Field continues to expand for fantasy football players

With 15 million participants, businesses rushing to cater to growing demographic

Pro Football

September 27, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Lust for a man named LaDainian. Glances over your shoulder to see if the boss is staring at the mock draft on your computer screen. A surpassing interest in news reports from Charlotte (who will get those carries at tailback?).

These are some signs of fantasy football addiction.

But a word to the afflicted: Don't worry, you're part of an epidemic. Some 15 million Americans play fantasy sports and of those, more than 90 percent play fantasy football. The average fantasy player spends three hours a week and $150 a year on the game.

Big business is taking notice.

CBS, Fox and ESPN are broadcasting fantasy preview specials for the first time this year. The NFL has beefed up fantasy coverage on its network, featuring a preview show, near daily segments and a celebrity league.

"We love it," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello of fantasy football. "It's just another way for us to engage our fans."

On the Web, CBSSportsline.com has 3 million fantasy customers, up from 1.5 million five years ago. ESPN.com is offering a free game for the first time this year and using some of the network's front-line talent for fantasy coverage. The NFL's fantasy game is among the most prominent features on its Web site and league officials estimate that half the site's 13 million monthly users are seeking fantasy information.

Even Sports Illustrated, one-time bastion of the sporting literati, has jumped on board, pushing Lance Armstrong to the corner of its July 25 issue to tout its fantasy football preview.

And that doesn't begin to cover the array of products for the more serious player.

More than two dozen fantasy magazines, including ones from CBSSportsline, ESPN and the NFL, clutter the racks at supermarkets and bookstores. Sites like Footballguys.com offer thousands of arcane statistics and customized advice to paying customers. DirecTV is offering a "Red Zone" package that will take fans to any game in which a touchdown is about to be scored or give them the option of watching eight games at once.

"It's all good," said Greg Ambrosius, president of the 194-company Fantasy Sports Trade Association. "Growth like this helps everybody in our industry."

The average fantasy football player is 37 years old and makes about $80,000 a year, just the type of person sought by advertisers.

"They're a great demographic, and they're very passionate and avid users," said NFL director of new media Chris Russo, noting that large companies such as General Motors have lined up to endorse the league's fantasy products.

"We're able to tell our advertisers that every single customer is a paying user, so you're getting a very dedicated, high-end audience," said Steve Snyder, general manager of CBSSportsline.

Despite its booming popularity, the fantasy football industry might be approaching a crossroads. The NFL Players Association believes it's entitled to a minimum $25,000 licensing fee from every fantasy company using the names and statistics of its members. The union says fantasy football is no different than video games and sports cards, which have long required licensing fees.

Fantasy operators, meanwhile, say they're merely using information that exists in the public domain, much like newspapers. Of the 194 companies in the fantasy trade association, only 12 - mostly major ones such as ESPN.com and CBSSportsline - are licensed, Ambrosius said.

The players association has sent cease-and-desist orders to many of the unlicensed companies, but has yet to follow up with court action. The union might be waiting for a court decision in a similar dispute between Major League Baseball and CDMSports.

"It's a gray area," Ambrosius said. "There isn't that much existing law that seems to apply."

Ambrosius added that if the leagues win, "this could be a very tough time for the industry, which has been built up through a lot of small, mom and pop companies."

Baseball once reigned over the fantasy industry, but football began its ascent in the early 1990s. Fantasy experts say the game flourished because pro football is the country's most popular sport and because fantasy football is easier to play than baseball.

"It's a less intense alternative for the MTV generation," Ambrosius said. "You don't have to go 26 weeks with games every day. It's kind of a one-day gig every weekend and then you get out of it."

The statistics are simpler as well.

The most popular form of fantasy baseball features 10 statistics accumulated by a 23-man roster. To win, you might have to know the third starter on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or the speedy guy on the Detroit Tigers.

Football, meanwhile, focuses on yards and, especially, touchdowns. If you know the starting quarterbacks, receivers and running backs, you're pretty well set.

In the mid-1990s, the Internet came along, allowing players to set up cross-country leagues and to let computers do the scoring. Now, players can track their fantasy teams online while watching the real players on TV.

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