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Cash in on fantasy sports
The everyman's obsession that lets everyone be the owner of a pro-ball team is big business.
December 7, 2005: 4:53 PM EST
By Matthew Boyle, Fortune

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - The American male's obsession with sports is nothing new, but try this on for size: More than half of fantasy sports fanatics spend over an hour a day just thinking about their teams.

That finding, along with the fact that one in four fantasy players spends more than $500 a year on the games, comes from the first-ever sociological analysis of online fantasy sports participants, conducted by Don Levy, an assistant sociology professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

These games, burgeoning in popularity and run by Web sites like ESPN.com and CBS SportsLine, allow regular Joes to create and run teams of actual professional athletes in sports like baseball and football. The teams square off against each other in leagues formed by friends or workmates, with teams earning points based on the on-field performance of, say, Derek Jeter or Peyton Manning.

With upwards of 15 million players in the U.S., fantasy sports are a billion-dollar market. CBS SportsLine, for example, generated $15 million in sales from 1.3 million fantasy football customers last year.

Since fantasy players tend to linger on sites -- reading player profiles, pondering their starting lineups, and sending messages to others in the league -- they attract blue-chip advertisers like McDonald's (up $0.10 to $35.26, Research), Verizon (down $0.29 to $31.45, Research) and General Motors (up $0.65 to $23.04, Research).

Responding to fantasy players' insatiable desire for content, CBS and ESPN are also doing more to incorporate fantasy storylines and themes in their TV coverage of sporting events.

Who is the fantasy sports fanatic?

While fantasy's viability as a business is now unquestioned, little has been heretofore known about the people who play fantasy sports.

For starters, the one-year study, made exclusive to FORTUNE Magazine, found that they're mostly male, white, married, well-educated (over two-thirds of Levy's sample had a college degree or better) and earn a decent living.

Of the nearly 1,200 people queried, three out of four earn at least $50,000 a year, well above the national average.

"These are not social misfits living in their parents' basement," said Levy. Not surprisingly, the majority rated their sports "fanship" very high, with fanship being defined as active consumption of sport.

Most interesting, though, was Levy's finding that 60 percent of fantasy players spend over an hour a day just thinking about their fantasy team, and 85 percent spent over 30 minutes.

Granted, Levy's sample was skewed towards rabid fantasy players like Larry Dobrow, 35, a Manhattan-based freelance writer who thinks the one-hour-a-day figure may be understated.

"During the days leading up to a baseball or football draft, [fantasy] is pretty much your primary concern -- including work, relationships, and sometimes hygiene," he said.

Employer beware

Workplace consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that fantasy football alone will cost employers $196.1 million in lost productivity during the current NFL season. That figure may prove to be conservative, since it was based on fantasy players taking only 10 minutes out of their work day to manage their teams.

"Productivity goes down the drain," said CEO John Challenger. "It's like a virus."

Despite the impact on productivity, Challenger says companies shouldn't quash fantasy participation during work hours, as the effects of a ban could be far worse than the damage caused by playing fantasy games.

Levy's study quantifies that damage: Two-thirds of his sample spend at least five hours a week managing their fantasy teams, and more than an third are busy with fantasy sports for more than 10 hours a week. Those hours can come at any time. During his eight-day Mediterranean honeymoon cruise, Mark Del Franco, 36, recalled logging onto the ship's Internet connection to make daily lineup changes. "At that point, my wife was asking herself if she made a mistake," he said.

The damage extends to fantasy players' wallets as well. Since most players pony up dollars not only for league entry fees but also subscribe to fantasy news and analysis sites, the money spent by fantasy players annually can really add up. The average amount spent was $360, Levy found, but 24 percent spend more than $500 a year on their various teams.

Lingua franca revisited

Levy argues that while sports do not take over the lives of these fans, sport -- and the consumption of sports news, games and information -- was "laced throughout the day's structure" and as such, "has become the language of men and masculinity."

Nearly half spend more than 10 hours a week watching sports on TV, which is perhaps not news to the spouses of these men.

The study also investigated why they play. For starters, it's fun. It also makes watching sports more interesting.

Others like the competition and the ever-present trash talking on league message boards. Less important, Levy found, was using fantasy sports to meet new people or to satisfy a thirst for gambling.

And for those who think that hours spent on fantasy Web sites will rot your brain, fear not. Levy argues that fantasy sports success depends to some degree on the use of abstraction, rationality and the employment of positivism.

While 82 percent played an organized sport in high school or beyond, having played the game is not a prerequisite for fantasy success. Rather, those who do well don't get wrapped up in the real-life moral foibles of professional players -- what that player can do for him on the field is more important than what kind of person he is.

"Some would call this approach businesslike," Levy writes.

So do many corporate chieftains play fantasy football? The only one we could find was Doug Brooks, CEO of Brinker International (up $0.27 to $40.66, Research), parent company of restaurant chain Chili's, whose fantasy football team, as of week 13, remained winless.

But his company's stock is up 7 percent since the start of the football season, so shareholders can rest assured that his mind is squarely on Brinker.

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