Living the Dream
Fueled in part by the internet, fantasy sports have exploded into a billion-dollar industry
By NICK WILLIAMS
Those within the Glens Falls Baseball Fantasy League call it Christmas. To other fantasy sports players, it's just draft day. "Draft day is pretty serious," said John Potter, a Queensbury Middle School teacher. Serious indeed. Fantasy players come prepared with piles of information, players statistics, team records and schedules, while others have already assembled a pre-draft list. Some even come sporting their favorite team's jersey. "We call it Christmas because you get a new team, you start over... it's an exciting day," said Dr. Michael Crook, commissioner of the league the last 10 years.
Using a life-size draft board, team owners mark their drafts with stickers. While waiting their turn to draft, players scramble to find the next best available player. Grunts and moans are heard as the pool of superstars empties.
It's a day-long event. This particular fantasy league is 17 years old, comprised of doctors at Glens Falls Hospital, teachers from various schools and random friends. The league was created inside the walls of Glens Falls Hospital in 1989 as a father-and-son hobby.
Over the years, however, as the sons grew older and went on to create and play in their own leagues, the league grew smaller and the fathers were left to play amongst each other. "I've gone through two sons," Crook said. Still, the middle aged men continue to play year after year, mainly because they enjoy the comradery, the friendly competition and, of course, the aura that swims inside a large board room inside Glens Falls Hospital where Christmas comes early. It's just one of thousands of fantasy leagues played by average people across the country each day.
A Billion dollar industry
Fantasy sports, simply a virtual simulation of a professional sports team's general manager, owner and coaching job thrown into one, has grown tremendously since its birth about 20 years ago. According to a 2005 report by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), 12.6 million people who live in the U.S. and are 18 and older played fantasy sports in 2005. Players can form leagues with friends, draft a number of real-life pro athletes from an array of sports, whether it be football, baseball, basketball, golf and even NASCAR. It can be played on the Internet, over the phone, and even through the mail.
Based on a study conducted by Dr. Kim Beason of the University of Mississippi reported by the FSTA, fantasy sports owns a 1-2 billion dollar annual impact and a 3-4 billion dollar impact on the sports industry in general.
"Every year we've seen growth," said Kevin Gralen, president of Head 2 Head Fantasy Sports and FSTA board member. "
A lot of big advertisers getting involved. McDonalds. Ford.The 2005 FSTA report shows that 55 percent of fantasy sport players report watching more sports on television since they started playing and that the bulk of fans who attend games play fantasy sports. Aided by the Internet revolution, some of the more popular sites like Yahoo has provided free fantasy sports to millions. "It's gone mainstream," said Rick Codella, who works for Rotoworld.com, a fantasy sports statistics and analysis provider site based out of Somers.
"It's a billion dollar industry now," said Al O'Harra, who owns and operates Fantasy Sports R Us from his home in Brooklyn. "I run high level leagues. It costs $150 and above to join one of my (VIP) leagues. Some of these guys are 19 or 20, some are business owners.
This breaks all warps of life. Gralen said his company, which started in 1994 out of Scotsdale, Arizona, is a very profitable private company with thousands of fantasy customers across the country. He said Head 2 Head offers leagues that offer thousands of dollars in prize money. "You can win $100 if you win your league, $200 in the playoffs," he said. "The national champion wins $25,000." Some say the sole reason fantasy sports has become so popular is because it's the ultimate connection to pro sports and its players. Because fantasy sports is driven by competition, that only makes it more popular. "It's a skill competition," Gralen said. "With the American culture, my perspective is, people love to compete."
Fantasy sports has even turned into a profession. Matt Berry, CEO of TalentedMrRoto.com, has been a freelance fantasy writer for seven years and has seen work published in Sporting News, ESPN The Magazine and has even appeared on ESPN's Cold Pizza. "It's a good gig," Berry said, shortly after leaving New York City to attend the NBA draft. "I try to look for what I would find useful if I were playing. I scout, I read the paper, all the things you need to do. I help predict how a player would perform. I'm 75 percent accurate." Berry has been a fantasy player for 22 years.
"It's only going getting bigger," Berry said. "Anyone that's tried it will play it for life."
I am the fantasy player
It sounds logical that all athletes, either at the pro or amateur level, are fantasy players. They, of course, should be the most sports savvy people on the planet, right? That's not necessarily the case. "Personally never been involved," said Adam Terry, a Queensbury and Syracuse grad now playing for the Baltimore Ravens. "For me, with the profession I'm in, I'm more focused on what happens (with Baltimore) on Sunday, not what Payton Manning threw to help me out. The closest I get is making a team on (John) Madden." "I never got into it," said Will Groff, another Queensbury grad who, as a junior at Cortland, was recently drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. "For me as a player, I'm so caught up in playing it."
"When I was younger," said Michael Van Schaick, the former Glens Falls standout now at Division I Fairfield. "It was really just competition among my friends. We had a draft. It was during lunch in the cafeteria."
Because there are actual fantasy leagues for college sports, all three athletes have been on the fantasy market since they were freshman. Still, the athletes said they understand why people enjoy the hobby. "I think it's sort of an outlet for people," Groff said. "It's a great way to follow sports," Van Schaick said. "It broadens your sports perspective." Terry plays in the most popular form of fantasy sports, football. Some of his teammates are of the most popular fantasy players. "It's a good marketing tool for the NFL," Terry said. "It's another way fans can get to know the game more."
Playing for a Bat
This season, Potter and fellow Queensbury teacher and varsity baseball coach Jay Marra are at the bottom of the Glens Falls Baseball League. Their team, the O'Fers, haven't done well since former Queensbury custodian Tom Linendol split from the franchise a few years ago. This season, Linendol is in first place. "They're the butt of the jokes," Crook said of the O'Fers. Oddly enough, Marra and Potter have 45 years of baseball coaching experience between them. "You'd think as a good coach I wouldn't be such a lousy manager," Marra joked. At the end of the season, Crook hands out awards at a special banquet for the fantasy players. The awards recognize good and bad trades, as well as good and bad draft picks. Potter and Marra have taken home the worst pick award the past few years. There is no $25,000 prize at the end of the season in this league. The reward at the end of a season full of player trades, exchanges of banter on a message board, and nervous breakdowns, is a coveted bat. "We've got a bat with all of the winning teams on it. The winning team keeps the bat at home for year," Crook said. After spending countless hours tweaking their teams, preparing for drafts and arguing with their partners, a bat becomes their Stanley Cup, their NCAA championship, their World Series Title. "It's on my lap right now," Crook said. Next year, it'll start all over again, with the players gathering in a large board room to celebrate Christmas.
Too bad a player's season isn't based on whether they were naughty or nice.