Adding Storage is Part

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2006-09-07
 
 
 

Online Sites Hustling to Handle Fantasy Sports Traffic


MENLO PARK, Calif.—It wasnt exactly like watching Chris Berman, Chris Mortensen and Mel Kiper Jr.s hair helmet on ESPN during NFL Draft Day, waiting to see which lucky college players will be drafted in the first round.

But, to a slightly lesser degree, it had its own feeling of anticipation and excitement.

Were talking about a Silicon Valley-area Fantasy Football draft day a couple of weeks ago.

The scene: The lower back room of the legendary Dutch Goose, an old-fashioned, locally revered burger n suds sports bar and restaurant with the requisite peanut shells on the floor, pool table and high-definition video screens in every corner. The place is home to CEOs and blue collar folk alike.

A group of perhaps 40 participants crammed into a Goose room designed to seat about half that many. Drafters busily shuffled through their notes. A large board with a matrix was set up against a wall, with teams and corresponding player picks lined up.

"Yes! I got Shaun Alexander," said one beaming drafter, jubilant at landing the 2005 NFL rushing champion from the Seattle Seahawks with one of the first selections. And on it went, for about two hours.

Fantasy football assigns points to NFL players based on their performances (mostly yardage and touchdowns), and the game has become so popular that it is pushing the boundaries of technology and giving companies a new advertising vehicle.

At the end of the season, participants examine their players performance totals and win prizes for their knowledge and expertise.

Imagine this scene multiplied thousands of times across the country, across the world, online. An awful lot of people are getting into fantasy sports—mainly football and baseball.

With Game 1 of the 2006 NFL season is Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh (Steelers versus Miami Dolphins). The teams have been picked, the standings have been established and the races are on.

Approximately 16 million to 20 million adults and a similarly large number of people under 18 will check their players performances each week until the season begins to peter out in January ahead of the Super Bowl. It adds up to a lot of trafic—and potential storage issues—for the host sites.

And all that valuable sports data (weekly and season statistics, personal backgrounds and photographs of players, team records, team logos and standings) is stored in servers belonging to ESPN.com, Yahoo.com, NFL.com, Viacoms CBSSportsLine.com and others.

Forum serves fantasy sports industry

The FSTA (Fantasy Sports Trade Association) is headed by Jeffrey R. Thomas of Kenosha, Wis., the founder and CEO of SportsBuff.com.

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The FSTA aims to provide a forum for interaction between hundreds of existing and emerging companies in the fast-growing fantasy sports industry.

"We serve the pioneers that invested in and grew the industry in the 1980s and 1990s. And we serve the visionaries, innovators, investors, advertisers and sponsors that would like to network and learn more about the fantasy sports industry," Thomas told eWEEK via e-mail.

Thomas said that the FSTA now has four years worth of research, so it is now beginning to get a handle on how widespread the phenomenon really is.

"A new FSTA study … shows that 12 to 20 million people over 18 play fantasy sports. Thats a big range, so we use 16 million [as the median number]. Its not an exact science, but our research shows 7 percent to 10 percent of growth in [each of] the past few years," Thomas said.

Thomas said the FSTA does not have under-18 numbers but that they are "slated for next years research."

Gaming analysts have estimated that at least as many under-18 players are online each day as there are adults, so the estimated range is even greater for the total fantasy football participant pool: from 24 million to 40 million.

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"My favorite new research number: Twenty-two percent of male Americans 18 to 49 play fantasy sports," Thomas said.

Again, thats not counting a whole lot of boys in the 6-to-18-year age range. And dont forget women and girls; they also are getting involved.

A ton of on-demand data to store

Thats a lot of data to store and make available 24/7 on the Web, and sites like Yahoo and others are hesitant to say exactly how much it actually is.

"Even if we knew how much fantasy football data we are storing, I dont know that I could tell you anyway," said Yahoo sports spokesman Dan Berger.

"The amount of data per person entered into our system is an interesting question; I dont think Ive been asked that before."

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Its not that much per user—probably only a few kilobytes. Pages with photos and logos (player profiles, team pages, etc.) that take up most of the digital storage are reused millions of times by the Web servers and not duplicated.

Berger said that Yahoo has added features, leading to more data.

"We have kept each players history in our servers—all the games or matches, all the stats, everything theyve done online, so that they can have much more information available to them. Weve had all the back-end data kept in storage, but we didnt have a front-end use for it until now.

"Now, for example, if you and I were in the same league, you could find out your personal record against my team, and against other guys were playing with, and so on. You can see how individual players performed against my team. It lets users go much deeper into the game," Berger said.

Still, the amount of data flowing through the Web and into the Yahoo.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, and CBSSportsLine.com server farms is substantial.

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The farms—populated with servers from EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Network Appliance, Rackable, BlueArc and others—apparently are up to the task, for the time being, anyway.

Online sites like these often have to add to their storage server farms; the chief technology officer of eHarmony.com, for example, told eWEEK recently that the online matchmaking site has to buy additional storage about every 90 days for its 8 million registered members and the 9 million photos it keeps.

Each of the sites noted in this story has at least hundreds of terabytes of data storage, spread out in locations all over the country [which are kept confidential] and made available by mostly Apache-run Web servers that grind away night and day, stacked in rackfarms in literally thousands of boxes.

Google, for example, has been estimated to be using 450,000 Web servers located all over the world—including a new, super farm being built near Dalles, Ore., about equal to the size of two football fields.

Yahoo, ESPN.com and the others have similar huge hardware investments.

"We do know the traffic is huge," Berger said. "We had 6.5 million registered users in September 2005 for all fantasy sports—4.5 million for football alone, the highest participation number in the business [according to Internet information provider comScore Networks of Reston, Va.]."

The NCAA basketball championships and Major League Baseball are right behind the NFL in participatory online sports gaming.

"Were finding that people cant get enough of this," said Aaron LaBerge, ESPNs vice president of technology. "People are getting with nine or 10 other people and spending an hour and practicing different draft strategies."

LaBerge said ESPN is considering merging fantasy leagues with video games so that participants can use their TV remotes to start players, change lineups and make trades.

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