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Micro Fantasy startup seeks a home run

Northeast Ohio

Joel Crites’ big business idea occurred when he took his then-16-year-old son to a Cleveland Indians game two years ago.

Koby Crites was bored and wanted to leave early. Desperate, his dad brought in a pinch-hitter, so to speak.

“I said, ‘Let’s play a game,’ ” Joel said. “You predict what happens next, and so will I. Whoever gets it right, gets a point.’ ”

The elder Crites won 9-7. “More importantly, I felt like I struck gold because I actually had a good time at a game with my son,” he said.

On that September day, Micro Fantasy was born.

The startup has developed software that allows users to predict which plays will happen in a baseball, basketball or football game. Outcomes that have a low probability, such as a triple in baseball, are worth more points than those that are much more common (a single or groundout, for example).

Micro Fantasy hasn’t made a dime yet. Crites is running the games at baseball parks and sports bars free of charge, with the hope that once it’s proven that the game works and users enjoy it, sponsorships and revenue will come.

The company — which Crites, an accounting department manager, runs in his free time — landed a $25,000 grant from the Innovation Fund. It’s also gaining steam in minor league and independent baseball, which are the levels, and sport, at which Crites believes the potential is highest.

“It’s hard enough for serious fans, but simple enough for non-sports fans,” said Crites, a North Canton Hoover High School graduate with a pair of master’s degrees from Kent State. “We’ve had people win our games, and halfway through they’re asking us, ‘What’s a flyout?’ ”

How it works

Micro Fantasy’s technology is web-based, but the company has free apps for Android and iPhone users.

Users competing in a baseball contest, which lasts three innings, choose one of 10 options prior to an at-bat, and each result generates points for players who have the correct selections. Standings are kept, and the winners receive a small prize (a $10 MLB.com gift card, for example).

There are no entry fees, which allows younger kids to play and eliminates other legal concerns. (“The original demographic was my children,” Crites said.)

The game is also free because the revenue model is based on a venue and team attracting a sponsor for in-park Micro Fantasy contests, or an organization paying for the company’s services based on the contest generating customers.

“It can be a fan engagement and promotional tool to attract the attention of fans,” Crites said. “You can keep them in their seat longer because they have an engaging act.”

During its contests, Micro Fantasy collects “a lot of unique data on fan behavior,” which teams, as the company gains more users, could then purchase from Crites.

“We got to the point where it was running and working,” Crites said. “Everybody seems to love it. Now the question is how to distribute it on a business basis.”

Baseball teams show interest

Micro Fantasy’s first football contest went live last November. Crites received permission from several owners of sports bars, including select Buffalo Wild Wings and Winking Lizard locations, and two Jerzee’s Sports Grilles, to hold games at their locations.

By January, seven to nine sports bars were running contests during NFL games. As the games were going on, Crites had a friend running the contests by inputting the result of each play from her home in Shaker Heights.

“It’s not unlike trivia,” Crites said. “It becomes a draw for a sports bar.”

Still, the biggest opportunity, Crites believes, is in baseball.

The Akron RubberDucks, a Double-A affiliate of the Indians, ran a three-game Micro Fantasy pilot at the end of May. The RubberDucks allowed Crites and his team (which basically consists of his family and friends) to distribute fliers promoting the company throughout the ballpark.

In mid-July, Micro Fantasy got its big break, when the Lake County Captains, the Tribe’s full-season Class A affiliate, allowed the startup to hold in-park contests. That weekend, the average user played for 30 minutes, “proving minor league baseball is the right market for our product,” Crites said.

The Captains then agreed to run Micro Fantasy contests at Classic Park throughout the remainder of the 2016 season.

Neil Stein, the club’s general manager, said the Captains get a lot of requests from local companies that want to use them as a testing ground for their products.

“There’s no money involved in the short term because he’s trying to get it off the ground, so we don’t mind being a guinea pig, if you will,” Stein said.

The Captains’ GM said it’s “way too early” to know if Micro Fantasy will return to Classic Park in 2017, because he’s not certain if it’s a product the team can sell to sponsors.

But he believes Micro Fantasy has potential. The company’s future will depend “on the team and market, and what their fan base is,” Stein said.

Crites has since secured deals with the Lake Erie Crushers, an independent pro team based in Avon, and National Pro Fastpitch, a women’s professional softball league based in Hermitage, Tenn. The latter allowed Micro Fantasy to run contests during its championship series in Alabama from Aug. 19-23. Micro Fantasy contests were also held during the Eastern League All-Star Game in Akron on July 13.

A key for Micro Fantasy, Crites said, is finding partnerships that will allow the company to use API feeds, which power the real-time results for sporting events. Doing so would eliminate the need for Crites or one of his interns — who is paid $20 or $30 to input the result of each play of a Captains game, for example — to be at every ballpark in which a Micro Fantasy contest is held.

The Crushers gave Crites permission to use their API feed from Pointstreak, a Canadian company that provides real-time stats software.

“Once we have that automation built and proven, I can then effectively market the product to the 405 other baseball teams nationwide that Poinstreak serves, including independent leagues and summer baseball leagues,” Crites said.

And he’s doing all this with a full-time job and four kids between the ages of 8 and 18. His wife, Shannon, is “the hero holding down the fort” at their home in Brecksville so Crites can pursue his dream.

It’s one that started because his oldest son didn’t want to stay at a Tribe game.

“I’m trying to deliver that fun experience to others now,” Crites said.

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