Terrell Owens let down the Philadelphia Eagles last year, but he completely screwed me.
Like millions of other American men, I squandered a precious early-round draft pick to grab Owens as my premier wide receiver for the 2005 fantasy football season. Choking back my natural disdain for the man—I'm a New York Giants fan and Owens is a Giants killer—I smiled with pride each Sunday as I basked in the glow of his gaudy numbers. Thanks in large part to him, I sat comfortably in first place.
Then Owens opened his big yapper and got himself suspended, leaving me with a hole in my roster that I couldn't plug. At the same time, stud running back Priest Holmes went out with a season-ending injury, leaving me in fantasy football hell. My team sank all the way to sixth, out of the money and square in the middle of Loserville.
Welcome to fantasy football, where each year an estimated 12 million to 15 million fans of the game take their passion to new levels: drafting a team of star players, choosing whom to play and whom to bench, and vying for the bragging rights of best fantasy football coach in the neighborhood, office or corner of the Internet. It's a hobby that turns casual fans into students of the game and serious fans into fanatics.
It's an often-strange world where team loyalty must take a backseat to individual performance if a participant hopes to succeed. A Dallas fan might find himself drafting a Redskin, a Raiders lover could high-five a friend when a Kansas City Chief gets in the end zone, and a man sitting in a Boston apartment might even find himself rooting for a player wearing the letters "NY" on his helmet.
The universe of fantasy football players has doubled over the past five years. "It's just exploded," says Joe Bryant, co-owner of Footballguys.com, a Web site brimming with statistics, news and analysis for die-hard fantasy football fans. "When I first started, fantasy football was sort of this Dungeons & Dragons thing for stat geeks. Three to four years ago, the tide turned."
Technology is helping to drive the growth. Today, Web sites such as Yahoo, CBS Sportsline, ESPN, Fox Sports and others provide detailed information on players and keep track of every stat. By the end of a game, most free sites will have updated information, and for a fee (perhaps $10 a year) players can track their scores in real time during the game. For more money, some sites will sweeten the pot with cash prizes.
In the old days, it wasn't easy to find, maintain and sort fantasy stats. League administrators (who hold the fancy title of commissioner) had to scour newspapers for information and add up myriad statistics themselves.
"Everything we did, we did by hand," says a former Major League outfielder and now a big-league scout, who wishes to remain anonymous because of professional baseball's stance on gambling. He's been playing fantasy football since 1993. "You had to use USA Today. People in the league didn't get the full stats for the week until Thursday." The baseball pro got his start in fantasy football playing with teammates, and the results would be posted on the locker-room bulletin board. Bryant, who played in a more geographically spread-out league, would get his stats mailed to him in the early days.
For every man—about 90 percent of fantasy football players are male—playing in one league, there's a guy who plays in two. Or more. The Major League scout played in four leagues one year. Brandon Funston, product manger of fantasy sports content for Yahoo, has been playing fantasy football for 22 years. "It depends on the year, but generally my tally runs between eight and 12 leagues," he says. Yahoo has three million to four million participants alone, according to Funston, who spends each Sunday during football season at a local bar so he can view as many games as possible at one time. "Sundays weren't the healthiest day for me this past year," he says.
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.
ORIGINS OF THE GAME
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  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, www.nfl.com.
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."
The NFL even publishes a fantasy football magazine. In June, the NFL.com Fantasy Football Preview 2006 went on sale, a 160-page periodical aimed at helping coaches live their fantasy NFL dreams.
If you think 160 pages on a fantasy sport is excessive, that doesn't even scratch the surface of what's out there. Footballguys, which has a staff of 31 (plus 25 freelancers) plans to pump out nearly 30,000 pages of information for the 2006 season. You can buy scores of books and dozens of magazines on fantasy football, such as Drafting to Win: The Ultimate Guide to Fantasy Football by Robert Zarzycki (AuthorHouse, 2005), and Fox even has a television program called "Ultimate Fantasy Football Show." Come draft day, a good fantasy football coach is packing more background information than a young Bob Woodward. Each coach sits down at the draft table armed with player rankings—known as cheat sheets—league schedules and expert advice, plus all manner of additional information. Of course, each league has a man (or two) who arrives utterly unprepared, and soon becomes fodder for the trash talk that is an accepted part of draft day.
Fantasy football fans "thirst for as much knowledge...as they can possibly get," says Yahoo's Funston. "Football fans are usually the most passionate among the big three sports to begin with. That passion carries over." Sometimes, the passion gets directed at him—as when one of his top picks turns out to be a bust. "I will certainly get my share of compliments for making a good pick," he says, "but I'll get a windfall of jeers if the pick is bad."
