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.

That's because a typical fantasy team consists of players from about nine NFL teams. Sure, a "manager" can check the stats after the games are over, but more times than not they want to tune into as many of the televised contests as possible to watch their players perform and, hopefully, score a touchdown, catch a pass or kick a field goal on live TV. And when they're separated from a TV screen, they're taking advantage of the many mobile apps dedicated to tracking and researching fantasy sports.

Also taking advantage, so to speak, are advertisers, because fantasy players are a rich demographic. In a 2009 study commissioned by the FSTA, 31 percent of fantasy players had purchased a new TV in the past year compared with 21 percent of the general population, and 24 percent bought a video-game console compared with 13 percent. The data are similar for a large number of consumer categories, in fact.

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"It's an amazingly vibrant and growing business, especially because a lot of players will play in more than one league," says Yahoo vp media networks Ken Fuchs.

"Fantasy definitely took off with the web," adds Jason Kint, vp and GM for CBSSports.com. "You can't go anywhere to watch football without a bunch of people in the room tracking their fantasy players. All of a sudden, every game matters."

As a testament to the appeal of the pigskin, CBSSports.com launched fantasy college football three years ago, and it has grown so fast that Kint says it will surpass professional hockey, basketball and baseball to become the No. 2 fantasy sport at the site.

On TV, though, fantasy is still mostly an afterthought. Scrolls at the bottom of screens roll on televised games with real-time updates of scoring plays and players' rushing, receiving, passing and kicking stats, and ESPN and the NFL Network dabble in fantasy with segments and specials dedicated to the hobby. But most of the action remains relegated to the Internet, even when it comes to video. Fantasy Football Today at CBSSports.com streams Sundays, with experts offering advice as to which players should be in starting fantasy lineups, which should ride the bench and which ones won't even play that week because of injury or suspension. The show usually attracts an audience of 300,000.

Those in need of a fix have had another outlet for the past two years: FX, home of The League, which begins its third season Oct. 6 and revolves around a group of friends who obsess over fantasy football.

In the premiere episode, a defense attorney trades his first-round draft pick to a prosecutor in order to knock three years off the prison sentence of a man who robbed liquor stores. Meanwhile, another league member practically kidnaps a 9-year-old boy known as "The Oracle" for his football prowess and pumps him for advice. And the league's commissioner is threatened with divorce by his wife if he attends the draft party. He attends; they split. "God bless fantasy football," says the husband at the top of the show. "There are many things a man can do with his time. This is better than those things."

The League was created by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Schaffer (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Jackie Marcus Schaffer (Disturbia). They write and produce, and he directs, but she gets credit for the concept.

On Christmas Eve four years ago, the couple were on a ski trip in France, eating at at a fancy restaurant while football games were being played stateside. Schaffer faked stomach pains in order to excuse himself so he could secretly go outside to make a phone call to check the status of his fantasy team.

"She catches me outside doing this and just starts laughing and says, 'This is a great idea for a show,' " Schaffer recalls. "It was a great day. She came up with a TV show that is now in its third season, and I won both of my leagues!"

The League is a hit for FX, attracting an average 1.4 million viewers, up 4 percent in the second season. It has also struck a chord with NFL players, who call the Schaffers to ask that their names be mentioned on their show or to lobby for a guest appearance. Last season, Gates, Chad Ochocinco (now with the Patriots), Terrell Suggs (Baltimore Ravens) and Josh Cribbs (Cleveland Browns) were on the show. This season features appearances by Jones-Drew, Sidney Rice (Seattle Seahawks) and Brent Grimes (Atlanta Falcons).

When The League began airing, the Schaffers heard skepticism from colleagues who thought it would attract too small of a niche audience to succeed. "They were going, 'How can you do a show about fantasy football?' But to us, the question was, 'Why hasn't someone already done a show about fantasy football?' " Schaffer says. "There aren't 30 million actors or lawyers or priests who solve crimes, but there are plenty of shows about them."

