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Inc.

Chris Nicholas

The biggest boom in the sports industry is all in your head. Or, rather in the minds of the people who came up with fantasy sports. Once a niche market for extreme sports fanatics, fantasy sports participation has grown more than 60 percent since 2007. Fantasy football alone now claims more than 32 million participants in the United States and Canada, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

Fantasy sports, whose players create rosters of real professional players and compete against teams created by other players, makes heavy use of websites, apps, games and forecasting tools. In fact, according to Ipsos market researchers, fantasy players spend $800 million annually on fantasy sports products.

Some of those products are the brainchild of Chris Nicholas, who left ESPN in 2006 to form Collinsville-based Sports Technologies, which builds sports web solutions for other companies. “At the time, there were a number of new technologies coming out that allowed for a really fast development of Web products,” says Nicholas. “It seemed like a good time to go out and try something on my own.”

Though he was no longer affiliated with ESPN, his history there was a definite plus. “What was recognizable immediately was how important the ESPN background was to fielding meetings with the NFL and Sports Illustrated,” he says. As with those clients and others, Nicholas says, Sports Technologies is actually more of a business-to-business than a direct-to-consumer company. “We’re building fantasy games and interactive features for folks like the NFL, the NHL and the NCAA,” Nicholas says over lunch at the LaSalle Market and Deli, across the street from his company’s headquarters in the former offices of the iconic Collins Company. “They take those products, put them in front of their audiences and try to either drive sponsorship or usage—things like that.”

The job doesn’t end once the product is built, however. “Ultimately, there are only so many big sports groups and leagues you can hit,” says Nicholas, “so when we’re working with these guys, it’s important for us to be super proactive with the service we provide in terms of maintaining the game throughout the season, making sure there are no errors and fixing them quickly when we find something.” And Sports Technologies not only builds and maintains the games, it plays them. “Everybody in the office has to participate in the games we deliver,” Nicholas says.

In keeping with the networking aspect of fantasy sports, almost everything Sports Technologies builds has a social media component to it. This season the company built a product for the NFL called The Perfect Challenge, which allows users to create what they think would be the top fantasy football roster for the week. “It was incredibly popular,” says Nicholas, but since the application resided on NFL.com, users would never know it was Sports Technologies that actually built it. That’s fine with Nicholas. “We’re happy to work behind the curtains,” he says.

Another demand, which has ramped up in the past year, is for a mobile access. “Almost everything we build now has an accompanying mobile version,” Nicholas says.

To date, the company has developed about 30 different products, most related to pro football, but now that football season has segued into March Madness, it’s all about the brackets. “Moms, dads, everyone is filling out a bracket,” Nicholas says. “It kind of transcends sports—it’s almost a sports pop culture kind of phenomenon.”

Sports Technologies has built a couple of different brackets, but the big score was the NCAA—Sports Technologies built its official bracket through a relationship the com pany has with Turner Sports.

Brackets can be big bucks, but Sports Technologies leaves the betting and prize fulfillment to others. “With most of the things that we build, it’s the camaraderie during the season, the bragging rights at the end for whoever wins.”

While Sports Technologies has a few competitors, many have been swallowed up by bigger companies. Nicholas is proud to still be in the game. “We’re a small company in a small town with as big a client list as you could have in this kind of business,” he says. “Apples to apples, there are very few doing exactly what we are doing.”

Rich Coppola is the sports director for Fox CT.

CHRIS NICHOLAS

TITLE: President, Sports Technologies

EDUCATION: B.A. from Dartmouth College, 1991

CAREER: From 1992 to 1993, worked at PR firm Pyramid Communications in Seattle (clients included Clinton-Gore ‘92 and Pearl Jam). In 1994, joined the Paul Allen-backed Starwave Corporation, which was the first company to develop Web-based sports fantasy games. From 1999 to 2001, he was vice president of product development at Powerful Media in New York City. Joined ESPN’s fantasy sports division in 2002. Launched Sports Technologies in 2006, and in 2007 sold the flagship product, FanNation.com, to Time Inc.