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Fantasy Football Driving NFL to Record Breaking Ratings Year

Philadelphia Eagles Captains
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

According to an ESPN survey, 70% of respondents who played fantasy football said their make-believe matchups led them to watch real NFL games they might otherwise have not tuned into.

The NFL has earned record ratings this year, thanks in part to an exceptionally weak fall TV season, player drama… and fantasy football.

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Some 29 million Americans participate in fantasy football -- making them more likely to tune into match ups that don't feature local teams and watch losing games longer, to see if their players will make plays that will earn them points.

The result: This season of the NFL will be the highest-rated ever. As the Los Angeles Times points out, 26 games that have aired so far this season have received more than 20 million viewers (only nine non-football shows have done the same -- and seven of those were episodes of Dancing With the Stars), and 15 NFL games have averaged more than 25 million viewers. By comparison, just nine games earned those numbers for the 2009 season.

"It's not just that, 'I'm an Eagles fan, and I'm going to watch the Eagles,'" Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming at ESPN, which has seen double-digit rises in "Monday Night Football" ratings this season, tells the L.A. Times. "[If] I happen to have Peyton Manning as my starting quarterback and I happen to have Chris Johnson on my fantasy team … I'm going to watch the Titans and I'm going to watch the Colts, 'cause I want to see how those guys are going to do."

Fantasy football is also growing as it becomes easier to keep stats on sites like fanball.com, which is owned by Liberty Media.

"Before the Internet and before they had stats services like NFL.com and ESPN, which are running stats for you," said Michael Fabiano, a longtime fantasy football analyst who now works for NFL.com, "I was doing it on pen and paper. Now it's much easier."

CBS research head David Poltrack did a study, reasoning that if fantasy players were boosting numbers, then ratings for non-home-team games in big TV markets would rise relative to home-team games.

The numbers proved true. In 2007, ratings for non-home-team games represented 58% of the ratings for home-team games. In 2008, the number grew to 62%. In 2009, it jumped to 63%.

"It is sort of gradually creeping up," Poltrack told the Times. "That would be somewhat supportive of the hypothesis." (Poltrack also warned there may be other factors, such as the prevalence of high-def TV -- one of the 7 reasons THR's Tim Goodman noted when explaining the NFL's rating domination this season.)

But there are few doubts within the industry of fantasy football's effect on the sport's popularity.

According to an ESPN survey, 70% of respondents who played fantasy football said their make-believe matchups led them to watch real NFL games they might otherwise have not tuned into.

"You could have a running back that his team lost, but he just kicked butt in the game and he just blew it out for you in your fantasy team," said Kierstan Cleary, a pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of two, who, since joining a fantasy football league three years ago, has tripled the number of games she watches each season. "You pay attention to all the finer points."