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Fantasy football leagues score big with fans

What used to be the domain of sports fanatics is going mainstream as fantasy sports traffic goes through the roof.

Simone Kaplan hated Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms and the rest of the New York Giants as a child.

Her father, a big Giants fan, spooked her on game days with his sudden "shrieking at the television," said Kaplan, 30. She said she also could never see the entertainment value in watching men crash into each other like rutting deer. That was before she got hooked on fantasy football.

Now Kaplan starts her mornings by scouring the waiver wire for overlooked wide receivers or crunching rushing statistics to determine which of her running backs to start. Her fiance, Curt Cote, said Kaplan's transition to Sunday morning quarterback has shocked him. She has emerged as one of his league's most passionate competitors.

"She called just this afternoon to complain that somebody picked up Miami's defense before she could," said Cote, who has already lost a league match to his future wife and jokes about whether it might be time for an intervention.

What used to be the domain of sports fanatics is going mainstream, and traffic is going through the roof at places like ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports as fantasy sports--especially fantasy football--thrive.

More than 14 million adults competed in fantasy leagues in 2005, and that number is expected to jump 14 percent this year to 16 million, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. At ESPN.com, which operates the third-largest fantasy football league, site traffic in September was up 17 percent over last year. Executives credit the site's fantasy league for the spike.

The rise in traffic is only half of the business story. Site operators can take their dedicated fans and wag them in front of advertisers. Fantasy players spend an average of three hours per week managing their teams, according to the FSTA.

"Fantasy leagues are everything that brand managers and sports marketers would ever want," said Jeff Thomas, committee chairman for FSTA. "Fantasy players are the most engaged consumer you can find."

Part of the strategy among the three powerhouses of fantasy leagues--Yahoo Sports, CBS SportsLine.com and ESPN--has been to play up the social aspects of the league. Some consider MySpace.com, Facebook and Friendster to be trailblazers, but fantasy leagues were arguably the first social-networking sites.

Often, people join the leagues to stay connected with college buddies who may live far away, said Cote, a Massachusetts resident who went to college in Pennsylvania. Friendly competition is likely to appeal more to a mainstream user or casual sports fan than the face-painting sports zealot who has likely been competing in leagues for years.

As the top operators of fantasy leagues battle for supremacy, each continues to try to top the other by developing technologies to keep the action in their leagues exciting and simple to operate.

Yahoo, for example, offers real-time statistics that are accessible just moments after a snap. ESPN this year launched the "Live Draft Lobby," which enables players to hone their player-picking skills in a mock draft. The hot trend now is to let league players "talk trash" to each other just like the big leaguers. At ESPN, people can send online greeting cards with a humorous and good-natured putdown.

But most important to winning over fans, they say, is delivering uninterrupted service. That hasn't been easy for some sites.

Two weeks ago, many fantasy football players at CBS SportsLine were prevented from setting their lineups just before kickoff and had problems accessing the site throughout the day. SportsLine, which has won awards for its software, grades itself on site performance every week. For week 10 of the NFL's 17-week regular season, the company handed itself an "F." The site has since added new servers and for week 11 gave itself an "A."

Last season, ESPN was forced to apologize to users after network problems shut out some users for long periods. This season, the company has worked to improve performance, said John Kosner, ESPN's senior vice president and general manager of new media.

"It's a challenge to keep things working flawlessly every week, even for the best sites," Kosner said. "We've had a better year, but almost everybody has issues from time to time."

David Katz, head of Yahoo Sports, which has been the leader in online fantasy football for years, says few Web sites face the technological hurdles that confront fantasy leagues.

"Fantasy is hard," Katz said. "You think about how many pieces that must work in concert. Data feeds need to populate each individual team, and every person has a different profile. Millions of people are hitting the site at once to see their live stats. Think about the processing power needed to deliver information to millions of fans at the same time."

"I can't tell you how addictive the whole thing is. It's what made football interesting and accessible for me."
--Simone Kaplan, fantasy football competitor

Daniel Okrent, a magazine editor, is typically credited with being the father of the games when he started Rotisserie League Baseball in 1980. While fantasy baseball leagues took off first, they have been eclipsed by the popularity of football leagues. More than 12.8 million people participate in fantasy football, compared with 4.8 million in baseball, according to the FSTA.

How it works
The most basic fantasy football leagues typically are made up of 10 players, or "team owners." Each drafts between 16 and 20 NFL players. An owner will then be allowed to activate nine players; usually a single quarterback, tight end and kicker, plus four players at the running back position and four at wide receiver.

They are also allowed to draft an NFL team's defense.

An owner earns points based on the performance of the individual players and team defense. Quarterbacks typically earn six points for each touchdown they pass for, as well as a point for every 25 yards in passing yardage they accumulate. Some leagues will award bonuses for touchdowns or passes longer than 40 yards.

The most prized fantasy league players aren't always NFL all-stars. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was considered one of the best NFL quarterbacks of his day but was a terrible fantasy pick because he threw for relatively few touchdowns. His teammate, star running back Emmitt Smith, did most of the scoring for the team.

To learn how a quarterback fares against a certain defensive secondary, or which of their running backs is likely to come off injured reserve, fantasy team owners pore over statistical analysis, read sports headlines, and follow games online and on television. Kaplan said that on Sunday morning--game day--you can find her and Cote sitting in front of their TV set, each with their laptops open as they fine-tune their lineups.

"I can't tell you how addictive the whole thing is," Kaplan said. It's what made football interesting and accessible for me."

Where is all this leading to? The fantasy craze is expanding to unexplored territory. Leagues are cropping up that offer competitors a chance to pick which Hollywood starlet will receive the most mentions in magazines such as People and Us (Weekly)," said FSTA's Thomas. Another is based on picking the winner of the television show American Idol.

And fantasy leagues have only begun to catch on with international sports fans.

"I got a chuckle the other day," Thomas said. "Some guy from India wanted help starting a fantasy league for badminton."