Real-world advances alter fantasy sports

(MCT) – Thanks to its instant ability to compile hits, homers and high flies while updating standings at the same time, the Internet has dramatically changed how people play fantasy sports.

With Opening Day around the corner, it’s a good time to note that the growth of fantasy sports, like much of our entertainment today, mirrors the rapid evolution of technology.

Now, as high-speed connections penetrate the majority of Web-enabled homes, you can pay to watch six games on your computer at once at Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV.

Or, as media companies take advantage of the growing power of online advertising, they can offer fantasy leagues brimming with a rich spread of up-to-the-minute content – stats, injury reports, pitching changes – for free, as ESPN is doing for the first time this baseball season.

And for the avid fantasy player who is always on the go, results from Alfonso Soriano’s latest at-bat or news of a touchdown run by Cedric Benson is only a text message away.

“The Web has made the barrier to entry to play (fantasy sports) drop to practically nothing,” said Peter Schoenke, president of Rotowire, a fantasy news service. “There’s not a lot of work required to participate.”

It was a different story when fantasy sports started to emerge in the 1980s. Then, league commissioners would generate weekly stats with calculators, crunching numbers from box scores. That was a huge hassle and often pitted the guy who spent hours each week compiling stats for his league against the team owners, who were quick to point out any error that affected the standings.

How much money the fantasy sports business generates each year is hard to pin down. Some estimates place it at a few billion dollars; others a far more conservative several hundred million dollars. The latter figure counts things such as magazines sold, fees paid for league management services and specialized products that provide “insider” tips.

It doesn’t include how much money companies such as ESPN, Yahoo or CBS SportsLine make from selling ads on their fantasy sites. Nor does it account for people buying mobile phones with robust data applications, or the number of folks who added home wireless connections so they can watch a football game with a beer and a laptop.

The big change recently is the growth and experimentation of free services.

At SportsLine, “we started as a pay service, then went to free and then back to pay,” said spokesman Alex Riethmiller. SportsLine now offers both free and paid leagues for baseball, with the big difference being that the free format is more rigid while the paid product offers more customization.

At ESPN, fantasy football has been free the past two years, and baseball will be for the first time this year. Since switching from paid football to free, ESPN has seen usage grow by a factor of eight, and the number of leagues doubled both seasons.

With baseball, “in the first week of offering the free service, we’ve already surpassed what we had last year,” said Matt Berry, ESPN’s senior director of fantasy, who was in Chicago last week for a meeting of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. He said ESPN’s free leagues are fully customizable, too, supported by a growing base of advertisers that want to be affiliated with affluent fantasy players.

The average player is 41, has a household income of $95,000 and, in what should come as a shock to nobody, is usually male, according to a new survey commissioned by the association and conducted by Kim Beason, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi. (But don’t discount the women. Guess whose wife won last year’s NFL Pick’em game.)

The number of people who play fantasy sports is growing, but not exploding as it had in years past, Beason found. The average fantasy baseball player has been at it for nine years, while fantasy football players have been doing it for 10.

His research found that fantasy football grew 2 percent in 2006, while baseball grew by 8 percent. That’s based on people playing for less than a year, and, in part, indicates that while football remains the most popular fantasy sport, players are getting into other leagues. Basketball participation grew 10 percent in 2006; golf, 14 percent; and NASCAR, 11 percent.

Basically, the same player is in more leagues.

“Many guys have five or six teams at a time,” said Alec Peters, chief executive for, who estimates there are about 6 million such die-hards across the country. “They may love football, but they are also playing basketball and hockey, not because they like basketball and hockey, but because they are addicted to fantasy sports.”

FSDashboard helps that serious player keep track of all those teams by managing them on one site. If you’re in baseball league hosted by Yahoo, a football league on ESPN or NASCAR on SportsLine, Peters’ site lets you keep track from one place.

He is trying to leverage that fantasy fanaticism with a new product expected to launch in weeks, It’s a social networking site where fantasy players manage their teams but also store video clips, pictures, blog posts and the clever trash talk they send to rival fantasy players.

It’s not the only new product.

“Nobody is reinventing fantasy, because it’s a good game,” said SportsLine’s Riethmiller. “But there are tweaks.”

These tweaks are called “short-form games,” and they include SportsLine’s head-to-head football game, where two players in the same fantasy football league decide one Sunday to challenge each other. They hold a quick draft of players from the noon NFL games and have a one-day tournament.

ESPN also is looking at tweaks, Berry said, including games like home-run derby.

One new product comes from Canadian company LiveHive Systems. It’s an interactive game allowing players watching the same baseball or football contest on their computers to predict whether the batter will get a hit or a walk, or whether the play will be a run or pass.

The player who makes the most accurate predictions gets the most points and can win prizes from sponsoring companies.

LiveHive is marketing the product to Web sites and broadcasters as an interactive, add-on service, and announcements of partners are expected soon, said Robert Riopelle, a vice president. For a sneak peak, go to

While it’s not clear if advertising can support all these fantasy initiatives, it is having an impact.

Consider what 4info is doing with text messaging. You can get a service from the company ( that will provide game scores, specific player updates or team news, such as the White Sox, sent directly to any mobile phone. The service is free, not including what your carrier charges to receive a text.

At the bottom of each message, there’s an ad. If you’re interested, reply for more information.

One sponsor, Chevrolet, has had 1.5 million impressions so far thanks to the service, said marketing manager Erica Pierantozzi, which means 1.5 million people were directed to the nearest Chevy dealer.

“As the Internet has grown, so has this business,” said Rotowire’s Schoenke.

That’s no fantasy.