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Finding Fortune in Fantasy Football

Football fans turn their fictitious hobby into real money
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

(continued from page 1)

Rainey concurs, explaining that it takes more than a single, high-priced superstar to succeed at fantasy football. "One good guy having a great day will not help you. Tom Brady will not win your fantasy football league," he says. "You need five or six solid guys and one great guy." A key strategy going in is to understand the fellow team-owners in your league. "They might be die-hards who will go for certain players under any circumstance. If a certain type of guy's favorite team is the Indianapolis Colts, he will get Peyton Manning no matter what." He won't win fantasy football, but, says Rainey, "He also won't be rooting against Peyton."
That said, there are times when two key players are enough, especially if they're purchased at the right price. Such was the dream scenario for Jason Conn. "What worked out nicely for us was that the draft happened on a Saturday, two days after the first game of the season, and Chris Johnson [a running back with the Tennessee Titans] didn't do well on Thursday,"
explains Conn. "Because he had a disappointing first game, we were able to get him cheap and we picked up Andre Johnson [a wide receiver with the Houston Texans] in an earlier stage of the draft. By the end of the season we had the No. 1 running back and the No. 1 wide receiver. We needed Chris in order to win, and we got him because other people overvalued the long-term meaning of his performance in just one game."

Before Dustin Ashby ran a big-time fantasy football league, he was a serious participant. While he no longer competes, he has been paying attention with the unbiased eye of an outsider. He's noticed at least one trend that should be exploited by all fantasy participants, regardless of how seriously they play the game: "The NFL has moved to a more prolific passing attack. I think that there were 11 quarterbacks throwing for over 4,000 yards last year. That puts a premium on receivers. The thought-leaders in our format understand that, and they recognize the importance of picking versatile players who catch the ball."

The other thing that Ashby emphasizes is recognizing players "who are likely to be targets." By this he means that a winning fantasy team needs more than star athletes. It needs players who will get many minutes on the field and a lot of opportunities to rush, catch and score. "Maybe a wide receiver didn't put up 1,000 yards, but he got a lot more opportunities last year than he did the year before. Well, then you can predict that he will get even more opportunities this season. Lee Evans, on the Buffalo Bills, is a good example of that. Who else will catch the ball for Buffalo?"

Shawn Childs, a winning fantasy player who competes in 25 fantasy leagues during baseball season and is running teams in 15 fantasy leagues this NFL season, finds his edge in selecting under-the-radar pros and, just as importantly, minimizing his risk. For starters, he does his research and keeps sentiment out of the process. "Jonathan Stewart, the running back from Carolina, went early in a lot of drafts, but I see him as a player who's coming in off of an injury and I think there's a good chance that someone else can replace him in the lineup," opines Childs who finished second in the 2008 World Championship of Fantasy Football's $25,000-buy-in league. "I see him as a player to avoid."

More than many of his competitors, Childs views fantasy football as a moneymaking enterprise. It's something that he enjoys, but it also needs to be profitable in order for him to continue doing it. He acknowledges that at the higher levels, winning comes down to exploiting tiny edges, having a bit of luck, and putting in the time. "Depending on your lifestyle, you may or may not be able to do it," he says. "Between baseball and football, I get busy on 40 Sundays per year. " He hesitates for a beat, then adds, "In life everybody needs an outlet. For me this is a distraction with money at stake."

On the night of September 9, after the conclusion of this season's first NFL opener with the Minnesota Vikings opposing the New Orleans Saints, Chad Schroeder launched into a frenzy of wheeling and dealing for a season's worth of players. He had a dozen drafts to conduct during the long weekend in Vegas and, over the course of this season, he is managing 130 different fantasy teams, trying to turn a profit on his investment of approximately $145,000.

Clearly, he is not your casual fantasy football fanatic. Schroeder is a professional sports bettor. He has seen value leak out of his chosen area of wagering and recently turned to high-stakes fantasy football. These days, he estimates, half of his income derives from the fantasy leagues, which, he points out, require more than their share of work. "I go through every team, every week. It takes 10 to 20 minutes per team, and I have over 100 teams," says Schroeder, who was one off from winning a $1 million fantasy football prize two years ago. "Then I'm looking for free agents and putting in appropriate bids on them. Those run on Friday; if you don't have a backup plan by Friday night, you're not going to have one for Sunday. And Sunday mornings get completely chaotic when I need to solidify my starting lineups."

In addition to the $145,000 he has riding on league play, Schroeder makes as many side bets as he can nail down. Generally, he believes that he has an overall edge and plays fantasy precisely because he can take advantage of people who view it as recreation. "At minimum, there are usually three or four people in a given league who don't know what they're doing," he says. "Even if the other seven or eight do know what they are doing, the dead money creates an edge. Plus I know that I will do a better job than other people at picking up free agents. I've spent a lot of time doing this and I have gotten a lot of experience. I've developed a better feel for players who have value."

That said, Schroeder and the wiseguys of fantasy football all acknowledge that it's anybody's game. Even the dead-money players can end up with lifelines. As with any competition between professionals and hometown champs-fantasy football, at its highest level, most definitely qualifies as that-some guys come for the challenge and an opportunity to see whether or not they really are much better than the office-mates and neighbors that they routinely trounce in their home leagues. Whether competing in an organized league or a high-stakes operation of their own devising, they get opportunities to swing for big bucks while making like pro team owners. And they actively participate in a game that they love. "Before fantasy football, I couldn't have told you the second wide receiver on Seattle," acknowledges Ashby. "But now I, and, surely most of the guys in the league can, and there's financial value in knowing that. Playing fantasy football gives you a reason to care."

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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