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UI prof sees fantasy football as a science

BY BEN SCHUFF | JUNE 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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Jeff Ohlmann loves sports and doesn’t bother hiding his passion.

The Valentine, Neb., native filled his office in the Pappajohn Business Building with mini-helmets of all 32 NFL teams.

“I have a hobby of being a sports fanatic,” the 35-year-old said. “I’ve been a sports fan since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Ohlmann is in his ninth year at Iowa, and he is currently an associate professor in the business school.

His research focuses on analytical methods to improve decision-making. And now, with the help of a former student, he has created an iPhone application to help fantasy football enthusiasts improve their decision-making on draft day.

Named DraftOpt, the app gives users recommendations on which players to select, based on previous picks and individual player rankings.

“[A fantasy football draft] can be viewed essentially as a decision-making problem where who I should pick now … is dependent on who I think is going to be available later on in the draft,” Ohlmann said.

App users enter players into the program as the draft takes place. Then, when it is the user’s turn to pick, the app performs several simulations to help the user determine what player should be taken.

Ohlmann has released a similar app for fantasy baseball that launched in March, and around 200 people purchased and used it. He said he hopes to release the edition for the coming NFL season in September — assuming the league’s current lockout ends in time.

The idea for the app itself came from Matthew Gibson, a former grad student who took one of Ohlmann’s classes in the spring of 2007.

“We were trying to come up with a way to turn our research into something we could sell, and the iPhone app seemed like a nice way to put the research into action,” Gibson said. “Fantasy football is a huge market. There’s just so many people playing it and putting money into it that it seemed like a good business opportunity.”

Ohlmann also received help from Michael Fry, a business professor at the University of Cincinnati. The two met when they were in graduate school, which was when they started working on the algorithms for the app.

Together with Gibson and Fry, Ohlmann formed the company Optilytics LLC. in December 2010.
Ohlmann said fantasy football has been a part of his life for 12 years. He’s been in a league with Fry for a while, and said he enjoys the game because it allows him to stay in touch with former colleagues.

“There’s no money involved,” Fry said about their fantasy football league. “But it is still very, very competitive with a bunch of geeks.”


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