Clicking on the dream

Millions of fantasy sports fans add another dimension to the season with carefully selected all-star teams and friendly trash ta

Millions of fantasy sports fans add another dimension to the season with carefully selected all-star teams and friendly trash ta

September 12, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

There's nothing imaginary about fantasy sports.

As pro football season begins so does another fantasy season.

Millions of people are playing.

They research and choose teams of professional sports players. They pluck position players from various teams to make a unique team - hopefully a powerhouse. Fantasy sports fans keep track of their players' success (or lack thereof) and tally their own team's score based on each real player's performance. They compete with other members of their leagues - sometimes for a small cash prize, sometimes for a trophy, sometimes for the thrill of victory, and, yes, sometimes for the proverbial agony of defeat.

The players on individuals' teams meet only in their "owners'" fields of dreams - in their minds, on their computer screens.


But fantasy sports is based on reality, said Larry Wahl, director of corporate communications for Inc. "The performance of your team is based on actual performance."

CBS offers fantasy games that include professional football, basketball, baseball, hockey and golf, and is the biggest paid site, Wahl said.

The pastime has its own trade association - Fantasy Sports Trade Association, with headquarters in St. Louis. It has its own hall of fame.

"So many sports fans feel like they can run a team," Wahl said.

In an analysis of online fantasy sports activity, comScore Media Metrix reported that more than 7 million Americans visited the three most popular fantasy sports sites - Yahoo! Sports, SportsLine and ESPN - between October 2003 and May 2004, according to information online at Others buy computer software and set up their own.

Some people play in more than one league and more than one sport.

Internet connections have made the activity easy and accessible and a lot less time-consuming.

Wahl, 51, has played fantasy sports for three years. He's in three baseball and two football leagues and said he dabbles in fantasy golf and NASCAR.

"It does take time," he said in a phone interview from his Florida office. Most people go through a couple of hours of preparation for their league's drafts. There's a wide variety of research tools - books, magazines, television and radio and, of course, the Internet.

The comScore Media Metrix survey reported that, during the eight-month period, the average visitor spent an average of 93 minutes at the sites each month.

From 1996 to 1999, before he started playing online, Hagers-town Suns General Manager Kurt Landes spent five to 10 hours a week on his fantasy football league. It's down to one or two hours a week for the league that he organizes as the "commissioner" and 20 to 30 minutes a day for his own team.

Landes is too busy with real-life sports during baseball season, but he enjoys fantasy football. The Ohio native said he needed something to feed his football appetite when his beloved Cleveland Browns team moved to Baltimore.

"There's a definite culture of fantasy sports," Landes said. "It's a lot of fun."

His league's draft - choosing players - which this year was scheduled for Labor Day night, is most often the only time all "team owners" in his league get together - in real time and space.

"It's just a great night for camaraderie and busting each other," Landes said.

Trash talk, which Webster's defines as trivial, dishonest, boastful or insulting remarks, continues through the seasons, and it's one of the things that makes fantasy sports fun for Steve Nikirk of Boonsboro.

"Everybody's in touch online every day," he said.

Nikirk, 55, has been playing versions of fantasy games since 1960. He and friends started with a board game - APPA - he's not sure what the letters stand for, but it was all about statistics and a roll of the dice.

Before the Internet, Nikirk ran his leagues keeping track of statistics with pencil and paper.

"That's why my eyesight is shot," he laughed.

Fantasy sports is a way of making new friends and keeping in touch with old ones, he said. Nikirk's league's draft will be held at 4 p.m. today. Among the owners in his league are guys who were students in the Fantasy Sports classes he's taught summers at Valley Elementary School in Jefferson, Md., for more than 10 years. His classes are open to students from fifth to 12th grades, and Nikirk claims value beyond fun and competition. Students work with percentages, ratios and predictions, Nikirk said.

One of Larry Wahl's football leagues is comprised of co-workers. They go to lunch together every day, and 90 percent of the conversation is about fantasy play, he said. His other league is a family league that includes a 62-year-old uncle and Wahl's 14-year-old son.

Wahl's uncle told him family members never talked to each other as much they have since they started playing.

"The appeal is the camaraderie and the competition," Wahl said.

Joe Ferreira, executive producer of CBS Sports

Line, spends an average of four to five hours per week playing fantasy sports.

"Way too much time," he admitted.

He acknowledged that the pastime fosters camaraderie and feeds people's passion for sports. Competition is paramount in his view. For Ferreira, the top reason people play fantasy sports is the chance to be able to brag to the guy in the next office cubicle - the ability to say you're a winner among your peers.

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