What Fantasy Football Means to Hollywood

 Peter Yang

Actors and execs are among the 27 million sucked in as the recession-proof, $1 billion-a-year craze keeps growing, fueling record nfl ratings, websites, radio shows and an insatiable national obsession.

Those players who don't partake are certainly aware of fantasy's impact. Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, a likely Top 3 fantasy draft pick in most leagues this year, has credited fantasy with making him a household name. And Antonio Gates, who again should be the highest-drafted tight end among fantasy enthusiasts this year, says his fan base has widened well beyond San Diego, where he plays for the Chargers.

"When I'm outside of California, people recognize the name just through fantasy football, and it's flattering," he says. "People run up to you and are excited about meeting you, but they don't really know what you look like, they just probably heard the name. Fantasy football has given me the opportunity to broaden my horizons."

Layman or celebrity, fantasy footballers are a passionate bunch. Ferrara, in fact, says the success he has this season in his two leagues "will dictate how my new year begins. It will be an awful start to 2012 if I'm not in the playoffs. The pressure lasts for months."

And if you happen to be on the set of Entourage, where Ferrara co-stars as Turtle, during football season … well, God help you if you're not a fan of fantasy.

"I pretty much encourage everyone I speak with to play," he says. "And being an addict like me, if you don't do it, I lose 10 percent of my respect for you right off the bat."

Even a recession and a recently settled NFL labor dispute hasn't slowed the growth of fantasy football, a fact that has baffled the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which worried this year that fantasy sports might be too mature an industry to continue its colossal rise. Now, though, they expect 36 million people in the U.S. and Canada will play fantasy sports in 2011, up 13 percent from a year ago. And 75 percent of those will play football, by far the most popular fantasy sport.

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

"Our industry had never been in a recession," says Paul Charchian, president of the FSTA. "We've proved very resilient. And since the lockout ended, it's been a flood."

Charchian says that this year, about 19 percent of males in the U.S. and 8 percent of females over age 12 will play fantasy sports. The average league will collect $70 from each of its dozen or so players, and cash prizes are usually distributed to the top three finishers. The mean average age of players nowadays is 41, and about 5.4 million of those who play this year will be women, many of whom will watch more games on TV than they otherwise would have in order to track their fantasy players -- one reason the TV audience for NFL games is at record levels.

And even though the fantasy season ends weeks before the Super Bowl, it's hard to imagine fantasy players -- typically the NFL's most passionate fans -- ignoring the big game. Thus, ratings have gone through the roof, rising every year since the 2004 season, which concluded with 86 million people in the U.S. watching the New England Patriots edging the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Last year, 111 million people tuned in, making the title game the most-watched telecast of any kind in history, beating a record set, naturally, by the previous Super Bowl, which 106 million people watched.


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