2006-08-03 / Sports

The fantasy football phenomenon

By Stephen Dorman sdorman@theacorn.com

TOP PICK-Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens catches a pass during Saturday's training camp practice session in Oxnard. Owens said he's primed to make a major impact in fantasy football. TOP PICK-Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens catches a pass during Saturday's training camp practice session in Oxnard. Owens said he's primed to make a major impact in fantasy football. On the surface, it appears Chad Swanson and Jerry Jones have little in common.

Swanson, 32, a Thousand Oaks resident, works as a financial planner. Jones, 63, is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys and a man with seemingly unlimited wealth, power and fame.

The two men, however, do share one similar trait: a fondness for fantasy football.

Unlike Swanson, who's served as the commissioner of the Thousand Oaks Fantasy Football League for the past 16 seasons, Jones said he's never owned his own fantasy team, "but I've consulted with three or four members of my family and I've shown up at a couple of drafting parties as a joke and have had some success."

"I gave them some hot tips the first year on (running back) Julius Jones that they were overlooking."

Admittedly, much of Jones' affection for the game is derived from the positive impact fantasy football has had on the NFL, and the manner in which it has helped the league continue to expand its fan base.

"It creates interaction, a way to be interactive in the game, in our teams and our players," Jones said. "It certainly benefits, to some degree, interest in the teams around.

"But more important than anything, it really creates a focus on who's on the field, and that's been very positive," he said. "Everything we see in the NFL, every study we do, any of the stats we see, is that fantasy football is a real plus for the promotion and the interest of the NFL."

Jones has owned the Cowboys since 1989, and during that period his teams have captured three Super Bowl trophies, but none since the 1995 season.

In the same time span Swanson's failed to win a fantasy football championship, and has been forced to watch his younger brother, Ryan, lift the league's crown on five separate occasions.

Despite the recent setbacks, Swanson, like Jones, continues the constant pursuit of a championship.

"Obviously I'm looking forward to winning one for as much work that goes into it," Swanson said. "I'd like to get the payoff for myself. But it's just one of those things that's a combination of luck and skill."

Times have changed

It's generally assumed fantasy football, like the myriad of other fantasy sports now being offered online, was derived from fantasy baseball, or what is commonly referred to as Rotisserie baseball. That assumption is incorrect.

In his book "Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe," Sam Walker describes how initial versions of Rotisserie baseball were developed in the early 1960s by Bill Gamson, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Over the next two decades Rotisserie baseball would remain mostly underground, until the national media began to catch on in the early 1980s.

According to NFLPlayers.com, the first fantasy football league was formed in 1963 by Oakland Raiders co-owner Bill Winkenbach, Oakland Tribune sportswriter Scotty Sterling and editor George Ross, and Bill Tunnell, a member of the Raiders' public relations office. It was named The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League.

By the 1970s, the Kings X Sports Bar in Oakland was the epicenter of the little known hobby.

Fantasy football, however, didn't start to really gain popularity until the early '90s, and it wasn't until the past decade that it became mainstream, said John Clayton, an ESPN pro football writer, television analyst and talk-show host.

"There's a big, big impact on what fantasy does," said Clayton, who started covering the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972 when he was just 17. "It's continuing to grow, and it does help the sport."

Nowadays it's hard to walk through the grocery store without seeing multiple fantasy football draft guides lining the shelves. Each year, around late July and early August, high-profile websites also begin to offer their fantasy services around the clock.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), 12.6 million adults in the U.S. played fantasy sports in 2005, 85 percent of whom (8.3 million) took part in fantasy football.

Of the more than 8 million fantasy football players nationwide, 1 million were female, the FSTA reports.

The increased attention from fans toward fantasy football over the past decade has affected Clayton's job as a journalist, he said.

"I do a radio show in Seattle and I do an ESPN show, and I'm constantly getting questions about they want, even though I don't know much about fantasy."

A study by Kim Beason, associate professor of park and recreation management at the University of Mississippi, reports fantasy sports have a $1 billion to $2 billion annual economic impact within the fantasy industry and a $3 billion to $4 billion annual impact across the sports industry as a whole.

