Sunday, October 12, 2003

Fantasy Football


With more that 13 million people playing, businesses are looking to cash in

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Karen Fehr, of Reading, tosses a football with a co-worker at the Harmony Court Nursing Home in Roselawn.
(Leigh Patton photo)
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KENWOOD - Sitting in front of a big screen showing three pro football games at a sports bar here, Jon Horvath sips his beer and counts up the money.

"Between all the side bets and guides and league fees, I probably spend about $1,000 a year on fantasy football," says Horvath, a stockbroker from Montgomery. "It is getting into big money, especially since I lose a lot of bets and should be doing more of my homework."

That money is nothing compared with the tens of millions at stake for such big names as ESPN, the National Football League, national television networks and satellite providers such as CBS, Fox and DirecTV; corporate sponsors such as Visa and Coors, publishing companies and even local bar owners and software designers.

With more than 13 million people playing the game of fantasy football, including many women, businesses are looking to cash in on this growing phenomenon.

More and more fantasy football Web sites are charging to host games and provide expert advice. The number of preseason advice magazines has doubled, and more attention is being paid to it on national television.

Fantasy football has come a long way.

HOW TO PLAY
Leagues generally have anywhere from eight to 12 "owners." Those owners gather at the beginning of the season and "draft" players. Some drafts are held with owners either picking out of a hat or using last year's standings to determine the order. Others are held as an auction, where players have a set amount to spend and bid on certain players.

Teams generally consist of quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker, defense and special team, although the last two categories are sometimes combined. Starters and backups are drafted at each position. Starting lineups usually include one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, and one each in the other categories. A team then goes up against another team each week.

Each weekend, players accumulate points based on statistical performance. Won-loss standings are kept, and there is usually a playoff round in the final two to three weeks of the regular season to determine the league champion.

"Since 1998-1999, we've probably seen the number of people playing fantasy football double, with all that growth attributable to the Internet," says Greg Ambrosius, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, a group of fantasy sports Web sites and publishers based in Iola, Wisc.

"There is definitely money being generated by this and it will only get bigger and bigger," says Ambrosius, also the editor of Fantasy Sports Magazine. "It costs money to do this right, and so it will cost the consumer some money as well. Plus this is a profit opportunity."

Fantasy football is a derivative of rotisserie baseball. Players "draft" individual NFL stars at different positions, and then keep track of their statistical performance.

But unlike rotisserie baseball, each "team" of players goes up against another team each week.

The team with the most points wins the head-to-head competition, often cited as one of the most appealing aspects of the game and leading to much office trash talking.

Standings are kept in leagues, most of which have entry fees; winners get some share of the pot at the end of the season.

'Getting more mainstream'

More than 15 million Americans play fantasy sports, according to a survey this spring by the trade association, and 90 percent play fantasy football. The Enquirer's syndicated fantasy football advice columnist, John Nemo, reports that of the 10 markets he serves, he gets more e-mail from Greater Cincinnati than anywhere, including football hotbeds Green Bay and Minneapolis.

The survey also said fantasy football players spend about $154 annually on the game. They spend an average of $98 on entry fees, with the rest going to preseason advice guides, Web site subscriptions and the like.

In the past year, many such Web sites have gone to a pay-to-play model by charging to host games and track statistics and for offering access to expert advice, following the precedent set last year by CBS' SportsLine.com.

Most Web sites, including those of ESPN and the NFL, offer a few free columns weekly, and other sites, most notably Yahoo.com, offer free games.

But ESPN.com also offers expanded league hosting, stats, and advice for a price that ranges from just under $30 for an individual team for about $100 for a league.

Company officials won't give specifics, but say that revenue has already doubled expectations just five games into the 2003 season.

"About 20 percent of all our traffic is solely for fantasy," says ESPN.com vice president and general manager John Kosner. "We just see that fantasy is getting more and more mainstream and that the 20 percent is getting bigger and bigger."

The NFL also has begun charging about $10 a month or $35 a season for advice and features on its own site. NFL.com also hosts leagues and runs its own game. Its Fantasy Extra product offers several advice columns a week, a personalized video highlight reel of players each week and updated stats.

League officials say that the proceeds are divided among all 28 teams, much like television revenue. They stress that while they know money is riding on fantasy games, they view it as a game of skill and not gambling.

"This is a great opportunity to get people more excited about the game, to watch more games on TV, and to generate a separate revenue stream," says the NFL's senior vice president for new media and publishing Chris Russo, who declined to provide subscription rates or revenue generated to date.

The NFL site's main fantasy expert, veteran league personnel manager Gil Brandt, says he can't believe the amount of attention the game is getting, and how much more interest it has created in pro football.

"I'll be sitting in an airport and hear two women talking about their fantasy leagues, and I'll always get questions on the road about it," says Brandt, who was the personnel manager for the Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1970s and early 1980s. "I feel as much pressure to get my picks and information right for this than I did for when I was in football."

Changing how we watch

Still, there are some who love the game, but are unwilling to part with any more money than their fantasy league fees. Karen Fehr, a medical records coordinator from Reading, runs a team with her son-in-law, Leon Jasper, in competition against her husband, Ken, who also runs the league.

"I love it, and it has made me learn a lot more about football," says Fehr, who adds that she has been playing for seven years and pays about $120-150 a year in league fees but not much else. "Sometimes it is a war in this house. But while I used to go and buy the magazines, that stuff is all available on the Internet for free."

But companies are hoping she is the exception, with the phenomenon carrying over into the actual coverage of the game.

ESPN, CBS and Fox have all begun including periodic fantasy updates at the bottom of the TV screen during games, giving the stats of other star players in other games.

"And I get the feeling that we could give even more than we do," says Jay Rothman, senior coordinating producer of ESPN's coverage of Sunday Night Football.

Officials with DirecTV, which offers all the Sunday games via satellite for $199 for the season, won't say that specifically that fantasy has driven up its subscription rates. But the network has begun offering enhanced coverage on four games a week, with fantasy stats being broadcast constantly on the side of the game coverage.

Cashing in here

The impact even has trickled down to the local level. Restaurant and bar owners reporting that while Sundays were always good for big business, more people may be coming in earlier or staying longer to keep track of fantasy players.

"And in the preseason, we had a lot of parties coming in for their drafts," says Brad Orr, who owns three Willie's Sports Cafes in the area, including the one in Kenwood. "It's hard to put a quantitative value on it, but I would think there definitely has been a financial impact."

Software designer Steve Drew of Queensgate-based StatsWorld.com has also just jumped into the pay Web service this year, after six years of selling separate league manager software that generates humorous "sports pages" giving fictional accounts of each game.

"We think we can go up against the big guys, because this is about word of mouth and we have something in the sports page that no one else has," says Drew, president of the company.

West Chester radiologist Skip Sulek says in addition to the various league fees, which include $5 a week for whoever loses their game, he subscribes to an online service for about $25 for the season and buys at least two magazines a year.

"You love it and you hate it, but it is so much fun and you want to beat the other guys so bad," says Sulek. "And because of that, I would say that about half the guys in our league pay to get advice.

"I only got hooked on this to keep following football after the Bengals would tank in October. It just got painful to follow them, and now I do this instead," Sulek says.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com



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