Sports

Fantasy football frenzy

By CASEY OLSON

The Mirror

The National Football League season officially kicks off Sept. 9 with a rematch of the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

But for tons of football fans across Federal Way and the country, things actually have been underway for a while now. The craze that is fantasy football is making NFL general managers out of construction workers and office secretaries.

“It’s just fun,” said longtime Federal Way resident and Boeing employee Jim Dean, who has been playing fantasy football for 12 years. “It’s basically 17 weeks of entertainment.”

The past couple weeks, fantasy fanatics have been surrounded by stacks of magazines and spent hours in front of computer screens preparing for their upcoming drafts.

Will it be Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson or Clinton Portis with the first pick? Where does Matt Hasselbeck go? What about Willis McGahee in Buffalo?

This is the time they anticipate all year long.

“Fantasy football is so entertaining because for once in your life you are the president, C.E.O. and chief architect of your own company,” said Lance Giles, who works in communications at Microsoft’s Issaquah campus. “Even if the total cost of the organization is $100, the choices you make for a five-month period could net you a 1,000 percent profit.”

Dean and Giles are among the millions of fantasy football afficionados who have created a huge niche market in the overall landscape of the sports industry.

In the past they were called nerds, oddballs or just plain weird. But now fantasy football geeks have become the norm, and there’s no denying their economic impact in the United States.

About 12 million people across the country play fantasy football, with each one of them shelling out well over $100 a year on league fees, Internet Web site access and other miscellaneous costs.

And when it’s all said and done, the fantasy football industry is expected to generate close to $2 billion during the 2004-05 season — a number that doesn’t include the money shelled out at local bars on drinks and food on game days or the increase in revenue television companies are receiving from subscribers to things like Direct TV’s Sunday NFL Ticket, which shows every game during the course of the season.

“Sundays for us are really productive,” said Ron Zaffino, the owner of the Scoreboard Pub in Federal Way. “I would say between 30 and 40 percent of our business on Sundays are people coming in here with their notebooks and papers, following their fantasy teams.”

Sportsline.com runs the largest fantasy league paid-subscription business, according to comScore Media Metrix, a Chicago-based Internet audience measurement service. Based in Fort Lauderdale, Sportsline.com claims 1 million subscribers, and had its fantasy football revenues increase 36 percent last year to $12 million.

While Sportsline.com maintains the largest paid-subscription site, Yahoo.com, with 3 million users, features the industry’s largest number of players.

The difference is that Yahoo’s basic fantasy game is free. Sportsline.com’s packages start at $14.95 per team and can reach $499.95 per team for the “Fantasy Football Diamond” package.

“The Internet has really made it crazy,” Zaffino said. “But it’s really cool. We have league’s that have been meeting in here and do their drafts for years.”

The premise of fantasy football is simple. Team owners draft real NFL players, make weekly lineups, then get points for how their players do during the actual games.

Owners go head-to-head throughout the season, culminating in the playoffs and a fantasy Super Bowl. While most leagues offer monetary payouts to the champion and other top finishers, any fantasy league participant will say the bragging rights are where it’s at.

“I would say I spend two to three hours a week minimum on my fantasy football Web site,” Giles said. “And most of the time is spent trash-talking about the performance of my team. It’s almost like a real life game of poker.”

Fantasy football stemmed from the ideas of Wilfred Winkenbach. In the late 1950s, he had developed the first fantasy sport, golf, in which each participant would draft a team of professional golfers and the lowest combined score at the end of a tournament would win. He then applied this concept to baseball, using home-run hitters and pitching statistics.

By 1962, Winkenbach, who owned part of the Oakland Raiders, presented his idea for fantasy football to two writers for the Oakland Tribune in a Manhattan hotel. The three quickly formed an eight-team league, based on the point system they came up with that night: 10 points for an extra point, 25 points for a passing touchdown, 25 points for a touchdown reception, 25 points for a field goal, and 200 points for a punt, kickoff, or interception returned for a touchdown.

The early years involved few leagues, but serious players. Many of the participants stopped playing because it was too strenuous looking through statistics every week and remembering to call in with their starting rosters.

Things are a lot different nowadays thanks, in large part, to the Internet.

Fantasy football Web sites, like Yahoo, Sportsline and ESPN.com, now offer real-time updates, strategies and opinions on who to start and who to bench and a click of the mouse will change your lineup. ESPN is also conducting a fantasy football pay-per-view event next Saturday. For $19.95, players will get analysis from ESPN’s top football talent.

“That’s the biggest difference I’ve seen in my years of playing,” said Dean, who will compete in two leagues for sure, and maybe three, about the Internet. “There is now such an availability of leagues. There’s online leagues and you can just look in the paper to join other leagues.

“It’s big business now. I can’t believe how fast it’s grown.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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