Harris students established a fantasy baseball league. Today, as their 30th Class Reunion approaches from May 3-5, the league continues to thrive as a means of maintaining their connections and offering a fun outlet to utilize their data analytical skills

Andy Geer, MPP’94, arrived at the Harris School of Public Policy from Austin, Texas. Ranjan Daniels, MPP’94, came from Atlanta. And John Kuhnen, MPP’94, originally from Wisconsin, had been living in Chicago for about three years before enrolling at Harris.

Shortly after meeting on campus, the three classmates found they shared a love for baseball. They attended a few White Sox and Cubs games. They played on a softball team that Kuhnen managed.

And they organized a fantasy baseball league comprised almost entirely of Harris students. It was an ideal recreational pursuit for graduate students immersed in a data-rich education in a passionate baseball town.

Keeping track of the stats has long been important to Andy Geer.

That was 1993. Now, thirty-one years later, the Bud Selig Tribute Band League—a reference to the former Major League Baseball commissioner and principal investor of the Milwaukee Brewers—endures as a testament to the resilience of the game, the power of friendship, and the organizational skills of Geer, who has been running it for much of those three decades.

“Being commissioner is a big thing,” Kuhnen said. “No one really wants to be that person, but if somebody is ready and motivated to organize it and reach out, that helps others to engage.”

Added Daniels: “Especially the last 15 years and with all that goes on in our lives—kids and work and different distractions—Andy’s leadership and organization has kept it together.”

‘Easy way to stay connected’

The team playing softball in 1995.

Fantasy baseball, a game in which “general managers” or “owners” “draft” hitters and pitchers for their teams’ rosters before the season and track statistics of those teams throughout the season to determine a champion, is played by anywhere from 14 million to 30 million people. The writer, editor, and baseball fan Daniel Okrent created the precursor to today’s game, Rotisserie Baseball—named for the New York restaurant where he first offered the idea to friends at lunch—in 1980. But National Baseball Hall of Fame research suggests the fantasy origins trace back more than a century earlier, to 1866 and a wooden table-top game called Sebring Parlor Base Ball, played at a club in Brooklyn, NY.

Regardless of the precise numbers of players and its origins, fantasy baseball is something of a juggernaut, generating nearly $4 billion a year in revenue from entry fees, payouts to league winners, management of digital games, advertising, and even player scouting, the Hall of Fame estimates. And its popularity is growing.

Bud Selig league participants compete for what Kuhnen called a “performance-based monetary incentive,” but that’s not a central motivator. Participants say they are motivated by a desire to stay in touch, their love of the game and the enjoyment they find in interpreting data—and maybe some bragging rights, as well.

“Once you leave graduate school at Harris, you end up going into different professions and going through different stages of life, but this is an easy way to stay connected,” Daniels said.

The league has even built strong relationships within families. Two long-time participants, one of whom is Daniels, have persuaded their sons to draft teams.

“The other dad told us that in order to prepare for the draft, he talked with his son for hours over the phone,” Daniels recalled. “He said he never would have gotten the opportunity to do that otherwise.”

Enduring as the league has been despite participants coming and going, it is quite a bit different than it was in 1993.

Ranjan Daniels at bat.

In those early days, the fantasy league commissioners and participants had to go through box scores in the newspapers and accumulate statistics to update standings, often faxing the updates. As time went on, early Selig league commissioner Todd Rosenkranz, AM’93, now the data archivist and deputy psychometrician at the UChicago Consortium on School Research, built an application to crunch the numbers, greatly speeding up the process.

Today the popularity of fantasy sports and advancements in technology provide for almost instantaneous fantasy league updates. Instead of having to get together in person to draft players, participants can use Zoom to join the meeting. Baseball statistics are ubiquitous online and accessible from mobile phones.

Bottom line: playing fantasy sports is much easier today than it was 31 years ago but, Geer noted, the tsunami of baseball analytics also makes it more difficult to compete because it can be more challenging to comb through the numbers, find the most relevant data, and interpret it correctly.

That’s where a Harris education pays off, Daniels said, only half joking.

“There’s all this noise,” he added, “and I think one of the things that the Harris experience gave us was learning what is an important statistic or relevant data and what’s noise. During our Harris experience, we got to apply some of those statistical and critical thinking skills to something we enjoy and love.”

That fundamental skill, refined over the years, serves the participants well today, Daniels said.

Trash talking occurs in some leagues, but Geer, Daniels and Kuhnen said the Bud Selig league has little to none of that…except sometimes while drafting players.

“Based on my results,” Kuhnen added modestly—he’s won the championship at least twice—“I haven’t been able to trash talk.”

Ranjan Daniels is now Senior Associate Dean, Student Recruitment and Global Outreach at Harris.

And Geer, Daniels, and Kuhnen acknowledge that claiming bragging rights ratchets up the desire to win the championship by a few notches. Geer is the dominant force in that regard, winning the league championship five of the last 10 years, “and, probably at least five before that,” said Daniels, who has won several times.

Geer, who participates in several other fantasy baseball leagues, is expected to continue his dominance this year.

“Andy is the favorite until someone knocks him off,” Daniels said.

For his part, Geer is remaining modest about his chances, although he keeps his analytical strategies close to his vest.

At the end of the season, as many participants as possible gather to watch the Major League Baseball playoffs. The league winner, whether it’s Geer or someone else, has been known to spring for pizza or drinks.

“We’ve all collectively kept the league going,” Geer said. “Teams leave and then we need to go out and recruit folks and between the three of us, we’ve been able to do that. It’s our love of baseball, sure, but as it gets harder and harder to spend time together, keeping the league going represents to each of us a way for us to stay connected.”

About Reunion Weekend

Looking for other ways to get and stay connected with other Harris alumni? Harris Reunion Weekend 2024 is taking place Friday, May 3, to Sunday, May 5, 2024. All Harris alumni are welcome to register today, and those in milestone years – like Geer, Daniels, and Kuhnen’s Class of 1994 – can learn more about their milestone celebrations.