RotoWire's ultimate man cave
Peter Schoenke and the RotoWire staff compile data year-round for the Web, radio shows, and magazines, with June being the slowest sports month. “That’s usually when we take our vacations,” he said.
While thousands line area streets in support of the Ironman event on a glorious Sunday morning in Madison, a non-descript office just off campus crackles from the sound of fingers over keyboards. Ironman? What Ironman?
On this, the first Sunday of the NFL football season, 42-year-old Peter Schoenke and a cast of sports aficionados scour TVs, iPads, and Twitter in search of the most current football news. This is RotoWire, a fantasy sports company that takes news from the NFL, college football, baseball, basketball, golf, hockey, and even NASCAR to a sports fan’s extreme.
The sports information RotoWire culls and publishes is syndicated to major media companies, such as Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, and NFL.com. “Between the three, I’m guessing they have most of the market share [of players],” Schoenke says, pointing to his iPad, where player status information from RotoWire scrolls across the screen during a live cable sports show.
Fluff, you say? Consider this. From 2010-2012, about 36 million people in the U.S and Canada were playing fantasy sports according to FSTA.org, and at Forbes, industry analyst IBISWorld projects fantasy sports to average 8.8% annual growth for the next five years. That puts it on track to become a $1.7 billion industry by 2017.
NFL football fans certainly understand. Year after year, they’ve been “drafting” pro athletes in thousands of leagues, building fantasy teams from the best available names in hopes of reaching the mother lode in their respective leagues. RotoWire is one of several resources players can use to aid their team selections – and it’s made the 15-year-old company a multimillion-dollar success story.
With light streaming in from his corner office, Schoenke, president and owner, oversees five others in the office this morning, and about 30 others reporting in from around the country. The Madison crew is busy gathering the latest player news, injury reports, and game-time status. “We really just have our eyes and ears on everything,” he says. “We don’t have super insider info, but it’s overwhelming for someone to do all of this research on their own. We understand how to read team news reports, so if anything happens anywhere, you’re in the know.”
Then he turns back to his computer. On the first Sunday of the new season, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, who had suffered his third concussion in 22 months, was ruled inactive. Schoenke had already posted a note to that effect, which subsequently appeared on fantasy websites around the country. “Now we need to figure out exactly why,” Schoenke says, anticipating updates to the Collie story. “Did he not get medical clearance? Are they just being cautious?”
Life-and-death situations? No, but fantasy football players everywhere hang on the news each week.
A television in the corner of Schoenke’s office is tuned to CBS Sports. Next to his desktop, where he’s monitoring tweets from around the country, an iPad is tuned to Yahoo! Sports’ Fantasy Football Live, a Web-only sports show on Yahoo.com. Three sportscasters discuss the upcoming games, and Schoenke points to one. “That guy, Chris Liss, is our main football guy,” he says. Liss is RotoWire’s managing editor and a blogger. He’s also the face behind the voice on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today, a live, call-in sports radio show that runs daily on Sirius and XM radio.
In addition to the radio show, RotoWire publishes two magazines a year, one for football and one for major league baseball, the company’s two most lucrative sports. “The magazine is still profitable,” Schoenke says, “it’s just the only area of the company that’s declining.”
Declining, perhaps, as fantasy players move to the Web. The company, he says, has well over 100,000 subscribers across all its products, from apps that sell for $4.99 to annual subscriptions that can run as much as $69.99. Its NFL draft app “did better than Angry Birds for a while,” and Schoenke has reason to smile. RotoWire has been growing at a clip of between 15% and 20% each year.
The company has provided fantasy sports news to Yahoo! Sports for the past seven years, and to ESPN for 10. The networks pay an undisclosed amount for access to timely sports data that in turn boosts their own sports websites.
News gathering has certainly changed during that time. “Twitter has revolutionized the business, not just sports, but news, politics. Everything happens on Twitter first. So if you’re an absolute die-hard fantasy football fan, you’re on Twitter.” But the rumor mill on Twitter leaves much to be desired, and must often be vetted.
“Last night, Tyler Wilson, QB for Arkansas, got hurt. Right away, a report went out that he broke his collarbone. We didn’t run with it, but some of our competitors did. Then the source retracted, and the school came out with a different report.”
Earlier this morning, a tweet from Washington, D.C., mentioned that running back Alfred Morris would start for the Redskins that day. “We weren’t sure that the source was credible. Was he a small-time media guy?” Schoenke wondered, but it turned out to be true. “We don’t want to put every rumor out there.”
College football, he says, is particularly difficult to track because schools don’t freely dole out information on players. Often, news is tweeted by college roommates, “but do you really want to publish it?” he questions.
Schoenke says the biggest problem in this industry is that all fantasy customers slam the websites at the same time, usually on Sundays or Mondays, as they set their weekly lineups. The biggest fear is a computer glitch, but this day, things run smoothly.
Because it exists largely in the electronic world, Schoenke considers RotoWire more of a technology than a sports company. But here in Madison, the company operates about 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and employs 16 full-timers, including five “tech guys,” plus an army of 80 to 100 freelancers around the country who continuously contribute content to the site.
Considering the variety of sports involved, Schoenke says fantasy sports is now a mainstream hobby. “I started playing in 1990 when it was really geeky. It was also a lot of work. Data was hard to find and took a lot of work.”
Then, he says, the Internet came along, and after the NFL came to the realization that fantasy footballers were their best customers, they got behind it, followed by the media.
Schoenke tests his company’s products regularly, experiencing them from a fan’s perspective. This football season, he’s on 13 different fantasy football leagues and keeps track of each using his company’s technology.
In a larger room, two TVs are tuned to different NFL pregame shows. As staff members listen for any last-minute news, they also can’t help but seek advice for their own fantasy teams.
Schoenke still needs to plug one hole on one of his. “Toby Gerhart (RB, Vikings) or Trent Richardson (RB, Browns)?” he asks out loud. Others chime in. “Hedge,” suggests Derek, an editor. “If Gerhart scores and you don’t have him on your team, you’ll still be happy.” Happy, because Schoenke is a huge Vikings fan living in Packers territory.
Once the games begin, the immediate stress is off. “It’s kind of a relief,” Schoenke says, “because we can watch the games. We keep track of all the injuries, but really, this isn’t much different than what might be going on at some college dorm, except our computers are probably better.”
Schoenke generally works Monday through Friday, but even when he’s home, he’s working. “My wife said she always wanted to marry a sports fan,” Schoenke smiles, “then she married the uber sports fan!”
With crunch time over, he’ll head home to watch football with his wife, an Indianapolis Colts fan, and their three children. After putting in over 100 hours this week, he’s hoping to catch the Vikings game somewhere. Though his life is consumed with sports, Schoenke swears it never gets old.
“Part of the reason we started RotoWire was because we were already spending so many hours a week [playing fantasy sports]. How much more time could it possibly take to make a living of it?” Now he’s learned. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”
With soda cans and empty pizza boxes in view, it’s also the ultimate man-cave. “Yeah,” smiles Justin, a young employee who this day is covering major league baseball news. “It’s not a bad place to be on Sundays. I can think of worse places to work.”
Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.