published November 29, 2007 by Doug Drinen
Nothing bores me more than when some company merges with or acquires some other company and they create an entire ad campaign around it even though it has zero effect on the life of me, the consumer. AT&T now owns Bellsouth? MegaBank #1 just bought out MegaBank #2? Gripping. Does my phone still work? Can I still use my ATM card at the same places? If so, that’s all I need to know. You may view the p-f-r changes similarly. From my perspective, the changes are fairly major. From yours, they shouldn’t mean much, and they should all be for the better. Scroll down to “The Future” for a synopsis.
On the other hand, I certainly hope that this site has a bit more sense of community than AT&T does. So it’s possible that some of you may be interested in what’s going on behind the scenes. And as long as I’m documenting that, this seems like a good time to document the site’s history as well. Whether or not anyone reads it, I think that five years from now I’ll be glad I wrote it.
I’ll start at the beginning.
The very beginning.
In August 1982, my parents gave the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract for my 11th birthday. I feel I’m being horribly uncreative when I tell you that this site wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Bill James, but I don’t see any way around it. He was a huge influence on the way I think about all things, not just baseball. My parents were not sports fans, but they were tolerant of the obsession with sports that was for some reason in me since the day I was born. Meanwhile, my dad was a computer jock before being a computer jock was cool, and he passed that along to my brothers and I at a young age. I went to Computer Camp (yeah, that’s right, Computer Camp) in sixth grade. A few years later, I found a book called Basic Betting (I’m not sure, but I think this must be it) which contained computer programs designed to predict basketball, baseball, and football games. My dad and I patiently typed in the programs on our 48K Apple II+, and we entered lots of data. We both enjoyed it, but for different reasons.
I knew I loved sports. I didn’t realize at the time that I also loved data, but I clearly did. [This is totally irrelevant to the story, but just so you can adjust your mental image if necessary, I feel compelled to mention that all of this computer and data stuff was strictly an after-dark and rainy-day activity. I assure you that every minute of my childhood that could have been spent playing sports was indeed spent that way.]
In 1988, Bill James wrote his final Baseball Abstract. I’m not sure on the specifics of this, but my understanding is that he gave the rights to the Abstract name to a group of people. That group had some creative differences and split into (at least) two groups. One of those groups, led by a man named Don Malcolm, continued to publish a baseball annual in the spirit of the Abstract. For whatever reason, I quit reading it after 1989.
Sometime in 1996, I stumbled back upon a copy of the same annual, which was then called The Big Bad Baseball Annual. I wrote some stuff, submitted it to Malcolm, and got a gig writing for the BBBA. Another of BBBA’s writers at the time was a guy named Sean Forman. Sean and I had a lot in common: in addition to the interests in sports and data, both of us were working on PhDs in math at the time. Over the next few years, Sean and I met whenever we could, usually at math conferences. He’d tell me about some big ideas he was having. I’d tell him not to quit his day job.
Seven years later, Sean quit his day job.
In case you don’t know, Sean is the creator of the most complete, best organized, and most creative sports data website in this or any other universe: baseball-reference.com. According to this article, baseball-ref launched on February 1st, 2000. I actually saw it about a month before that, at a math conference in early January of 2000. I was underwhelmed. In true computers-in-every-doorknob fashion, I asked Sean something like , “why would anyone who owns a copy of Total Baseball need this? And why anyone who doesn’t own one care?” As is typical of his style, his answer was something like, “I don’t know, I think it might catch on.”
It did catch on.
Meanwhile, fantasy football was catching on across the nation. I started playing it in 1994 and have been obsessed ever since. In the late 90s, I got frustrated that there wasn’t nearly as much readily-available data or as much statistical analysis of football as there was of baseball. Purely because I wanted to dominate my own leagues, I started collecting and analyzing old NFL data wherever I could find it. And because I like to write, I started using this data to write fantasy football articles. The first one I wrote was this one, which I sent to the man whom I perceived to be the internet’s top fantasy football guru: Joe Bryant.
Sean Forman knew I had been collecting data, so he started harassing me to webify it and create football-reference.com. I figured he’d stop harassing me at some point, but he never did. He even created and sent me, unsolicited, this boss logo, which would still be atop the site today were it not for an unfortunate incident that I suppose I’ll have to mention at some point in this story:
Eventually, it became clear to even me that the baseball-reference concept was catching on. So I decided to take Sean’s advice and create football-reference.com. I think it launched in December of 2000. At the time, I wrote the following words, which used to be appear at the sites "about" page, and which are no less true now.
Isn’t this just a cheap knock-off of baseball-reference.com?
I’m proud to say that it is. For those of you not in the know, baseball-reference.com delivers a truly staggering amount of baseball information in a very clean and efficient way. The key is the way that it links. George Brett’s page is linked to the team page for the 1980 Royals (as well as every other team he played on), which links to the 1980 standings and league stats and also to a list of gold-glove winners in 1980 and to the Royals’ franchise history, and so on. This allows you to easily go wherever your mind takes you. I’ve attempted to copy this format as much as possible. Every bit of text that can be a link is a link, so you can jump around easily.
But this isn’t as good as baseball-reference.com, is it?
No, it’s not. There are two reasons for this.
1. Baseball-reference.com’s creator Sean Forman is a much much more talented web designer and programmer than I am.
2. The database that powers baseball-reference was already there and freely available at baseball1.com. For football statistics there is no such database. So what Sean did was to organize existing data while I’m trying to pull the data together and then organize it.