Funston says putting out serious fantasy football information is "more than a full-time job." Bryant describes his football Sundays as "controlled chaos.... Starting Monday morning, we are analyzing every single play from the previous day's games with an eye toward predicting player performance for the next week. We'll monitor every injury and every position battle along with any developing trends with regard to player performance or playing time." The information quest builds through the week, with the experts trying to predict not only how the players will perform, but also if they'll make it to the field. "My Sunday morning will be a blur, working contacts over the phones, e-mails, instant messages and through some 30 different Web sites in order to garner the latest information for our readers," says Bryant. "Our readers subscribe to Footballguys because they want the most accurate information as timely as possible. We do everything humanly possible to deliver that."
In the end, after absorbing all the information he can, a good coach should know the value of choosing backup running backs, picking kickers who play in domes, and swallowing the love of the local team to focus on quality players. The goal is to avoid wasting early picks on mediocre talent, to find a diamond or two in the rough, and to wheel and deal with the other coaches in the league to improve the lineup. And, to do it all without losing a job or alienating a wife. Yet even the most prepared coach can have setbacks—such as my Owens fiasco. But there's always this season.
The Perfect Fantasy Football Draft
When I leave this mortal coil, I know I will be remembered for at least one great act: starting my neighborhood's first fantasy football league. It went something like this: I moved in December, met most of the neighbors that spring, and was smoking cigars regularly with a small group by May. By the end of August, a dozen of us were sitting in my cigar-friendly basement around a large table, drafting players for our league.
These were infant steps, for sure, and over the four seasons we've played, we've learned many valuable lessons on how to draft well. Here are a few pointers to get you started to ensure that your draft is a great one.
The basics: Pick a place where you won't be disturbed for several hours—this is not a quick process. Budget at least four hours. Naturally, you need a cigar-friendly place. If you don't have a spot indoors where cigars are welcome, choose a deck or other open-air spot. You need a big table, or tables (people will be packing research, and things will be written down). The concierge level: Rent a suite in Las Vegas and hold your draft in style.
The basics: A draft board is a great tool for tracking each pick. Most consist of large sheets of paper, sectioned into grids for each team, with preprinted labels listing every NFL player. Hang the board on the wall where everyone can clearly see it. When you pick a man, put his label in the appropriate grid. An excellent version is available from www.draftkit.com, with color-coded labels for each position.
The concierge level: Hire a spokesmodel to man the board and put up the labels for you. Extra points: Bring a laptop into which you've downloaded the Draft Dominator from www.footballguys.com and let the experts ID the best talent remaining in each round.
The basics: Fantasy football drafts need some form of alcohol. (If a coach slips up, trying to draft a player who is already taken, he should be forced to drink.) At the bare minimum, there should be copious amounts of good, cold beer.
The concierge level: Serve premium amber spirits—single-barrel Bourbon is preferred, given that these drafts typically take place in August. Use a car service to get to and from the draft.
The basics: Art Rooney built a Steel Curtain football dynasty while chomping on cigars. Do you know more about football than Mr. Rooney? I didn't think so. Make sure you have a cigar while drafting. Sitting there befuddled while it's your turn on the board makes you look foolish, but if you take a contemplative tug of your lit cigar, your competition will think you're a master, pondering strategy.
The concierge level: The draft is a time- consuming affair. This is the night to take out that "A" you've had for a while.
Extra points: Bring a box of cigars for your fellow coaches. They might remember the favor when it comes time for a midseason trade.
The basics: To know everything about fantasy football, you need to watch all the games, and that means NFL Sunday Ticket. This satellite TV package gives you every NFL game for $280 a year. www.directvsports.com.
The concierge level: DirecTV's new SuperFan package ($99 more) gives you even more football: you can watch the Red Zone Channel, which skips from scoring play to scoring play; Game Mix, which allows you to have up to eight live broadcasts at one time on one screen; and Short Cuts, which lets you watch an entire NFL game in only 30 minutes (time-outs and other distractions are edited out).
The basics: Sure, it's nice to win the $200 pot in your neighborhood league, but nothing is sweeter than hoisting a championship trophy. Crown Awards (www.crownawards.com) has a vast selection, and most can be customized.
The concierge level: If you're running the league, make sure you also celebrate mediocrity. Give the basement dwellers "participant" ribbons, certificates of achievement or Pop Warner pins.