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Dave Schmidt doesn’t have much of a life in the fall. He’s a fantasy-football player.
“It’s not that I don’t leave my house on Sundays anymore,” Schmidt says. “I don’t even leave my chair.”
Even on nongame days, the Centreville town house he shares with brother Dan and friend Dave Baione is a bachelor pad worthy of its own sitcom. The only wall decoration in the living room is a dented red fender, allegedly off a NASCAR ride. A used tire allegedly from Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy sits beneath it on the floor, and the hosts don’t mind at all if somebody uses the tire as a seat when the room gets crowded. During football season, from Sunday morning until Monday Night Football signs off, the room is crowded. With fantasy players.
Schmidt’s television is a fantasy player’s dream. It’s a new, $2,600 digital, high-definition number, with a big screen and a sound system that could rival FedEx Field’s. Outside of the stock-car paraphernaliaor maybe including itthe set is the only thing of value in the entire house.
The tenants pooled funds together for a satellite and the NFL Ticket, a pay-per-view package that gives them the unscrambled feed to every game, all season long. During peak hours, they can surf between as many as eight different games. So they do.
“When my girlfriend wakes up here on Sundays, she just goes right home,” Schmidt says. “The thing is, she really likes football football, like going to Redskins games or even just watching a game on TV, but she doesn’t understand fantasy. She thinks we’re all a little carried away.”
(Shortly after Schmidt tells me this, a houseguest returns from the back yard with some bad news: The charred remains of a whole package of bratwurst some fantasy owner put on the grill and forgot about has just been discovered out on the deck. It must be Sunday.)
Should he venture outside his home, Schmidt would find plenty of co-dependents. The exact origins of fantasy football are dubiousthe most specific theory gives the late Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach, a onetime part-owner of the Oakland Raiders, credit for inventing a simplistic form of the game back in 1962.
For the uninitiated: Fantasy football is a sort of Dungeons & Dragons for postadolescent couch potatoes. It involves groups of buddies getting together to mold their own league. They “draft” real NFL players, and those players earn points on the basis of how many yards passing, receiving, or running they rack up, as well as touchdowns and field goals they make during real regular-season games. If Player A’s draftees total more points than Player B’s, Player A wins.
Whatever its roots, the state of the game isn’t so irresolute: A recent Harris survey found that more than 30 million people in the U.S. play fantasy sports of some sort, with football now supplanting baseball as the dominant game. And although, given last Sunday’s goings-on, it looks as if the D.C. area may not be able to claim this year’s NFL champs after all, this is the home of a football powerhouse of another sort. Last week, Sandbox.com, an Internet clearinghouse for fantasy-sports information headquartered in Reston, announced that it had registered its millionth football team. The company claims that its Web site clocked 50 million page views between Sunday and Tuesday, a three-day traffic record, making it the biggest independent fantasy-football site goingand, with the average viewer hanging out for 40 to 70 minutes per visit, it’s also ranked among the “stickiest” sites on the Web.
“Fantasy football is ideal for the Internet,” says Sandbox.com’s marketing director, Mike Sweeney, owner of two fantasy teams in his off-hours. “It’s only going to get bigger.” Small wonder the company has already received $33 million in venture funding this year.
There are also plenty of analog resources available to fantasy players. On draft day for Schmidt’s fantasy league, each of the 10 team owners came with his own fantasy-football magazinesand no two owners had the same publication.
“You have to keep up with every player in the league,” Schmidt says. “Fantasy makes you learn the No. 1 and 2 wide receivers, the starting and backup running backs for every team, even if you don’t want to. Everybody’s Mel Kiper now.”
As do gamblers, fantasy players obsess over minutiae that the average football fan doesn’t give a darn about. It’s no coincidence that broadcasters now give out injury reports and even weather forecasts before kickoff; Fox just added a trollopy weather girl to its pregame show. (Hard rain or bitter cold could slow down an offenseand lead fantasy owners to select players whose games are in more hospitable climes for their starting lineupsin any particular week.) The networks also intermittently scroll rushing and passing statistics from around the league all Sunday long, just for fantasy players.
Schmidt and his roomies used to bet on NFL games, but now they say that the fantasy leagues provide the same thrills, without the financial risk. So the most Schmidt will lose this year is the $100 entry fee his league demands. Besides, “Because of fantasy, I don’t even have time to bet anymore,” he says.
Schmidt’s loyalties have changed, too. He’s a lifelong New York Giants fan and Redskins hater, and for the first several years in fantasy he would try to stock his team with a few New Yorkers. But with each passing year, he says, that priority became less important. (He’s got one Giant, rookie running back Ron Dayne, on this year’s roster.) Now, if the Giants offense has to get stuffed on a fourth and goal with a minute left against Washington for his fantasy team to prevail, so be it.
“I can’t say I like how fantasy changes who you root for,” Schmidt says. “But that’s not stopping me.”
Last Sunday, as the real Giants were upsetting the real Eagles on the road, Schmidt was paying closer attention to the Jacksonville-Baltimore game. His MVP, receiver Jimmy Smith, racked up 291 yards, three long TD receptions, and, most important, 42 fantasy points. That’s the highest one-week score any of his fantasy players has ever gotten.
His roommate Baione, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. The big gun on Baione’s fantasy team is Redskins running back Stephen Davis, whose stats last season translated into the fourth-most fantasy points of all players in the NFL. Baione would have preferred that Davis get the ball until he could no longer walk against Detroit. Coach Norv Turner, for unexplained reasons, didn’t call the running back’s number once in the fourth quarter, and that tack took the Redskins out of the game and ruined Baione’s week. Thanks to fantasy football, Turner now has the capability to cost teams other than his own a victory. Dave McKenna