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Staying in

In fantasy football's grip

August 28, 2003|Steve Baltin | Special to The Times

A homeowner refuses to get up from his computer to answer the door for neighbors. A band manager talks sports on his two-way radio while his clients visit a radio station. An employee risks reprimand to sneak peeks at during the workday. A man ignores family, friends and even beer to focus on a game between the lowly Detroit Lions and the lowlier Cincinnati Bengals.

If someone close to you is distracted, checks e-mail every 35 seconds, or watches preseason games when the score is 47-0, do not panic: That person has the fantasy football bug. It strikes every August, usually beginning with a player draft, where seasons are made, dynasties established and devotees exchange trash talk that would make Eminem blush.

Throughout America, you're liable to hear conversations like this:

"Ladanian Tomlinson over Ricky Williams. Are you crazy?"

"Your mama."

And it degenerates from there.

While the banter can get personal, it's all in fun. The NFL, which estimates that as many as 10 million Americans will participate in the game this year (a recent story on Sports Illustrated's Web site put the number closer to 30 million), believes the pastime is a great community-builder.

Brendan Schaaf, an accountant in suburban Minneapolis who doubles as the owner of multiple fantasy football Web sites, concurs with the NFL's assertion the pastime helps maintain relationships. "I would have certainly lost touch with most of the guys in my league were it not for fantasy football because none of us work together these days," he says.

The object of the game is to select a "team" of NFL players -- often consisting of a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end and a kicker -- that compiles better statistics than one's counterparts. Points are awarded for yardage, touchdowns, field goals and turnovers.

Enthusiasts are lured by the spirit of competition. Russ Knight of Tulsa, Okla., a veteran player, says: "What's the appeal? Competition. You play against people, make trades, talk trash and get to know how people operate."

Another huge factor in the pastime's soaring growth -- started offering its fantasy game online three years ago and saw the number of participants rise from 300,000 to 1.8 million -- is the advent of the Internet.

Depending on which history of the game you read, fantasy football started in the '60s or '70s as a game between friends and grew via word of mouth. Then the Internet made it easier to track stats, join leagues and interact with fellow owners.

Says Chris Russo, the NFL's vice president for new media: "I believe the NFL and other major companies and brands getting involved with fantasy football, promoting them, talking about them providing content related to fantasy, helped make fantasy football more mainstream, as opposed to just a small core fan base."

Most leagues require a small buy-in -- making the game the equivalent of small-stakes gambling -- but there are myriad Internet leagues that are free to join. And even for the most casual participant, the wealth of information online provides a tempting distraction from real life.

Thanks also to wireless technology, fantasy football banter can interrupt real life at any time. "It's great when we're at dinner with my parents and he sneaks into the bathroom to make a trade on his cellphone," says Kristina Koveos, a teacher whose boyfriend is a rabid player.

Yes, where there once were football widows, there are now fantasy football widows. And they have even more reason to complain, according to a study by the NFL. "We found on average fantasy football players watch two to three more hours a week of football," says Russo.

Schaaf, who got married in 2001, is an inspiration though for those trying to balance fantasy football and a relationship. "I can thank my wife for giving me the 'Make money with it or stop doing it' speech," he says. "So I started charging for schedules in 2002 and I've been able to turn a hobby into a bit of a moneymaker."

He also offers hope for the fantasy widows. "I'll probably scale back my fantasy football time significantly next year because my wife and I are expecting our first child in March. Up until now, I guess this hobby has been my baby," he says, "But that will obviously change soon."


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