Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Punt, pass and click

Fantasy football leagues provide friendly competition

Express Staff Writer

Player Lenny Joseph, right, smiles in reaction to getting his pick in the fantasy football draft, as fellow player Trey Knox waits his turn. Photo by Willy Cook

"Now you are just throwing darts," screams a man across the room.

"You are a slave to the Pac-10. It's going to do you in," howls another.

"Don't screw it up like you have your life," threatens a third.

The scene unfolding is what passes for good-natured banter during a fantasy football draft. The draft itself is equal parts party, fraternal hazing, guesswork and, for people who take it more seriously than others, the culmination of weeks—if not months—of meticulous research.

Earlier this month, 12 friends gathered in west Ketchum, including three via the Internet with one making picks from Hong Kong. Despite the international flavor, the scene could have been Anywhere, U.S.A., as the men gathered to choose their fantasy teams for the upcoming NFL season.

(It's worth noting that when asked why no women were participating, league Commissioner Shannon Flavin said, "no woman has actually been interested in being here.")

While the men's wives and girlfriends left to see the flick "Eat, Pray, Love," the men staged their own drama, replete with head-banging, howls of desperation and love lost. If you want to see a grown man cry, watch as his coveted pick goes to someone else. It's akin to the bitterness and loss that Packers fans must feel watching Brett Favre in a Vikings jersey.

"You're thinking about him the round before and someone picks him—well, it's a bummer," said competitor Matt Hayes.

Numbers vary on how many people actually play fantasy football, but the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 30 million people in the United States and Canada have created teams, a 54 percent increase from two years ago. Despite the term "fantasy," it is not Monopoly money getting tossed around. MSNBC reports that $60 million dollars will change hands during a typical fantasy season.

The Ketchum crew, known as the Big C League, is as cutting edge as a dull axe blade, however. While some money is wagered, it's not going to make or break anyone, and Thatcher Marsted said the most time he devotes to following his team is 15 minutes a week.

"About as much time as you would spend on Facebook," he said.

But Marsted would be considered a dabbler to most participants. The Internet is rife with stories of men losing jobs, wives and families over a slavish devotion to the game.

Bloomberg recently published an article about a man named Mark St. Amant of Farmington, Conn., who quit his six-figure job at an advertising agency for the chance to win a $700 prize.

St. Amant was quoted as saying, "I came close a few times, but it was an always-a-bridesmaid thing. I realized this job was draining my time and preventing me from winning."

While extremists are more fun to read about than live with, it seems like the men of the Big C League are more in line with 61.9 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association in which they cited "something to play with my friends" as one of the reasons they play fantasy football.

"I just like everyone getting together and hanging out with my good friends," said Doug Oplt, who has been part of the league for six years. "I don't take it that seriously."

Apparently. When asked what his strategy for the draft is, Oplt said, "I just wing it. But I have never won, so I don't consider it effective."

Not the same approach for Flavin, who has won the league title three out of five years, and researches his potential picks with the intensity of football analyst Mel Kiper blow-drying his hair.

"It's very competitive for Shannon," Oplt said. "The rest of us just have a good time."

Flavin, a die-hard Detroit Lions fan, compiles his own draft list by position instead of relying on the computer-generated list put out by sports websites.

"Everyone knows who the top 20 players are," he said. "The first round is pretty predictable. Things don't get interesting until the later rounds. It's the sleeper pick that no one knows about that often generates a lot of points."

Leagues make up their own rules and regulations, but most follow a standard of drafting a slate of offensive players, including quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and kickers. Also picked are two team defenses. Points are amassed for different plays made by the individual professional players in their real NFL games. Touchdowns, field goals, plays that gain a certain amount of yardage and receptions made by the pro players all gain specific numbers of points for the fantasy team.

The Big C League is divided into three four-team divisions. Teams play their division rivals twice and other teams once during the season. The eight squads with the most wins meet in the playoffs and the final two in the championship, which culminates before the 16-game NFL season is over.

"Typically, there are only four teams that are very good," Flavin said. "And most teams aren't worth anything come playoff time. But these guys are getting better."

The camaraderie in the Big C League carries through all year long. Most of the men play coed softball together, ski and mountain bike, but fantasy football offers another opportunity for male bonding.

"It's a way to stay connected all year long," player Lenny Joseph said.

So on any given Sunday, the general managers of the Noonans, Cheddars (from Wisconsin, of course), Sick Birds, Hazed and Confused, Slender Tender, Sweep the Leg and the Hustlers can be found sharing couch space, camaraderie and a real live connection from playing fantasy football.

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