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What Fantasy Football Means to Hollywood

In Knocked Up, Paul Rudd's Pete is hooked on fantasy sports to the point he hides his participation in the pastime from his wife. It's somewhat biographical given the actor's penchant for fantasy football and his wife's disdain for how the hobby consumes him.

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"As soon as fantasy comes around, I'm on websites going: 'Oh, what's my draft position? Do I go running back, or do I try to maybe mix it up and draft a quarterback in the first round, which I've never done?' And then I'll stop myself and say, 'God, what is wrong with me?' " says Rudd. "One of the big complaints that my wife would have with me was she'd say, 'I'm so sick of looking at your back,' because I was just on the computer."

Then he adds: "And I don't think I'm alone here."

Hardly. Fantasy sports in general and football in particular have exploded since enthusiasts took their hobby online. This year, Americans will spend $600 million to $1 billion on fantasy football, depending on how you massage the math (does a subscriber of DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket count, since its NFL RedZone channel is a favorite among fantasy players?). Any way you slice it, though, the entertainment conglomerates are prime beneficiaries, not only because fantasy players are driving NFL TV ratings to record highs but because their sports websites are where fantasy leagues are managed.

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Rudd will next be seen in Our Idiot Brother, due Aug. 26 from the Weinstein Co., playing a loafer whose idealism manages to wreak havoc on the lives of his loved ones. His co-stars, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel, have also been known to engage in fantasy football. And Rudd's also working on a sequel to Knocked Up, where his character is still hooked on fantasy sports.

"It's just so super nerdy. It sucks," Rudd, 42, says about fantasy football. "I wish I didn't like it as much as I do. It's a sickness."

And a collective one at that. Fantasy football is where a dozen or so friends form a league and choose their teams by "drafting" NFL players and competing for points -- and most times cash -- based on the gridiron success of the real players each week. So popular is the pastime that, as America approaches the first game of the 2011 NFL season on Sept. 8 -- when the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers play the previous year's champs, the New Orleans Saints -- you can expect to hear conversations of fantasy draft strategies anywhere fans might gather. Even on a movie or TV set.

"I'm a junkie," says Entourage actor Jerry Ferrara, one of many celebrities who, like 27 million other North Americans, will play fantasy football this year. It's a pastime with legions of Hollywood fans, including Jason Bateman and Seth Meyers. Some even play publicly, like Cheers alumnus Jay Thomas, whose league includes Playboy Playmate Pilar Lastra and wrestler Mike "The Miz" Mizanin. Their league's draft party at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square this year was streamed live over SiriusXM Satellite Radio -- on a channel dedicated to fantasy sports, no less.

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Even NFL players are fantasy enthusiasts, like Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who hosts his own show on the topic called Runnin' With MJD on SiriusXM, and Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who a couple of years ago famously "benched" himself in his fantasy league so he could start Brett Favre. Wouldn't you know it, Hasselbeck threw four touchdowns that week and scored more fantasy points than any other quarterback.

 

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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.

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"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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Fantasy football was created in 1962 by Wilfred Winkenbach, an Oakland Raiders limited partner, with help from the team's PR man Bill Tunnel and newspaper reporter Scotty Starling, according to HowStuffWorks.com. They invited American Football League affiliates, football journalists and anyone who sold or bought 10 season tickets to the Raiders' 1963 season to join their league, which used cash payoffs for scoring -- $2.50 for a kickoff returned for a touchdown, 50 cents for a rushing TD, etc. "Ground Zero" for fantasy football was the Kings X sports bar in Oakland, which, inspired by Winkenbach's creation, in 1969 opened a league for patrons and used a points system rather than cash.

Fantasy football spread from there, with friends banding together to form leagues and throw money into a pot that would go to their league champion each season. But it was a laborious hobby that included researching the week's stats for every team and player in the NFL to figure out who scored what in fantasy terms. The Internet made it fantastically simple, and sites like SportsLine.com (now owned by CBS) began launching fantasy products as early as 1996.

With a cash incentive to go along with bragging rights and the fun of managing your own NFL team, it's no surprise that fantasy football has had a halo effect on the entire industry. By every metric, a fantasy player is more engaged in the sport than are the fans who don't play fantasy. It's one reason for those massive ratings and why the 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.

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"A lot of fantasy games come down to Monday night," says Jason Waram, vp fantasy games and social at ESPN, "and even if you don't care about the teams, you'll stay up late to watch if one of your players is playing."

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is to meet his goal of transforming the league into a $25 billion industry by 2027, up from $7.6 billion in 2008, you can bet that fantasy will have played a big role.

But the most obvious manifestation of the super-engaged fantasy fan isn't TV -- it's online. A fantasy player, for example, will spend 90 minutes a month at CBSSports.com compared with 30 minutes for a fan who doesn't play fantasy. And fantasy players will visit NFL.com twice as often as a football fan who doesn't play fantasy; plus, they'll read four times as many pages. Those are the kinds of figures that prompted the NFL to take its fantasy business in-house last year, whereas it had been farming it out to CBS Sports.

"Look, we're the NFL," says Jeff Berman, GM of NFL Digital Media. "If you want the authentic deal, you should come here, and we should do it ourselves."

As with many sites, NFL.com offers its fantasy products for free, but players aren't averse to shelling out cash for a premium product. That's why CBSSports.com sells several league management products for as much as $500 a season, and its business grows every year despite the competition from 60 or so sites that give away similar services. (Websites, though, do not share how many leagues are managed.) Because of the premium products, CBSSports.com claims to generate more revenue via fantasy sports than any other site (many smaller sites, like RotoWire.com, also sell fantasy products).

Not surprisingly, the NFL is working on premium fantasy products of its own, though it won't divulge details.

"The NFL gets it now," says Charchian. "For a long time they didn't, because they confused it with gambling. But fantasy players end up doubling up on the amount of NFL they watch."

 

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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.