"Fantasy sports has grown tremendously the past 10 years and has reached an all-time high for participation," Beason wrote in an e-mail. "The market has grown, but trends indicate a modest growth for the next year."

Emergence of experts

As the number of fantasy football players has skyrocketed, the amount of so-called experts has multiplied, too.

A recent Google search of the words "fantasy football" produced 61.7 million results, and many of those links take users to websites where self-proclaimed fantasy experts supply news and advice, sometimes for a nominal fee.

One of the most established and well-respected content providers for fantasy information is KFFL.com. Since 1998, KFFL has provided up-to-the-minute news on its Hot Off the Wire service, information that's distributed to larger providers such as Yahoo! and CBS SportsLine.

William Del Pilar, a senior editor at KFFL, said the Internet has driven the fantasy sports revolution.

"We were one of the first small companies and we've been lucky because we've ridden the wave," Del Pilar said. "When the big companies come in and need content, we're always one of the first that they turn to."

To gain fame as a fantasy sports expert, you've got to win expert league titles and industry awards. Some expert leagues are it," Clayton said.

"I'm bombarded with questions to a point that every year there's going to be a flow of people saying, 'Hey, thanks, you helped me win my fantasy league,' because of the information I always have. I'm consistently presenting the information played for bragging rights, while others, such as the World Championship of Fantasy Football held annually in Las Vegas, can garner cash prizes worth upwards of $200,000.

"Three out of four years I've won the regular season and I've finished in the top 10 twice overall," Del Pilar said. "I think that backs up a lot of what we're trying to do and the stuff we're trying to sell."

The reason fantasy football has been so successful in recent years is because of the natural setup of the NFL season, Del Pilar said.

"Most people don't have time to spend every day working on their fantasy team," he said. "But football makes it great because it's once per week and every game counts. In fantasy baseball, hockey or basketball, you can have over 100 games, so it's a situation where games don't have that much meaning."

Help me win my league

Most fantasy football experts will claim the draft can make or break a season. Del Pilar says 70 percent of a fantasy player's success will depend on his or her draft.

But what about the real players? How do they feel about their potential fantasy production as the season nears?

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens believes he'll make a huge fantasy impact this year.

"I mean hey, if you want touchdowns, if you want somebody to be up there at the top of the leader board, then you know, I guess I'm the man," said Owens, following his team's first training camp practice in Oxnard last Saturday.

Cowboys place kicker Mike Vanderjagt, a top fantasy player at his position as a member of the Indianapolis Colts the past few seasons, has no doubts his solid production will carry over to his new team.

The nine-year NFL veteran said he's never had anything but positive reaction from the countless fantasy players who have approached him over the years.

"I've never been blamed, I've always been thanked," Vanderjagt said. "I've always got 100 points or more, so it hasn't been a problem for me. It's been positive all the time when it comes to fantasy football, but every day somebody says something about it."

The consensus in many fantasy football circles is that three running backs-Kansas City's Larry Johnson, Seattle's Shaun Alexander and San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson-are the top players available in this year's drafts.

Del Pilar said Alexander is the safest pick of the group, although the Seattle ball carrier could be primed for a letdown after rushing for nearly 1,900 yards last year and losing All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson during the offseason.

But if you're going for the big payday, Johnson is the best bet to help win your league, according to Del Pilar.

"Johnson's a home run hitter," he said. "If I'm playing with a little gusto and going for the bank, going for broke, then I'll go for Larry Johnson." Fantasy Facts            12.6 million adults in the U.S. played fantasy sports in 2005            85 percent (8.3 million) played fantasy football            1 million females took part in fantasy football in '05            92 percent of fantasy players are male, 77 percent are married            Players' average age is 36            91 percent are Caucasian            86 percent own their homes            71 percent have a bachelor's degree and 92 percent attended college            59 percent make over $50,000 annually            Players   spend   an average of $493.60 per year on fantasy sports            $3 billion to $4 billion annual impact across the sports industry     Information

rovided by the Fantasy S

orts Trade Association.

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