November 27, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Fantasy football leagues score big with fans

Simone Kaplan hated Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms and the rest of the New York Giants as a child.

Her father, a big Giants fan, spooked her on game days with his sudden "shrieking at the television," said Kaplan, 30. She said she also could never see the entertainment value in watching men crash into each other like rutting deer. That was before she got hooked on fantasy football.

Now Kaplan starts her mornings by scouring the waiver wire for overlooked wide receivers or crunching rushing statistics to determine which of her running backs to start. Her fiance, Curt Cote, said Kaplan's transition to Sunday morning quarterback has shocked him. She has emerged as one of his league's most passionate competitors.

"She called just this afternoon to complain that somebody picked up Miami's defense before she could," said Cote, who has already lost a league match to his future wife and jokes about whether it might be time for an intervention.

What used to be the domain of sports fanatics is going mainstream, and traffic is going through the roof at places like ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports as fantasy sports--especially fantasy football--thrive.

More than 14 million adults competed in fantasy leagues in 2005, and that number is expected to jump 14 percent this year to 16 million, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. At ESPN.com, which operates the third-largest fantasy football league, site traffic in September was up 17 percent over last year. Executives credit the site's fantasy league for the spike.

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The rise in traffic is only half of the business story. Site operators can take their dedicated fans and wag them in front of advertisers. Fantasy players spend an average of three hours per week managing their teams, according to the FSTA.

"Fantasy leagues are everything that brand managers and sports marketers would ever want," said Jeff Thomas, committee chairman for FSTA. "Fantasy players are the most engaged consumer you can find."

Part of the strategy among the three powerhouses of fantasy leagues--Yahoo Sports, CBS SportsLine.com and ESPN--has been to play up the social aspects of the league. Some consider MySpace.com, Facebook and Friendster to be trailblazers, but fantasy leagues were arguably the first social-networking sites.

Often, people join the leagues to stay connected with college buddies who may live far away, said Cote, a Massachusetts resident who went to college in Pennsylvania. Friendly competition is likely to appeal more to a mainstream user or casual sports fan than the face-painting sports zealot who has likely been competing in leagues for years.

As the top operators of fantasy leagues battle for supremacy, each continues to try to top the other by developing technologies to keep the action in their leagues exciting and simple to operate.

Yahoo, for example, offers real-time statistics that are accessible just moments after a snap. ESPN this year launched the "Live Draft Lobby," which enables players to hone their player-picking skills in a mock draft. The hot trend now is to let league players "talk trash" to each other just like the big leaguers. At ESPN, people can send online greeting cards with a humorous and good-natured putdown.

But most important to winning over fans, they say, is delivering uninterrupted service. That hasn't been easy for some sites.

Two weeks ago, many fantasy football players at CBS SportsLine were prevented from setting their lineups just before kickoff and had problems accessing the site throughout the day. SportsLine, which has won awards for its software, grades itself on site performance every week. For week 10 of the NFL's 17-week regular season, the company handed itself an "F." The site has since added new servers and for week 11 gave itself an "A."

CONTINUED: How the leagues work…
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