Fantasy sport players get a big assist from the Internet and new software


Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


By Paula Felps / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

For the armchair athlete or the wannabe coach, fantasy sports have become the next best thing to being there.

Challenging sports fans to put their money where their mouths are, fantasy sports have been providing an outlet - and, in many cases, a humbling experience - for those who prefer a more interactive ap proach to athletics. Football may be the best-known fantasy game, but baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, auto racing, tennis and others also thrive on the Net.

Although it has been around for more than three decades, fantasy football moved into the big leagues in 1995 when it set up shop on the Internet, which allowed it to go global. Before then, it was played primarily between friends and business acquaintances, who would form leagues and draft players for the season. According to Fanball.com, which creates software for leagues and provides an interactive fantasy sports Web site, about 30 million fans worldwide now play in leagues. A study the site conducted last year with Harris Polls indicated that 15 percent of Ameri-cans ages 18 and over participate in fantasy sports. Not surprisingly, the fan base for fantasy sports is predominantly male; the average player is Web-savvy, between the ages of 18 and 49, has a college education and has access to the Internet on a daily basis. About 85 percent of the fans use their time online to frequent Internet sports sites.

To play fantasy football, a group of people form a league and each person becomes coach, owner and general manager of his own self-assembled dream team, which consists of players from actual teams. A draft is held before the season begins to de cide which players will be on each team, and as soon as the season begins, so does the competition.

Scoring is calculated differently from one league to the next, but players get points for such things as touchdowns, rushing, field goals and passing yards. The total points determine the weekly standings of the teams. Some teams play for prizes, which can range from plaques and trophies to thousands of dollars. But most participants are in it for the competition rather than the cash.

"Almost every company I know of has them, and it just keeps getting bigger," says Gary Patton, commissioner of a fantasy football league, which has 10 teams.

He attributes much of the growth of his league to technology and the Web, which together have built a much better fantasy. The Internet boasts thousands of pages devoted to the subject, from informational sites to league home pages.

"As more people become familiar with the Internet, more and more people are joining leagues that way. It's made it a lot more fun for everyone," says Jeff Morrison, a fantasy league player.

Mr. Patton says that this is the first year his league has had a Web site and that the playing field is entirely different from when he became a commissioner in 1990.

Before the Internet was available, "we had to do everything by hand, and it took so much time," Mr. Patton says. "On Mondays, I'd sit down with the sports section and actually have to figure out each stat for each player by hand. "Then on Tuesdays, I'd figure out the Mon-day night games. It took several hours. It took two or three days to compile it all, and now it takes minutes" with help from the Internet.

Like many of America's fascinations, fantasy football began in California in the mid-'60s. A small group of people who frequented an Oakland bar decided they could make better decisions than the coaches playing the game, and the surreal sport was born.

By 1979, fantasy football had grown to encompass leagues and had given birth to the National Fantasy Football Center. The center developed a scoring system that includes bonuses and special categories for play. Other nonsanctioned entities have emerged as well. The Global Fantasy Football League, for example, bills itself as "The Largest Fantasy Football Organization on the Planet." It's home to 1,239 fantasy football leagues.

"The number of Web sites out there and the resources available have increased so much, and that has had a lot to do with making it more popular," Mr. Patton says. "There is so much information you can find now. It makes it a lot more sophisticated."

With that sophistication comes a greater chance for accuracy. One of the problems that often plagued teams was miscalculated statistics, which created problems for team owners. League commissioners also were under the gun to compile the stats and get them in the hands of owners in time for them to choose the next week's lineups. "I personally know of several leagues where commissioners would quit midseason. With all that work, it doesn't take too many phone calls of people griping at you before you just decide it's not worth it," Mr. Patton says. Technology has helped put pleasure back into play. Jeff Morrison has participated in fantasy football and baseball leagues for 12 years. Like other players, he graduated from the handwritten calculations to using software that compiles the statistics for him.

"As more people become familiar with the Internet, more and more people are joining leagues that way," he says. "It's made it a lot more fun for everyone. You can get on there and find a bunch of places that offer sites, like ESPN.com and CNNSI (sportsillustrated.cnn.com). "It makes everyone feel a lot more involved and connected."

Mr. Morrison plays in a fantasy baseball league with individuals he has never even met - something that would not have happened five years ago. "It's all done online and by e-mail," he says. "It is so simple now. You just go in and in three minutes, you can make all your updates. "It's also fun because everyone in the league can get in there and dog-pile the owners, which gets to be really funny. There's a lot more camaraderie this way."

Many sites offer sports news in addition to fantasy football information and provide a number of tools for calculating stats. Fantasy Commissioner, the software that Mr. Patton has used to track individual standings, has evolved even further, he says. "This year is going to be exciting because it's going to a whole new level. As the technology grows, we have access to more information and more sophisticated software. That makes my life a lot easier," he says. For the first time, Mr. Patton says, players can go directly to the team's Web site and input their own lineup changes. Statistics are automatically updated as the games are played, so team owners can see where they stand without having to wait for someone to tally scores and stats by hand. "What has happened to fantasy football is that it's become more real-time," Mr. Patton says. "It's exciting. We do this because we love the game, we love the competition and we love the camaraderie. What's happened now is that you have all those benefits without a lot of the downsides."

FANTASY SPORTS SITES

CBSportsLine

www.cbs.sportsline.com

Includes breaking sports stories, stats on players and other sports information.

CDM Sports

www.cdmsports.com/fsi/football

Includes a "budget" Web-only version of Fantasy Football as well as a much more costly and competitive version, the USA Today Football Challenge.

CNN Sports Illustrated

football.si.cnn.com

A surprisingly barren site, considering its source. Just the basics on playing the game and where to register.

ESPN

espn.sportszone.com

In addition to sports and news stories, a Fantasy Football section includes columns on drafts, picking players and playing the game in top form.

Global Fantasy Football League

gffl.bmi.net/default2.asp

Keeps members updated with a newsletter and archives, plus links to other fantasy football leagues.

The Huddle

www.thehuddle.com

Offers sports articles, tips, schedules and links to teams.

National Fantasy Football Center

www.mactraa.com/nbfl/nffc.html

Includes NFL news, player rankings, message boards and archives on leagues back to 1995.

Prime Sports Interactive

www.fantasysportshq.com

Includes sports news and schedules, and offers paying and free online versions.

Sporting News

www.sportingnews.com/fantasy

Offers extensive tools for customizing information. It's packed with stats, player updates, expert analyses, rosters, charts and schedules.

Sports Buff

www.sportsbuff.com

A thorough fantasy sports site that includes baseball, basketball, hockey and football.

Statman Plus

www.statmanplus.com

Includes a computerized Draft Pick Helper and information such as players' salaries, trades and news reports.

United States Fantasy Sports

www.usfantasysports.com

Includes live chat and bulletin boards, as well as columns from its own fantasy sports experts.

Sports Fanatics

www.sportsdrafts.com

Lacks the impressive graphics and news of many sites but stages contests for Major League Baseball, playoffs and World Series; NFL football, playoffs and Super Bowl; NBA playoffs and NCAA men's basketball; and a monthly PGA golf fantasy contest.

Yahoo!

help.yahoo.com/help/football

This site answers every question imaginable about fantasy football.