As a meaningless aside, it’s interesting that I used George Brett as an example. This is what George Brett himself now says about baseball-reference.com:
“I was going to go to the gym. Now I can’t stop looking at this site. It’s amazing!”
Earlier, I told you that my parents were not sports fans but were tolerant — even supportive — of my sports mania. The same has always been true of my wife. As near as I can tell, she thought the whole thing was cute in a being-an-over-the-top-dork-is-part-of-his-charm sort of way. But websites cost money to run, and we did not at the time have money to throw away in the name of a bunch of like-minded weirdos being appreciative of the work I had done. I needed a benefactor.
So I emailed Joe Bryant, who had just launched his own fantasy football information site, then called cheatsheets.net, now co-owned with David Dodds and called footballguys.com. I had written several articles for cheatsheets.net at that point, so I asked him if he’d pony up my hosting fees, which were probably a couple hundred dollars a year at the time, in exchange for a link on every page of the site. He agreed. Those links are still there, not because p-f-r still needs subsidization, but because of my continued affiliation with footballguys.com and my continued belief that it is the best source of fantasy football information anywhere.
Except for a few odds and ends, that’s the history. That’s how p-f-r came to be, and why it has always been unofficially affiliated — very proudly so — with both baseball-reference.com and footballguys.com. The odds and ends are:
In 2003, a choice bit of dopery by me resulted in the loss of the domain name football-reference.com. That’s when the site became pro-football-reference.com.
In March of 2006, I started this blog. Much in the same way Forman kept badgering me to create the site itself, my good buddy J.C. Bradbury (of sabernomics and Baseball Economist fame) continually pestered me to start a blog. Just as I now appreciate Forman’s persistence, I appreciate J.C.’s. Blogging is writing, and writing is Good For You in ways that, somewhat ironically, aren’t easy to articulate. Possibly more importantly, the blog has kept Chase off the street.
Before I get to the future, I should also mention that at some point (I think 2004), Justin Kubatko created basketball-reference.com, which has turned into an absolutely terrific site in the same spirit as baseball- and pro-football-reference. I’ve never met Justin, but we’ve corresponded often and I have a tremendous amount of respect for his work. In addition to his own site, he has had a lot of influence, direct and indirect, on baseball-ref and p-f-r during the last few years.
It’s worth noting, for the sake of trivia, that Sean, Justin, and I all have graduate degrees in mathematics. More specifically, mine is in math, Sean’s is in applied math, and Justin’s is in statistics. The fact that the sports-reference sites are run by a mathematician, a different kind of mathematician, and a statistician has been a source of far more glee to me than it should be. I have suggested that we should be called The Three Musketeers, and if you got that reference, you are as big a nerd as I am. But don’t worry. As far as I know, no one ever has ever gotten the reference. (If you’re curious, scroll about a third of the way down on this page.)
The future of pro-football-reference.com
The web has changed a lot since December 2000, but pro-football-reference.com really hasn’t. The fact that its general philosophy and its look have remained essentially the same is part of its charm to many, including me. But the business model — one guy with a demanding real-life job and a family, working on it whenever he can carve out some spare time — isn’t tenable. Since my family and my job aren’t going to be changing (nor do I want them to), something else must.
I used to joke that the great thing about p-f-r was that I could drop dead and users of the site wouldn’t even notice. I used to tell myself that I didn’t care if someone came along and created a much better historical football stat site. After all, my initial goal was to get the data out there; if someone else did it, the goal still would have been accomplished. But I have to admit now that I don’t want that. I want p-f-r to be the place where everyone goes for football data new and old. I want it to be the first result in all search engines whether you type in Barry Sanders or Bobby Riley. And I wasn’t making progress toward those goals. And, more importantly, I didn’t have the resources — time being the most crucial resource — necessary to make progress toward those goals at any point in the foreseeable future.
So, when Sean approached Justin and I about merging baseball-reference, pro-football-reference, and basketball-reference into a single entity, it was an easy decision for me. So pro-football-reference is no longer owned by me. Rather than being its own thing, it’s now a branch of sports-reference. Rather than being one man’s hobby, which it always has been, it’s now a part of an honest-to-goodness business. But here’s the important part: it’s not part of SuperGlobalHyperMegaNet Corp. It’s part of a business that is owned, managed, and run by a very small number of people who love sports data just as much as you do. And that’s who the “we” is: besides me, it’s Sean Forman and Justin Kubatko, both of whom work full time for sports-reference. Although I did a lot of the preliminary prep work to get the data organized, it’s Sean and Justin who have actually been creating the new p-f-r pages you’ve been enjoying.
So what does all this mean for you? It means that p-f-r can start leveraging the economies of scale and scope that come from being part of a bigger entity. I hope that you can already see some big benefits coming from this merger. And I hope you’ll believe that there are many more to come.
From my standpoint, the best part is that p-f-r can still, for the most part, be “my site.” I’ll still blog right here. I’ll still answer emails from people whose uncles lied to them about having been NFL players. And if I am moved to add a bit of data, or to create a new set of pages, I’ll still be able to do that, just as I always have. But if I don’t have time to get it done, I’ll have someone who can help me do it.
In other words, the site will be just like it always has been, but better. And that’s because its ownership will be just like it always has been, but better.