Deion Sanders was once quoted as saying, “Baseball is my girlfriend, football is my wife.” Sanders, the last athlete to play pro football and baseball at the same time, also may be speaking on behalf of the millions of people who play fantasy sports, virtual leagues in which players draft a roster of real athletes to play out their wildest (sports) fantasies.
Fantasy sports of today are high-tech descendants of the “rotisserie” baseball leagues of pre-Internet days, in which stats junkies would painstakingly — and lovingly — follow a team of all-stars. Stats would be compiled by hand via the previous day's box scores.
“The Internet has made all this more accessible and much easier to play,” says Greg Ambrosius, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. “I can check all my leagues within a couple of minutes.”
The football and baseball leagues quickly figured out there was money to be made in fantasyland. Last month, MLB Advanced Media, the marketing unit of Major League Baseball, set off panic after announcing it was raising licensing fees for the right to use players' names and stats. Fantasy baseball diehards wondered if their providers would go on strike in protest of the fee hike. The drama soon died down after the announcement of licensing partners such as Yahoo!, ESPN, CBS Sportsline and AOL, a unit of Time Warner.
The MLB's move to secure higher fees is bound to be copied by the National Football League. Football is the most popular fantasy sport, with an estimated 8 million users. It also enjoys the advantage of appealing to more casual fantasy-sports participants with its 16-game, once-a-week season, compared with baseball's 162-game season.
“You can check it once or twice a week and be competitive,” says Yahoo! spokesman Dan Berger, explaining the popularity of fantasy football. “Not to say that a lot of people don't spend a lot of time on football, but it appeals to them because every Sunday they'll go to the bars to watch the games. It's a very habitual thing. Baseball is different: It's a longer season with more games, more players. So you kind of have to constantly research your team, and injuries come and go a lot more.”
Fantasy football took in about $100 million in sales in 2004, excluding advertising revenue, while baseball came in at a fraction of that, $20 million, according to estimates from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
But Ambrosius says that fantasy sports are ““a hard industry to quantify,” given that a number of providers, including Yahoo!, offer their services free, with modest fees for premium add-ons such as real-time stat tracking. Sportsline.com, which was acquired by Viacom in December, charges a fee of about $25 per user. In some leagues, cash prizes are given out at the end of the season.
So what's next? Ambrosius says new technology for fantasy sports is “right down the pipe,” with interactive TV capable of fully integrating a couch potato's fantasy stats in real time. “You will be able to see the live scoring of fantasy on the left-hand side of the screen while you're watching the game,” he says. “The growth is certainly not at its peak.”