Wall Street Journal Feature
In an otherwise nondescript industrial complex in Erie, Pa., one of fantasy football's key cogs sat locked behind a steel garage door this week.
Jeff Peters, a retired corrugated salesman (corrugated is a sturdy, fluted paper product similar to cardboard) guided the warehouse's pushcart toward his warehouse space. He climbed over the cart, undid the locks, opened the garage door and, for a moment, admired the stacks of product: draft boards.
While the fantasy sports industry has become almost wholly Internet-based, something tangible and analog like a corrugated draft board made in Erie sounds out of place, even vestigial. But the orders increase every year, and every Aug. 1, no matter the day of the week, the phone starts ringing off the hook in the Peters household.
Six years ago, while still working his sales job, Mr. Peters was struck with an epiphany: Why not use a big piece of corrugated as a draft board for his Erie Couch Potato Baseball League? For years, the league had been using an easel to record picks. Most members couldn't see the names; others grew frustrated by the board's flimsiness.
"So I asked my wife to design a board," he says.
After seeing its success at his draft, Mr. Peters brought the four-by-five-foot board home and brainstormed with his wife, Pam, about how they might sell it to the public. He decided that he would test the market for the 2002 football season, operating as FJ Fantasy (FJ is the phonetic pig Latin spelling of Mr. Peters's first name), designing a Web site and waiting by the phone for customers.
FJ Fantasy sold 15 boards.
In its second go-round, March 2003, FJ Fantasy sold over 1,000 draft boards for fantasy baseball season after investing in some advertising.
Soon, the corrugated boards began to take over the Peters's household. It started in the basement and quickly spread to the three-car garage. Both would be filled with boards in the weeks leading up to football and baseball seasons. Mr. Peters found himself returning from work each day with up to 150 draft boards in the back of his Ford Explorer to be sent out the next afternoon. By 2006 he had to rent warehouse space because his home could no longer support the demands of fantasy enthusiasts. He had the boards delivered to the warehouse en masse by a semi truck to ease the burden on his SUV.
One year later, after 40 years selling corrugated, Mr. Peters walked away to enter the fantasy business full-time.
Mr. Peters keeps producing draft boards at the age of 60 because he still finds it fun. And he gets to work with his family. For the six years the Peters clan has been in business, the only employees of FJ Fantasy have been the husband-and-wife team and the occasional pitch-in from their daughter, Lynn.
"Lynn's actually become the face of the company," Mr. Peters says.
This promotional shot featuring Lynn Peters got her recognized by fantasy nuts at her college.
Several callers to the house who visited the FJ Fantasy Web site have asked after the woman posing next to the boards, whose expressions in the photos range from, "You should definitely buy this," to "I think we've taken enough pictures now, Dad." One league commissioner wrote a letter professing his love for her. And Mr. Peters says that when she was in college, his daughter achieved a level of minor celebrity.
"Her friends who played fantasy recognized her as the girl in the ads," he says. "They'd come up with the magazine and say, 'You're the fantasy draft board girl!' And she actually dug it!"
Lynn's mother, on the other hand, insists that she has had her fill.
"We don't get out of the house in the month of August," Mrs. Peters says, adding that they make one big grocery store trip before all the mayhem begins and regularly stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. for three weeks in August, only to rise again at the crack of dawn to take more orders. "I don't think Jeff and I know how to relax," she adds. In fact, Mrs. Peters isn't sure she wants to work again when next fantasy football season rolls around.
"But she says every year that she's not doing it again," Mr. Peters explains.
In one recent day, Mr. Peters mailed his boards to places like Encino, Calif., Toledo, Ohio, and Seattle. He has shipped to multiple countries and has supplied free boards for soldiers serving in Iraq. He estimates that he has mailed about 175 boards per day since the beginning of August for a total of close to 8,000 shipped since orders started in mid-summer, and wearily explains how he has slept no more than five hours since the end of July.
But the perks are pretty cool. FJ Fantasy's boards will be used at the major fantasy tournaments -- the National Fantasy Football Championships and the World Championship of Fantasy Football. No fewer than two major league ballplayers have personally called the house to order boards. This season, Mr. Peters shipped a board to Camden Yards so the Boston Red Sox, on the road in Baltimore, could run their fantasy football draft using an FJ Fantasy board.
With such a booming business, one would think that Mr. Peters would be looking to grow FJ Fantasy any way he could. This couldn't be farther from the truth.
"It's gotten big enough," he explains, adding that if it gets any larger, he and his wife will have to hire more people to help run the company, and it's just something he doesn't want to do. He points to Miles Austin, a little-known Dallas Cowboys wide receiver currently rehabbing a knee injury, as an example of how expansion could compromise the company.
The player labels the company prints to accompany the boards are printed alphabetically. After printing out 500 sets of labels, Mr. Peters noticed something amiss: "Austin, Miles" mistakenly read "Miles, Austin" right on the top sheet of stickers.
"We don't like to let stuff like that go," Mr. Peters says. So he and his wife threw the mistakes in the trash and printed out 500 corrected sheets, a process that cost them three hours during the fantasy football rush this season.
"And I guarantee," Mr. Peters laughs, "that he doesn't get taken in one draft."