Teague Orgeman started a fantasy football league with some teenage friends 23 years ago and has kept up a biweekly newsletter for it ever since, writings that, he estimates, rival the Harry Potter series in volume.
So it was a surprise to his soccer-playing wife and his soccer-loving boss a couple of years ago when he proposed a business around fantasy soccer. Orgeman, now 37, at the time was a partner in the Minneapolis office of Stoel Rives, a Portland, Ore.-based law firm that is one of the nation’s largest. His job, reached after more than a decade of law school and hard work, was not one from which most people would walk away.
But after two decades immersed in a hobby that today attracts 30 million Americans, drives strategic decisions at the NFL and even shaped a seating section in U.S. Bank Stadium, Orgeman realized the same thing could happen to soccer on a global level — and that someone needed to build some technology for it.
“The question I had was why isn’t there a dominant global platform for fantasy soccer?” Orgeman said. “It’s the perfect fantasy game. It has just enough on the statistical side that people can understand. It’s an extremely visual sport. The action is always ongoing. And when you watch a match, you know it’s only a two-hour time commitment.”
In fall 2016, Orgeman, his wife and some friends started creating an app that would let soccer fans pick their teams, collect points, play against friends or people across the world. Named Starting 11 because that’s the number of players on the field at one time, the app rolled out for the first time at the start of the English Premier League season last August and attracted tens of thousands of users in the United Kingdom.
The company, also called Starting 11, last fall won the high-tech division in the Minnesota Cup business competition.
The company and app are now having a second big marketing moment with the 2018 World Cup. Throughout the monthlong tournament, people in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and Germany can play fantasy soccer using World Cup players with the Starting 11 app on Android or iOS devices. In the U.K., where the company has been licensed by the U.K. Gambling Commission, players can run betting pools with their fantasy teams.
In contrast to most fantasy sports — in which competitors create a team and judge performance based on the real-world experience of their players over a season’s length of games — the Starting 11 app is a one-day experience. Users pick their players for the day and the outcome is determined by how those players perform in the games of that day.
Users also can make three substitutions during the day, just like the manager of a soccer team, a capability that distinguishes Starting 11 from other fantasy apps. Starting 11 is in step with how the major European gambling houses offer chances to bet during a game, giving people chance to bet based on action that has already happened.
“The market has moved to the point where in-game engagement is the next wave,” Orgeman said. “Soccer is so fluid and so dynamic that a 0-0 game has a completely different feel than a 1-0 game. You ought to be able to engage and actively participate.”
Scoring in the Starting 11 app is determined by how players rate on 12 performance measurements, with scoring a goal the most important.
That was the company’s own creation. “There’s no universal fantasy soccer scoring structure,” Orgeman said.
Starting 11, which now has an office in the BetaMN portion of the WeWork co-working space in downtown Minneapolis, is one of the latest entrants in a thriving niche of the Twin Cities tech scene — sports analytics.
The region is home to SportsEngine, an app-based provider of data services to youth sports leagues that is now owned by NBC Sports; Sportradar, one of the leading providers of game data to media; FanMaker, a developer of customer loyalty programs for college and pro teams; and Player’s Health, a tracker of player injuries.
Alex Ryan, chief technology officer at Starting 11, this spring co-chaired a sports analytics conference that drew hundreds of participants.
While Starting 11 generates revenue from a small portion of the betting pools, Orgeman suggested the long-term opportunity is in helping soccer leagues build connections with fans.
“What we really are is an engagement driver for leagues,” he said. “We provide a way to encourage people to actively participate in the matches that they’re watching.”
The company raised $300,000 in an initial funding round and expects to close a second round soon.
Orgeman’s wife, Amanda Heyman, an attorney with her own boutique firm that mainly worked with food entrepreneurs, took the first step at Starting 11 by getting a trademark. “I played soccer for 20 years,” she said. “He is an American football person, but I am a soccer person. So that was a point in his favor.”
A former journalist with keen interest in startups, Heyman stepped away from her law firm to work full-time on Starting 11. She and Orgeman ferreted through rapidly changing regulations in various countries and states after two U.S. firms, FanDuel and DraftKings, grabbed attention, consumers and controversy with a marketing splash in 2016.
“All the people who were coming along in their wake sort of backed off,” Heyman said. “But we did not need to back off because we understood what was going on.”
Early last year, she suggested to Orgeman that he quit his job and become full-time CEO. That was the moment the couple checked their belief in the business. “You wouldn’t agree to let your husband leave his law-firm job unless you thought it was a good idea,” she said. “Our whole family is on the line.”
Orgeman said he was “at a great firm with great cases and really good lawyers.” Then he added: “It was the right move because the opportunity is so great. You can’t half-do this.”
Orgeman’s boss at Stoel Rives, Robert Kukuljan, who grew up following European soccer, said he was sorry to lose “a great lawyer” and that the departure of a partner is exceptional. “We’re very, very proud of what he has done an alum of the firm,” Kukuljan said. “That was his conviction. Some people might be different. He acted on his conviction and you can’t help but admire that.”
After the World Cup, Starting 11 will update its app for play during the Premier League season this August. Orgeman said the firm is looking at the Champions League next, with Germany’s Bundesliga and Mexico’s Liga MX in sight. Major League Soccer in the U.S. is down the road.
“We decided to get this right for one league and then take that and export it to other leagues,” he said.
As for the couple’s own gamble, Heyman said: “Even if we get to year five and we decide to sell it or decide it doesn’t work out, it’s not like we’re back at zero. We’ll have whole new skills and a whole new network and can figure out what to do from there. It’s sort of a no-lose situation.”