March 30, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 14
Tracing the spread of fantasy sports is like looking at the origins of fast-food restaurants. Ray Croc gets credit for opening the first McDonald's franchise, but he originally purchased the hamburger chain from the McDonald brothers, whose "Speedee Service System" - which laid the foundation for fast food - was inspired by Henry Ford's assembly line.
In the evolution of fantasy sports, however, one of the key players is teaching at Boston College, and thanks to a new book he is getting attention for helping inspire a hobby that has addicted millions of fans around the world.
Senior Wall Street Journal writer Sam Walker's Fantasyland, published this year, describes the role Adj. Prof. William Gamson (Sociology) played in the rise of fantasy sports - a family of games in which players manage imaginary sports teams based on the real-life performance of professional athletes.
Conventional wisdom holds that fantasy sports were officially born in 1980 when a group of baseball fans including magazine writer and editor Dan Okrent founded Rotisserie League Baseball over lunch at a Manhattan restaurant called La Rotisserie Francaise.
But in his book, Walker notes that Rotisserie-style baseball was "only the live birth" of fantasy sports and the "conception" actually occurred 20 years earlier in Gamson's Cambridge apartment.
Describing the moment in 1960 when Gamson and a few friends invented a game based on individual baseball players' statistics, Walker writes: "If you'd told Bill Gamson he was about to become the Thomas Edison of a worldwide sports movement, he would have assumed you were making fun of him."
Gamson's creation, the National Baseball Seminar, is now in its 46th year, and Gamson is still playing. In recent weeks, he has been busy drafting a team for the upcoming season.
A past president of the American Sociological Association and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gamson says he is somewhat amused by what he calls his "15 minutes of fame" and he downplays his contribution to fantasy sports.
"Okrent is the one who really launched it and made it into what it is today," he says.
He also notes that it is somewhat ironic that he has devoted much of his professional work to devising game simulations that address weighty issues like global justice, and yet he just may end up being remembered more for a game that was really just a game.
"I feel like I've done other things in my life and this is just a lark," he says.
Gamson is quick to point out that his game is really just a distant cousin to Rotisserie baseball. For one thing, Gamson's seminar baseball follows only four statistics - runs batted in, batting average, earned-run average and games won - while Rotisserie baseball usually tracks many more player stats.
Another difference is cost: Gamson's league charges participants a modest $24 to play each season, while many Rotisserie league players have been known to ante up hundreds of dollars.
But the biggest difference may be size. Fantasy baseball leagues comprise hundreds and thousands of players; Gamson's baseball seminar, however, reached a ceiling of 25 players years ago.
"Why would we want to expand it?" he says with a touch of humor. "With 25 you have a chance. You get too many and it's like the lottery."
With all the recent publicity, there may be a push by outsiders to open the seminar to more players. Gamson said Sociology Department chair Prof. Juliet Schor asked to join earlier this month after the Boston Globe ran an article about his role in the history of fantasy baseball.
"I've already put her name in for next year," Gamson says, adding that Schor would be the first woman in the seminar.
-Greg Frost •