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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Not your typical draft pick

Chanel, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee and Britney Spears are stars of their fantasy leagues. Sports aren't the only games in town anymore.

July 11, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

WHEN U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced a dry little bill affecting a modest government panel sifting through the nation's antitrust laws, it didn't exactly grab national headlines.

But Brandon Smith was psyched, even though he knew next to nothing about the Antitrust Modernization Commission Extension Act of 2007. Smith, a 24-year-old law student from Brooklyn, N.Y., is an avid "fantasy" Congress player. It's a game similar to fantasy baseball and football leagues, but in this league, players draft teams of representatives and senators, and earn points depending on how well their bills survive the treacherous political gauntlet.

When the bill passed, Conyers' little-known coup earned Smith a whopping 50 points and vaulted him into his league's lead.

"It may seem weird to get excited about this type of stuff in the abstract, but it's the same way that in fantasy sports, I can get excited about random stats," Smith said.

Fantasy sports leagues still dominate the genre, but more and more leagues devoted to other interests are lighting up computers across the nation.

Instead of picking the NFL's top running back, how about a fantasy husband? There's a website for that, along with fantasy leagues centered on celebrities and Hollywood blockbusters.

"People have always enjoyed taking ownership of the things they are into recreationally, and the Internet has made that more and more accessible to more people," said Nancy Baym, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.

An estimated 15 million to 18 million people manage fantasy sports teams, according to a study conducted by the Fantasy Sports Trade Assn. Revenue is raised through participation fees in the $2-billion industry, and 90% of the participants are men, the study found.

But Andrew Lee felt left out of the action in his cramped Claremont McKenna College dorm room three years ago.

His roommate, Eric Chow, kept screaming "boo-yah" during a Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. A fantasy football victory, a week's worth of strategy and trash talking with friends, rested on the game's outcome.

LEE, then a freshman, lost his concentration while scrolling a political blog. And then, something dawned on him. "I thought that if there was a way for people to relate to Congress as much as they can to sports, then it would make for a better government and more-informed nation," Lee said.

He started Fantasy Congress. Users draft a mix of senators and representatives -- each league can establish a different cap on draft picks -- to play for colorfully named teams like "Barack N' Roll," "The Obaminators," and "FDR's Revenge." Seasons last the length of Congress' two-year cycles.

"My first thought was that it was a cool idea," said Arjun Lall, 21, who along with three other friends poured hours into creating the league with Lee.

"My second thought was, 'who would play this?' "

Actually, a lot of people. The league has attracted more than 66,000 users since its inception last October.

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MOST points are earned through steps in the legislative process. If a player's political draftee introduces a bill into Congress, a player earns five points.

The further the bill goes, the more points a player receives, and if the bill is signed into law, players earn 50 points.

A new feature allows teams to earn points for positive media coverage and lose them for getting slammed in the press -- the fantasy football equivalent of a quarterback throwing an interception.

Smith, the law student with political aspirations and a fantasy sports junkie, said the appeal of participating in something that combined two of his interests was intriguing.

And just as in fantasy sports, there is a good deal of strategy involved.

"At first I thought of picking Obama, but then I decided he was going to be on the campaign trail too much and not paying attention to legislation," Smith said. "Instead, I took Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), a rising star that a lot of people don't know, and it's paying dividends."

Smith may need to reload soon. On Tuesday, Vitter apologized after his telephone number appeared among those associated with an escort service in Washington.

For much of the year, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), sat atop first place in points, before recently being supplanted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"Well, as a staffer, I can attest to the game's accuracy," said Michael McQuerry, Jackson-Lee's spokesman. "This is fun, but at the same time it goes to show you that some people are paying attention to Congress."

Not to say that the site hasn't ruffled political feathers. Andrew Lee received an e-mail earlier this year from a San Gabriel Valley high school teacher who said that Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) playfully griped about her last-place standing during a class visit earlier this year.

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