Fantasy Football for Politics; An Interview With Fantasy Politics CEO Aaron Michel

May 13, 2012

12:00 pm

I used to suffer from severe fantasy football addiction.  I still do, I just used to, too.

As someone who knows the compulsive qualities of fantasy sports first hand, there is a tendency to start seeing the world through the lens of occupational statistics. Watching Dancing with the Stars, listening to my favorite indie bands, or communicating with acquaintances on Twitter, I can’t help but wonder, “Who’s the sleeper here?”

At least now I know that I’m not alone.  Aaron Michel, CEO of Fantasy Politics, is bringing this mentality to the world of, you guessed it, politics. With the Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a couple of years working on a presidential campaign on his resume, Michel posses the unique combination of skills and experience to make this idea viable.  He is joined by Morgan P. Muchnick, VP of Business and Political Development, a former government affairs director for a DC lobbying firm and former senior staff member for US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Fantasy Sports’ CTO, George Marootian, who brings 15 years developing online equities trading platforms.

Add to this an advisory board that includes Josh Ginsberg, former political director for Arnold Schwarzenegger and former national field director for Mitt Romney, Andy Tobias, treasurer of the DNC, and Scott Fairchild, the campaign manager for Rahm Emanuel. In other words, the Fantasy Politics team is not lacking experience.

I caught up with Michel to learn more about Fantasy Politics, the difference between sports and politics, and what learning lessons he and his team have gathered in the process of building a new fantasy game.

Tech Cocktail:  What was the inspiration behind Fantasy Politics?

Aaron Michel:  There were 60 million people who voted in the 2008 primaries. 132 million people who voted in the general election. Tens of millions of people watch the cable news networks, which feature primarily political content. This is a country full of political junkies! Yet the games available to the public have to do with arbitrary things like farms. I wanted a game for people like me – people who are glued to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

I created a minimum viable product on the side in 2010, with an emphasis on “minimal.” It really was not a good product. I hired a guy to build it for $1,500. There was no fantasy element. It was just a political game. I hired a bright guy right out of college to run it. Amazingly, we got some significant press when it launched. Our user base went way up and then dropped like a rock. We had clearly done something wrong, or more accurately, a lot of things wrong.

When we asked users for feedback, they told us two things. First, there wasn’t enough to do in the game and the UX was weak. They were right on both counts. Second, when we ran ideas by them that we hoped would persuade them to come back and try the game again, they were lukewarm on all of them until we mentioned a fantasy football for politics game. Then they were jumping out of their chairs. We knew we were on to something. There were other data points supporting that type of product as well. So we set about putting together a team with deep experience in politics and fantasy sports, created a vision for a great company and set about executing against that vision.

Tech Cocktail:  Fantasy sports have much clearer metrics for what constitutes a successful performance than does politics (at least to the casual observer).  Can you speak to your process for deciding the input on your game’s statistical categories and how you weigh them?

Michel:  The scoring is the core of the game and we spent endless hours debating it. The key principles that drive the scoring are that it has to be 100% objective and it has to be automated. Secondly, we wanted the scoring to be relevant to political professionals but accessible to political novices. So we decided to focus primarily on criteria that could measure grassroots political momentum rather than legislative achievements.

The scoring ranges from conventional measures like polling data and campaign fundraising data to unconventional measures like Facebook fans and Intrade scores. You may ask why something like Facebook fans matters. Here’s why: The average politician spends a ton of money on bulk mail. That bulk mail gets to its recipients days late, so the messaging is stale, and only a tiny fraction of the recipients open it. Compare that to President Obama, who has 26 million Facebook fans. He can message them multiple times a day in real time, so his message is fresh, and it doesn’t cost him a cent.

Washington is just starting to catch on to this. Secondly, if a politician’s Facebook fans rises or drops significantly on a day- to-day basis, it means there’s something interesting happening. We capture that information, and we’re aggregating a wide range of other data that no one else is looking at yet. It’s like RealClearPolitics on steroids.

Tech Cocktail: How do you plan on monetizing Fantasy Politics?

Michel: We can monetize Fantasy Politics in four ways.

First, premium league sales – users pay to play in a national competition for cash and prizes. ESPN, Yahoo and CBS have proven that even when they offer a free fantasy game, a huge percentage of their users are willing to pay to participate in national competitions.

Second, we’ll soon be upselling enhanced data and tips to game players to give them a leg up in the game.

Third is, of course, advertising – both traditional and innovative. These first three sources of revenue are based on tried and true methods of generating revenue in conventional fantasy sports games.

Last of all, we’re selling scoring data – but not user data – to the media and to political campaigns.

Tech Cocktail: What early lessons have you learned while building Fantasy Politics?

Michel: The process of going from a minimum viable product to a great product has taught us quite a bit about what our users want.

First, simplicity and ease of use is important, while still making the game sufficiently challenging that political junkies will want to return over and over. Second, that DC moves at a slower speed than we do. A major player in DC actually told us that he expected a second iteration of any software or game would take a couple years to release! He was shocked to learn that we’re enhancing the site by leaps and bounds every week. Third, that while we want people to get a fantastic civic education from the game, the most important thing by far is to make it incredibly fun and addictive so that our gamers want to keep coming back.

Addictive, good –  Michel gets fantasy.  Try your hand at Fantasy Politics today.  

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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