Internet

Fantasy football players cry foul

Sandbox.com, the last of the major free fantasy football sites, has instituted an 11th-hour plan to charge certain users, a move some team owners are calling a fumble.

The last of the major free fantasy football sites has instituted an 11th-hour plan to charge certain users, a move some team owners are calling a fumble.

Sandbox.com, which touts "FREE" Fantasy Football on its site, has begun charging a $3.95 per month fee to use the site during "peak" hours. The new subscription hours run from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. PDT and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. PDT--coinciding with the minutes just before the games when some team owners are eager to make last-minute changes to their lineups.

What's more, the company's plans to charge aren't clearly stated on the site. In fact, before assembling their fantasy teams--which are made up of real NFL players--potential owners must click several buttons promising "free" services. It's only when they go back to make changes to their roster that they're notified of the peak hours charges.

Although Sandbox said it tried to notify most of its members, some team owners won't learn of the pay plans until they log on Sunday to adjust their lineups for the first weekend of the season, which kicked off Thursday. That means they'll have to make a split-second decision to pony up the $3.95 or stick with a lineup that could include a starting quarterback who threw out his elbow or a wide receiver with a bum knee.

Team owner Tim Swift is one Sandbox member who's criticizing the move. "It was really sneaky because they didn't tell you at all before you signed up for it," said Swift, a Medford, Mass., software engineer and proud owner of a team called The Pimps that counts San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia among its members.

Swift said he won't shell out the bucks on principle. He thinks Sandbox is trying to trick him into paying.

Mike Sweeney, general manager of operations for GameBase, which runs Sandbox.com, said the company decided to charge because it couldn't continue to run the game at a loss in the miserable advertising market. He said Sandbox employees only recently came up with the peak hour plan, which is designed to appeal to loyal users while still letting some people play for free.

"We all agreed that it's going to be tough on owners and they're not going to like it, but it's very fair," Sweeney said.

Owners who don't want to pay can log on during off-peak hours.

The popularity of fantasy sports, always a hit with hard-core sports fans, has skyrocketed because of the Internet, which lets people automatically draft their teams, track players' stats, and participate in leagues with members who are miles away.

Sandbox alone has attracted more than 7 million members to its fantasy games, some of whom go through a rigorous hours-long drafting process to assemble teams. While most fantasy sites have begun to charge, Sandbox has remained popular mainly because it has been free until this season.