FX greenlighted the show in August a few years ago, and the couple shot a season's worth of episodes in 20 days to get it on the air during football season. "We didn't want to sit on it for another year," Marcus Schaffer says. "We could see that more and more people played fantasy sports and that the business was exploding."

Still a fantasy football fanatic, Schaffer is in a league with Rudd, NFL Networks frontman Rich Eisen and actors Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Joe Lo Truglio (Superbad).

He's also in a league with his wife and the show's cast -- Mark Duplass, Stephen Rannazzisi, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Jon Lajoie and Katie Aselton. They call it the League of The League, and Marcus Schaffer is the reigning champ. That means she gets to choose the venue for this year's draft party. She's thinking of somewhere in Las Vegas, where they and the cast will appear at the House of Blues in late August as part of a comedy tour to promote the series.

"I'm going to remake the trophy this year and present it to myself and then bring it home and make Jeff keep it on his nightstand," she jokes, showing off her trash-talking skills, a hallmark of fantasy sports.

Satellite radio has also embraced fantasy. SiriusXM first aired a show that gave callers advice on how to manage their fantasy football teams seven years ago, and last year it created SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, a channel with fantasy content 24/7.

"We keep listeners coming back, and we keep them for a long time," says John Hansen, a host on the channel.

Like several fantasy experts, Hansen has a Hollywood following. Some seek his advice privately while others appear on the show, like rocker Meat Loaf, who reportedly plays in as many as 30 fantasy football leagues each year.

"He told me, unequivocally, he'd rather win a fantasy championship than another Grammy," Hansen says.

Last year, Hansen aired one of his shows from the Palm in Las Vegas, where Ashton Kutcher's league was holding its draft party. That league included Demi Moore, Punky Brewster's Soleil Moon Frye, American Pie's Shannon Elizabeth and Danny Masterson, Kutcher's buddy from That 70's Show.

"I fought relentlessly with Demi Moore on-air," Hansen recalls. "They play in a keeper league, so I told her that the fact that she had Aaron Rodgers was more impressive to me than the tear she conjured up in Ghost." (A keeper league allows players to retain their fantasy players from one season to the next.)

Rudd is so into fantasy football, he sounds embarrassed.

"I've never played Dungeons & Dragons, but essentially I am now as a grown man," he says. "When you associate it with sports, it seems like, 'Oh, it's cooler because it's sports.' But it's not. And anybody who doesn't play it has absolutely the right attitude about it, which is, 'You guys are lame.' But it's so fun, it sucks you in."

But as passionate as Rudd, Meat Loaf, Kutcher and other Hollywood fantasy players are, Ferrara probably has them beat.

"We're very, very cutthroat in our league," says Ferrara, who plays with Charlie O'Connell of The Bachelor, Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment, Hot in Cleveland executive producer Todd Milliner and Max Greenfield of the upcoming Fox series New Girl.

"The great thing about a league with actors is you can find embarrassing old photos of each other, which we'll post on our league's home page while we're trash-talking," says Ferrara. "My friend Sal said, 'You actors -- you either work two months straight or you're off for two months.' He feels it's unfair because we have way too much time on our hands to scour the free agency waiver wire and make trades while he's working 12 hours a day. Maybe he's right."

Ferrara's league rents out a bar in or near Hollywood for draft night. "It's pretty much the biggest night of the year for me," he says. In past years, a camera crew followed them for The Gentlemen's League, an online show about their league that had a short life span on DirecTV.

"Now we just get to worry about the league again and not the cameras, so it will be nice to lock into fantasy football," says Ferrara, who notes there's a cash prize for the winner of his league. "But honestly, I don't know what it is. A lot of times the guys will donate it to charity. I'm not trying to sound like a good boy, but there's so much more on the line than money."

He's probably not referring to the prizes, though, which is a trophy for first place, a Glengarry Glen Ross DVD for second and a box of steak knives for third.

Oh, and one more thing.

"If there are any other celebrities in this piece for The Hollywood Reporter, you tell them to invite me into their league or, if they think they can hang with us, I'll make a spot for them in ours," Ferrara says. "You tell Ashton Kutcher and Paul Rudd: any time, any place, any format."

Consider them told.           

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