Each fall, while Michael Nyman’s friends debate whether to draft Peyton Manning or Tom Brady for their fantasy football teams, Nyman digs into the numbers on Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety for his own league: Fantasy Ski Racer. Nyman started FSR in 2010 with his brother, Olympic downhill racer Steven Nyman, because they both like geeking out about the sport.
Over the past few years, broadcast networks, niche publications, and clutches of obsessed fans like the Nymans have developed leagues for everything from cycling (NBC’s Fantasy Cycling Challenge) to fishing (Fishing League Worldwide’s Fantasy Fishing) to surfing (Surfer magazine’s Fantasy Surfer) in an attempt to replicate what has long been a big part of the growth of mainstream sports.
“If you can measure statistics, you can have a league,” says Megan Van Petten, executive director of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Lacking the resources of a CBS or an ESPN, which run their own fantasy leagues, action-sports upstarts have struggled to develop slick interfaces and intuitive scoring systems. “It has been hard to refine our game and have it make sense to the general public,” Nyman admits.
Indeed, most Americans are familiar with how scoring in, say, football and baseball works, and the fantasy versions of those sports are structured accordingly. But developing rules for solo endeavors like ski racing can be difficult. In Fantasy Cycling Challenge, players are given a virtual budget to sign riders and are awarded points based on how they perform. FSR tried that model but found that it confused people. So in 2012, the rules changed: predict the top finishers, rack up points for being right.
Then the Nymans developed a mobile app to take advantage of the rules’ simplicity. Today, the FSR app looks nearly as slick as those from Fox or Yahoo, and the league’s user base has doubled to 12,000 since last season.
It isn’t just about fun, though. Fantasy leagues are a chance for the sports to reach a broader audience. “Competitive skiing gets decent ratings in the U.S., but the networks don’t show many races,” Nyman says. “We’re getting people exposed to that world.”
Which is exactly why Phill Gross, a hedge-fund manager and trustee of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, invested an undisclosed amount in FSR in 2012. Last year, Nyman was finally able to give himself a full-time paycheck for his work on FSR. And this year, Olympic skier and Universal Sports analyst Doug Lewis came on board as an expert blogger, a move that could help build the kind of end-to-end, 24/7 fantasy universe that mainstream leagues offer fans. After all, the more time they spend on the site, the more engrossed they become.
“You want to win, you want your name ranked,” says Lewis. “To do that, you’ve got to do your homework.”
Draft Guide: Three Athletes with Promising Cost-to-Performance Ratios
Surfing: Mick Fanning
The Australian flies under the radar while racking up quarter- and semifinal finishes, leaving him in good position for end-of-season contention.
Cycling: Luke Rowe
The Team Sky rider collected a string of top-ten finishes last year—look for him to improve on his surprise performance at Paris-Roubaix.
Skiing: Tim Jitloff
American GS specialist Jitloff went on a tear of top-ten finishes last year, including first in the GS at the U.S. Alpine Championships.
2015 Payouts for Winning It All
Fantasy Surfer: Sponsored trip to Oahu’s North Shore (worth $5,000)
Fantasy Ski Racer: Trip to the FIS World Ski Championships in Colorado (worth $5,000)
Dirt Fantasy: Santa Cruz V10 mountain-bike frame (worth $3,600)