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Baseball strike would bench Net fans

Perhaps the only people secretly gunning for a baseball strike come Aug. 30 are those currently leading their online fantasy leagues.

Perhaps the only people secretly gunning for a baseball strike come Aug. 30 are those currently leading their online fantasy leagues.

Tens of thousands of sports fans join fantasy baseball leagues on the Net each season. Some Web sites that host them are saying that if players do trade their bats for picket signs next Friday, the virtual leagues will be closed and the current leaders declared the winners--that is, if the strike lasts.

That's no small achievement for passionate devotees of rotisserie baseball on the Web, which continues to flourish. In July, the top Web sites playing host to fantasy baseball leagues were ESPN, Sportsline.com, CNNsi and Yahoo Sports. Combined, the fantasy sports sections on the sites drew about 31 million people in that month.

"Fantasy sports (players) are the most loyal and heaviest users of the Web because they're accessing stats, scores, injury reports, all sorts of information from the parent site," said T.S. Kelly, director and principal media analyst for Nielsen/NetRatings.

"Clearly sites have to keep the customer happy, and that's the No. 1 priority whether the strike happens or not," he added. The baseball players union set a strike date of Aug. 30 last week in a bid to put pressure on team owners in a in a dispute over revenue sharing, a luxury tax and other economic issues.

To play fantasy or rotisserie baseball, fans draft their picks at the beginning of the year, choosing desirable players instead of established teams. Gamers score points for their picks' performance in actual games, with the players' points determined by the site hosting the fantasy league. Fees to run a baseball league range from free to $100 for the season. Higher-priced games can be games sponsored by the likes of baseball hall of famer Joe Morgan, for example. Prizes include T-shirts, cash, trips and paraphernalia such as autographed baseballs.

Baseball is just one choice in a menu of faux-sports offerings online, and as its season wraps up, other games like football are kicking off. But Major League Baseball is no stranger to strikes, stirring fans to disappointment with season stoppages and an end to fantasy games. If the owners and players fail to negotiate reasonable revenue-sharing and tax agreements next week, it would be the ninth time the baseball season has stopped since 1972.

If the players decide not to accept the terms, host Web sites for fantasy baseball may faced with a loss of traffic or marketing revenue. Most importantly, they're trying to keep customers happy by communicating with them.

But because it's late in the season, most Web sites likely won't return fees to fantasy ball players in the event of a strike. The baseball players union set a stoppage date of Aug. 30 last week in a bid to put pressure on team owners in a dispute over revenue sharing and other economic system issues.

Yahoo Sports, for example, has told fantasy league players that it doesn't plan to refund fees in the event of a strike and it will score winners based on current statistics.

Meanwhile, CNNsi.com posted a notice to its site this week explaining outcomes for the games if the players beg out of the season. It said that in the event of a strike, "we will determine league winners and overall prize winners according to the standings as of the day the strike begins. More details will be posted when the outcome of the MLB season becomes clearer."

It continued to say that if the season is resumed, play will start again.

ESPN Fantasy Baseball was similarly upfront with members. "If the game stops, obviously, we stop," according to a posted notice on the ESPN Fantasy Baseball site. "If the game stops and doesn't restart, and you're in first, you win. We will award prizes to winners as if it was a complete 162-game, six-month season."

"It seems like a reasonable way to handle it to me," said Larry Schoen, an attorney in Cambridge, Mass., who plays in a fantasy league hosted by Yahoo Sports. He's currently in third place in his game.

Eyes on the prize
Jeff Resnick, who runs a league on Yahoo Sports for nine friends, is rooting for a strike not just because he'll likely win his group's kitty, but because he'd like to see the economic structure of the game become more equitable for small-market teams. As a Cleveland Indians fan, he's a proponent for additional revenue-sharing among large and small teams. He's also for salary caps and luxury taxes, two hot points the players and owners have been fighting over.

This week, Major League Baseball made an attempt to bridge a monetary gap by issuing a new revenue-sharing proposal for the players, but the players union has yet to respond.

If the players walk out next Friday, other fans who pay to hear live broadcasts of the games online could be out of luck. As a result, RealOne, which streams live broadcasts of the baseball games in an exclusive partnership with Major League Baseball, could have some disgruntled customers on its hands in the event of a strike. Subscribers pay $9.95 a month to listen in to the season.

RealNetworks, operator of RealOne, said its service hosts a wide array of complimentary content to hold subscribers' interests. But "if there is a strike we will deal with customers specifically who signed up for major league baseball. We don't want unhappy customers," said a RealNetworks representative.

As far as Resnick's fantasy league goes, they plan to score the game based on current statistics, and they will calculate the winnings based on a percentage of the season completed. As a result, about 85 percent of the pot ($180) will go to the winner, which in this case is Resnick. "It's just for the fun of it," he said.