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Fantasy Fervor

Fantasy football is scoring with millions of obsessive NFL fans competing for bragging rights and more
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

(continued from page 1)

Even one league can become an obsession. Mark St. Amant, author of Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie (Scribner, 2004), quit his job in advertising to devote himself full-time to winning his local fantasy football league. (Sadly, it didn't go well. Like myself, his season was undone by a wide receiver, but in this case it was Joe Horn of the New Orleans Saints, whom he now refers to as "Joe Effing Horn.")

Most fantasy football leagues are made up of eight to 12 friends or co-workers, each of whom becomes the virtual coach of a fantasy football team, with one person also serving as commissioner. (This duty involves organizing a draft day, sending out correspondence, collecting dues and overriding trades between coaches that smack of collaboration.) To get things started, each coach drafts a team—not an entire team, such as the Giants or the Rams, but a roster comprised of the best talent he can get. A typical starting roster consists of one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker and a team defense, plus six players on the bench. Such a roster would necessitate 15 rounds of picks to stock the team. (Some advanced leagues also draft individual defensive players, which requires much more time. Some players will let the computer draft for them, which takes away a considerable amount of fun.) The bench is key: those players are there for injuries, bye weeks and preferred matchups (if you have a medium-talent running back, for example, you might want to bench him the week he faces the league's best rushing defense). Fantasy football coaches ignore bye weeks at their own peril—nothing is quite as humbling as reaching week five and realizing that half your team is off, leaving you in the points basement.

One of the first things to learn about fantasy football is that team victories are meaningless. A common rookie mistake is drafting a player who is a proven winner on the actual gridiron, but a mediocre fantasy talent. Sometimes it's better to have a loser than a champion. For example, Miami quarterback Daunte Culpepper was the fantasy football monster of 2004, when he played for Minnesota. He chucked the ball downfield for 4,717 passing yards and 39 touchdowns, making him the bedrock of many a champion fantasy team. But the Vikings went 8-8 that year, squeaked into the postseason, and lost in the second round of the playoffs. Tom Brady, the smooth and skilled field general for the New England Patriots, threw for a thousand fewer yards than Culpepper with 11 fewer touchdowns and more interceptions that year, yet his Pats went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. If I were a real football coach, I'd kill to have Tom Brady as my starting quarterback, but I'd rarely want him running my fantasy squad because he usually doesn't put up outsized numbers.

In a typical scoring setup, a fantasy coach is awarded six points when any of his players scores a touchdown, whether that player caught, ran or threw the ball into the end zone; a point for every 20 yards of receiving, rushing or passing; a point for chip-shot field goals and up to five for boots of more than 50 yards. Sacks and interceptions made by a defense are typically worth a point apiece, and a shutout is worth 10. Interceptions thrown might be penalized at minus one point, lost fumbles at minus two. A scoring variation (such as the league in which Owens helped seal my doom) is a yardage league, where one point is awarded for every yard gained, so touchdowns have less value. Another variation is a salary cap league, in which each coach fields a team based upon salaries. Some leagues add bonuses for spectacular plays, such as touchdowns of more than 40 yards, and for milestone achievements, such as passing for more than 300.

The leagues are often simple gatherings of friends who each put a few bucks in the pot. I play in one league in which everyone ponies up $20 a team, and another in which each player pays $50. One league that's closing in on its 20th year began at $100 per team. This year the buy-in is $2,000. There are higher-stakes versions of the game: the Fantasy Football Tournament of Champions expects a 2006 payout of about $100,000. The World Championship of Fantasy Football, which holds a live draft in Las Vegas at the Riviera Hotel and Casino, has a grand prize of $200,000.

The precise origins of the sport are debatable, but many experts say fantasy football dates back to 1962, and the man most often cited for the creation is Bill Winkenbach, the late Oakland Raiders limited partner who had done some work on early fantasy golf and baseball. (Rotisserie baseball, thought by many to predate fantasy football, wasn't created until 1980, but Strat-O-Matic Baseball, an ancestor of the game, originated in the 1960s.) Winkenbach, with help from Oakland Raiders PR man Bill Tunnell and Oakland Tribune writer Scotty Sterling, is said to have created the game either during a boring weekend trip to the Big Apple or back home in California. It didn't take long for them to take a keen interest in the new game.

"It's well documented that for the first couple of weeks of the [1962] Raider season," writes St. Amant, the men involved in the league "were more concerned not with how their beloved Raiders were doing, but with how their [fantasy] teams were doing."

In those early days without computers and sleek Web sites, fantasy football was played only by those with the passion and patience to crunch numbers themselves. Now that it's so technically simple for someone to play—and now that the Internet makes it easy to find leagues to join—even the NFL has taken an interest. You can play on the official league Web site,

While Major League Baseball is at odds with the fantasy version of its sport, having recently sued a St. Louis fantasy sports company over licensing fees, the National Football League seems more comfortable with the fantasy leagues.

"The NFL has embraced fantasy sports more quickly and more enthusiastically than any of the other sports, and the benefits have been huge," says Bryant. "You have NFL fans in New York who suddenly care about the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald. It's brought the entire league closer to the fan base."

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Comments   2 comment(s)

Leslie Love May 26, 2011 12:58pm ET

I won a Fantasy Baseball competition one and I want more than bragging rights! I want some award plaques. Something tangible to back up my bragging.

David Savona May 26, 2011 4:36pm ET

Fair enough! I have a few trophies of my own, so I understand completely. Our league also began a jacket ceremony similar to The Masters. Only the jacket is the most garish thing imaginable.

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