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An increasingly common male fantasy—fantasy football—now comes with a cost.
Dan Labert is a fantasy-football junkie. (A lay explanation: Fantasy football is a game where participants, or “owners,” make dream teams with members plucked from a pool of all NFL players. Teams accrue points based on the real-world performance of those players: yards gained, receptions, touchdowns, and so on. The owner whose players get the most points wins.) Labert started playing eight years ago, and his addiction has grown every fall. The Arlington resident now owns teams in eight different leagues.
“Let me put it to you this way,” Labert says. “I’m engaged, and I’m getting married in a few months. My fiancee is planning the wedding. I don’t think I’ve even thought about the wedding yet.”
In July, Labert got some bad news about his compulsion via e-mail from SportsLine.com, the Florida-based subsidiary of CBS that now rates as perhaps the premier force in the booming fantasy-football industry. Beginning with the 2002 season, he was told, there would be an annual $139.95 fee for every fantasy league registered with the site’s Football Commissioner service, which calculates player points and keeps team standings, making the early stages of the fantasy-football addiction fairly pain-free.
Up to this season, the fantasy used to be fairly cost-free, also. Like other owners who patronized SportsLine.com the past two seasons, Labert had grown accustomed to getting all the services offered at the fantasy site for no charge. According to SportsLine.com, Football Commissioner managed more than 2 million owners in 200,000 leagues last year.
Alex Riethmiller, a spokesperson for SportsLine.com, says that his company’s original intention was to charge for fantasy services but that it changed its mind during the Internet boom. At its peak, SportsLine.com’s stock was selling for $83 a share. The Internet bust—on Monday, SportsLine.com closed at about a buck a share—has caused another rethinking.
“When we started giving away [Football Commissioner] in 2000, that was really the height of the whole Internet boom, when everybody was convinced the Internet was good for everything under the sun,” says Riethmiller. “We know now that’s not true. The thinking here and everywhere was all about getting the most traffic to your site, and that that would mean you get more big sponsorships….And for a while it worked, but ad revenues dried up, and not just for us. Ideally, we’d be giving away all this forever, but that’s not going to happen.”
Essentially, all the other major Web sites dedicated to fantasy football, including league administrators and “tip sheets,” were also available to surfers for free. So the only built-in expenses for most owners was the ante that most leagues—which, like bowling and softball teams, are generally made up of co-workers or drinking buddies—set just so there’ll be a pot to distribute at season’s end to the winner or winners.
At first, fantasy owners took SportsLine.com’s decision as if they’d been speared by LaVar Arrington.
“Information gets around pretty fast in fantasy football,” says Labert. “So right away, e-mails going all around the country were like, ‘Can you believe that SportsLine.com is doing this?’”
The news got worse quickly. Soon after SportsLine.com’s declaration that the free lunch was over, all the other major-domos of the fantasy football business—including Fanball.com, Sandbox.com (which last year made the curious business decision of offering an XFL fantasy-football site), and TheHuddle.com—declared that beginning this season they would start charging for previously free services, too.
“The trend in fantasy football this year is to charge the players,” says Brian Hulett, publishing editor of FFDigest.com, an industry-observer tipsheet out of Meeker, Okla. “All these sites have decided that the venture capitalists’ money has run out, there’s no advertising revenues, so they better make their money somewhere.”
Riethmiller says that when SportsLine.com decided to go with the pay-to-play model, it set a goal of retaining 20 percent of last year’s total, or 400,000 fantasy owners.
“From the looks of things now, we’re going to meet that goal easily this year,” he says.
Though he’s not thrilled about the changes, Labert will be among those forking over funds for the fantasy leagues.
“If you’re going to be a serious player, SportsLine.com has the most bells and whistles,” he says. “You really want to go for every possible advantage you can in fantasy. And the truth is, SportsLine.com is the state of the art.”
Labert is also now attempting to turn his addiction into a moneymaker: He’s the host and brains behind Fantasy Tailgate, which he describes as the area’s first television show dedicated to fantasy football. The program debuts on local cable-access channels this weekend. Viewing is free. —Dave McKenna