hobby is as much about camaraderie as sports knowledge. Think a college basketball office pool combined with a group outing to a ballpark.

“It’s the friends, the trash talk, the always having some skin in the game when you watch sports,” Mr. Mergler said. “That’s why everyone loves fantasy. My thought was, How do you optimize the experience?”

The problem with single-sport fantasy leagues, Mr. Mergler said, is that they can become stale. Devoid of risk and excitement. At least for avid players.

“Because fantasy is so popular, there are so many experts,” he said. “Everyone has the same information. Every [player] draft is the same. Trades are hard to pull off. Plus, there’s an offseason - fantasy football only lasts four months, and then everyone spends eight months wishing for the next season.

“Crossing sports means no more experts. Trades are wilder. Game play is year-round. And it gives people a reason to stay involved: You might be losing in baseball, but football gives you a fresh start. This one simple thing opens up a world of possibilities.”

Mr. Mergler initially wasn’t planning to found a business. A 2007 graduate of the University of Virginia law school, he had a job with the Washington office of Alston & Bird, Atlanta’s largest law firm. The pay was good. The work was steady. Mr. Mergler could afford to buy a house in Logan Circle and pay his student-loan debt.

Still, he felt unfulfilled. During Mr. Mergler’s senior year of college, his father, Donald - whom Mr. Mergler describes as his “best friend” and “security blanket” - unexpectedly died of a heart attack.Mr. Mergler was shaken.

“I became risk-averse,” he said. “I had good enough scores and an aptitude for the law, so I said, ‘What the hell, I should go to law school.’ If you’re a lawyer, you won’t go homeless. You’re going to have a comfortable level of income.

“Besides, I had delusions of grandeur from watching [the film] ‘A Few Good Men’ when I was younger, seeing [Tom] Cruise hammer someone on the witness stand.”

In law school and on the job, however, Mr. Mergler found himself more interested in playing and writing about fantasy sports than in corporate litigation. He was a columnist for Virginia’s law school newspaper and had a freelance writing gig with Major League Baseball’s website.

Meanwhile, recessionary economic pressures made his workplace environment increasingly toxic.

“There were three types of lawyers at that point,” Mr. Mergler said. “Those who were getting laid off, those going to work fearing it and those working so hard they wish they were laid off.”

When Mr. Mergler was let go in March 2009 - immediately following his first solo courtroom appearance, no less - his mentor gave him a parting piece of advice.

“He told me, ‘Toby, you’re as smart as any of the people that you’re going to represent,” Mr. Mergler said. “But they took a risk, and you didn’t. And that’s why you work for them.”

Building ‘underwater sandcastle’

Mr. Mergler took those words to heart. Armed with a modest severance package and a handful of online freelance-writing jobs, he figured he could turn his fantasy idea into a working, marketable product.

That was before he began working with his overseas developers.

A late 2009 deadline slipped into 2010. The programmers kept changing - competent ones leaving, incompetent ones arriving. The team kept asking for more money; in response, an increasingly frustrated Mr. Mergler demanded a functioning website.

Despite numerous late night and early morning Internet chats between Mr. Mergler and his team, the prototype site never worked correctly. Every fixed bug created a new problem. One day, the software reported that Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin had 17 rebounds in the previous night’s game. Problem was, Griffin actually had grabbed 12.

“It turned out that the programmer was taking the first half statistics and adding those to the final numbers at the end of the game,” Mr. Mergler said. “But I couldn’t read the computer code, so I had to go through the play-by-play of the entire game and look for context clues, just ‘MacGyver’ the numbers together.

“I was trouble-shooting their crappy work, and they couldn’t even tell me why it was crappy. Once in a blue moon it would work, and then a week later it wouldn’t anymore. It was like trying to build a sandcastle in the ocean, underwater, while holding your breath.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Mergler was facing additional pressures. His live-in fiancee, Mary, had been laid off from her legal job. His severance money was running out. His freelance-writing gigs - which actually paid less than unemployment benefits - were drying up.

One night shortly after his October 2010 wedding, Mr. Mergler was too stressed to sleep. Curious and a bit paranoid, he Googled the name of his fantasy project, “League of Leagues,” coming across a link to a podcast hosted by popular sportswriters and fantasy enthusiasts Dave Dameshek and Jonah Keri.

Mr. Mergler slipped on his headphones. His jaw dropped. Mr. Keri and Mr. Dameshek were discussing a multisport fantasy league they hoped to found called … the League of Leagues.

“My idea is more an evolution than a revolution,” Mr. Mergler said. “But to hear the specificity of it, to have the actual name coming through my ears? I couldn’t believe it.” Panicked, Mr. Mergler contacted Mr. Keri. The two had an amicable conversation, with Mr. Keri making it clear that he had no intention of building a multisport fantasy business - he just wanted to play the game.

“It’s a great idea,” said Mr. Keri, a writer for Grantland. “Dave and I weren’t as concerned with the tech as with making the league happen. We wanted to have his friends and my friends and people we know in the fantasy industry get together in [Las] Vegas and figure out how to score it.”

Preparing to launch

Mr. Mergler was relieved and energized. Mr. Keri and Mr. Dameshek are exactly the kind of hard-core fantasy sports players he hopes - and needs - to attract.

While the online fantasy sports marketplace is dominated by large companies such as Yahoo and ESPN that offer free, basic leagues to a broad, casual market and earn revenue via advertising, fantasy-industry expert Matt Schauf said that a potentially profitable niche exists for companies that cater to more devoted players.

“This isn’t going to replace people’s current fantasy games,” said Mr. Schauf, the former publisher of a fantasy sports business website. “But the people who will want to play a multisport league are serious players, a high-stakes crowd, and they’re willing to pay for the product.”

Rick Wolf, a fantasy-industry veteran, estimated that Mr. Mergler’s site likely needs between 2,000 and 5,000 players to be successful.

“The thing Toby has going for him is that he’s not just a business guy,” said Mr. Wolf, who helped found CBS Sportsline’s fantasy sports and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. “He’s a high-end fantasy baseball player. There’s a lot of intricacies to the games, and a lot of the big media companies didn’t get it right until they hired developers who knew fantasy. Toby has a real passion for it.”

Having finally found a capable programming team - at, of all places, a Washington Nationals game, serendipitously and over beers with a friend of a friend - Mr. Mergler currently is accepting customer sign-ups and plans to launch his site in early June. He also is working as a contract lawyer, the better to fund the project.

Someday, Mr. Mergler said with a laugh, he may even have time to play it.

“The entire time we’ve been married, I don’t think Toby and I have ever gone to bed at the same time,” Mrs. Mergler said. “He’s always up working on this. But that’s the fun thing about being married to him. You always hear people say they have a great idea for a business. Most never follow through. Toby does.”

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