A hobby traditionally delegated to small groups of family,friends and co-workers has become a multimillion-dollar business for international online corporations.
As the Internet and sports coverage have risen in popularity and capability over the past decade,so too has fantasy football.
“These are really passionate sports fans,they're our best fans and they're really into this stuff,” said John Kosner,general manager for ESPN.com.
A new study by Ipsos-Reid found that 7.2 percent of American adults,or about 15.2 million people,are playing some fantasy sports game,said Greg Ambrosius,president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The study also found 11 percent of men play a fantasy game,with the number jumping to 20 percent for men 18 to 34. The fantasy question was part of an omnibus survey of 2,000 adults and has a margin of error of 4 percent.
FSTA,which contracted for the Ipsos-Reid study,found in its own survey of 455 fantasy players that 93 percent were playing fantasy football and 63 percent were playing fantasy baseball,Ambrosius said. The survey,conducted by the University of Mississippi,found the average player had been playing for six years and has 2.5 fantasy leagues.
“It just shows you how popular football is at this point,” Ambrosius said. “It's just the tip of the iceberg. … I think these numbers are going to seem miniscule years from now.”
From free games to entry fees of $1,000,there are hundreds,if not thousands,of options for individuals or groups to join a fantasy football league online. Fantasy football allows people to pick a team of players from any teams in the NFL. Points are received based on the statistics of the players chosen,and the team with the most points wins each league.
“The Internet has helped fuel the interest considerably,” said Larry Wahl,director of investor relations and corporate communications for Sportsline.com,which runs fantasy football games for NFL.com. “Football lends itself very well to a fantasy game,the same way it lends itself to a great TV sport.”
After advertising revenue slowed on the Net,Wahl said Sportsline.com began charging for its fantasy football leagues after offering them free for two years. The change netted $9 million from fantasy football last year and $11 million in overall fantasy revenue.
“We looked at this as a real additional solid revenue stream potential and were able to do a pretty did a good job of converting most of those free customers … into pay customers,” Wahl said.
Yahoo Sports has a free game and more than a million fantasy football players,said Dan Berger,general manager of Yahoo Sports. While he said Yahoo Sports tries to get players of the free game to purchase stat tracker programs or join the company’s pay version of the game,a primary goal is to integrate fantasy football players to other parts of the Yahoo Web site.
“We can really take fantasy sports and make it part of the Yahoo user's experience across the network,” Berger said.
He said most fantasy football players join a league primarily so they can have bragging rights over their friends and not for the prizes. Yahoo's free game has no prizes,and the pay version offers a trophy.
Many of the fantasy football leagues,including Yahoo and Sportsline.com,have instant scoring and messenger capabilities.
“You can be competing,seeing what you're scoring,what you're opponent’s scoring,send them an instant message and trash talk all at once as it's happening,” Wahl said.
About one in four visitors to the ESPN.com network visits the fantasy page,with more than 2 billion page views last year,Kosner said. ESPN offers a single fantasy football team for $29.95,three teams for $49.95 and five teams for $69.95.
While Kosner said the individual team format has been successful,many people want to run their own leagues with family and friends. ESPN.com has joined Sportsline.com,Yahoo and others to offer a one-time fee for an entire league.
While the Internet companies market the ease and quickness of the private online leagues,Robert Jones,a 21-year-old student from Memphis,Tenn.,said a fantasy football league does not need to be conducted online.
Jones started a fantasy league with his father and two brothers five years ago. They since have expanded the league to about 10 people,and Jones's dad created a computer program to keep track of the league.
“We're really competitive,” Jones said. “It makes the games more exciting. I never can really get enough.”
While Jones said his league entry fee is only $5 and members don't play for the money,CEM Fantasy Sports runs a high-stakes fantasy league with a $1,000 entry fee,said Charlie Wiegert,executive vice president of CEM and a board member of the FSTA.
Wiegert said the high-stakes game is not nearly as popular as CEM's other games,but there is a market for those who are really serious about fantasy football.
The Rev. Tom Grey,executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling,said that his group is primarily concerned with stopping lotteries,casinos and dog and horse tracks. However,he said there is a problem with sports betting and he is concerned that fantasy football could lead to more gambling on sports.
“Fantasy football would be a pied piper,perhaps,to the type of sports betting the same way lottery is to hard-core casino gambling,” Grey said.
In FSTA's survey,the average fantasy player spent $154 a year on football. However,companies that offer fantasy football say they are offering a cheap or free alternative to those who might otherwise bet on football games.
“Now people feel that this a legitimate hobby that diehard fans are just getting more involved in their favorite sports,” Ambrosius said.