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Fantasy Football's $1 Billion-a-Year Business, 27 Million Players: 'It's a Sickness'

Issue 29 Cover Fantasy Football
Peter Yang

The latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, featuring San Diego Charger Antonio Gates and actor Paul Rudd, examines America's recession-proof obsession that's driving huge NFL ratings, record broadcast deals, and web insanity.

In the newest cover story of The Hollywood Reporter, west coast business editor Paul Bond investigates the booming business of fantasy football, including the actors who are hooked on it and the entertainment companies that are profiting from what could be a $1 billion industry this year.

In interviews with celebrities and athletes, as well as the executives who are charged with milking fantasy football for everything its worth, THR delves into a pastime that, thanks to the Internet, has taken America by storm, with an estimated 27 million participants this year. Better yet: It appears recession-proof.

VIDEO: Behind the scenes of THR's Fantasy Football Photoshoot

A sneak peek of THR's fantasy football play-by-play:

ASHTON KUTCHER, PAUL RUDD AND JERRY FERRARA COULD BE CANDIDATES FOR 'FF ANONYMOUS'
Paul Rudd, who next stars in Our Idiot Brother, which the Weinstein Co. will release Aug. 26, calls his addiction to fantasy football "a sickness", one that irritates his wife and has also afflicted his Idiot Brother co-stars Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel. But there's a long list of fantasy football fanatics in Hollywood. One of them, Jerry Ferrara of Entourage, wants to prove he's tops. "You tell Ashton Kutcher and Paul Rudd: Any time, any place, any format," he says.

PHOTOS: Hollywood's Biggest Fantasy Football Fans

THE RECESSION AND NFL LABOR DISPUTES COULDN'T SLOW THE PHENOMENON
The average fantasy sports enthusiast is 41 years old, college educated and earns more than $50,000 a year. Even the recession and recently settled NFL labor dispute hasn't slowed the incredibly rapid growth of fantasy football, baffling the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. They expect 36 million people in the U.S. and Canada to play fantasy sports in 2011, up 13% from a year ago. And 75% of those will play football.

BROADCASTERS WILL PAY MEGA MILLIONS TO KEEP FANS TUNED IN
TV distributors -- CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, DirecTV, and the NFL Network -- will pay a hefty $4 billion for broadcast rights this year. In January, ESPN agreed to fork over $1.8 billion a year just for the rights to Monday Night Football from 2014 to 2022, which represents a 63 percent increase. "A lot of fantasy games come down to Monday night," said ESPN's Jason Waram, V.P. of fantasy games and social, "and even if you don't care about the teams, you'll stay up late to watch if one of your players is playing."

FX's THE LEAGUE WAS RUSHED TO BROADCAST BECAUSE OF FANTASY FOOTBALL'S SKYROCKETING POPULARITY
The League was created by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer, who rushed Season 1 into production a couple of years ago because they were worried that fantasy football was becoming so popular that, surely, someone else was going to create a show around it. Naturally, they both also play fantasy football. He plays with Rudd, and they both in The League of The League, which consists of the cast of, what else? The League.

STORY: Antonio Gates: 11 Questions About Fantasy Football

NFL'S MATT HASSELBECK BENCHED HIMSELF FOR THE SAKE OF HIS TEAM
Even NFL players partake. Matt Hasselbeck famously benched himself one week on his fantasy team so he could instead start Brett Favre. Guess which quarterback had a better day on the gridiron that week -- better than any other QB in the league, in fact. And running back Maurice Jones-Drew is so passionate about fantasy football that he hosts an entire show on the topic at Sirius XM Radio, which created an entire channel with fantasy sports content 24/7.

FANTASY FOOTBALL CREATES STARS AMONG THE STARS
Need advice in your draft this year? The Hollywood Reporter tapped ESPN's Matthew Berry, fantasy adviser to the stars, to see what he is telling his legion of entertainment industry insiders this year. Says Berry: "No matter how rich or famous you are, everyone still has the same question: 'Who do I start on Sunday?'"

FANTASY FOOTBALL ISN'T JUST A BOYS CLUB
Ratings for NFL games are at an all-time high and the last Super Bowl is the most-watched telecast in history. The NFL certainly isn't ignorant of the fact that fantasy players are helping to make this all possible. About 5.4 million fantasy football players this year will be women, a demographic the NFL is salivating over.

EXCLUSIVE: 'Entourage's' Jerry Ferrara Explains His Fantasy Football Obsession

TWITTER IS A FANTASY PLAYER'S SECRET WEAPON
NFL players like tight end Antonio Gates and running back Arian Foster have become household names. Fantasy players obsess over their performances and their health. Some will tweet them, seeking inside information the players can't share. "They act like a coach, telling me how many touchdowns they need from me that day. Sometimes I respond," says Gates.

FANTASY FOOTBALL GOT ITS START IN CALIFORNIA
Bet you don't know how fantasy football started. The Hollywood Reporter researched that, as well, and identifies "Ground Zero" for the hobby, a bar in Oakland formerly known as Kings X, which introduced it to its patrons in 1969. Twenty-seven years later, Internet sites like SportsLine, now owned by CBS, began helping leagues take their pastime online, simplifying the formerly laborious task and setting the stage for massive growth.

THE FRANCHISE HAS SPAWNED MANY COPYCATS
Still not convinced fantasy football is for you? There are alternatives, like fantasy box office, where competitors draft movies instead of NFL players, or fantasy celebrity, whereby participants draft a team of Hollywood stars and score points depending on the media they generate over a period of time. There are even fantasy games focused on American Idol, Jersey Shore and other reality TV shows, and THR identifies the Internet sites that are facilitating these activities.

Read the full THR cover story now