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Billion Dollar Draft

Some 27 million Americans play fantasy football—and media companies are cashing in on their obsession
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Advertisers, and not just car brands, are coughing up for the fantasy experience. This year, once it became apparent that a full season of NFL action was in the cards, marketers flooded the zone. Two weeks after the lockout ended on July 25, CBSSports.com sold out the last available inventory on its fantasy football pages, signing Sprint, Subway, and Volkswagen as lead sponsors.

Volkswagen's deal, which is for three years, secures the exclusive automotive sponsorship of the site's fantasy football offering. The marketer is using its affiliation with the site as a means to showcase the 2012 Passat, the midsize sedan featured in the "mini-Darth Vader" spot that aired during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLV.

Yahoo Sports--which enlisted more than 4 million fantasy football players, up 15 percent from a year ago--also enjoyed an accelerated pregame sales period, lining up full-season commitments from the likes of Pizza Hut, Visa, Toyota, and Miller Lite.

In addition to offering the usual ad buys, portals that deal in fantasy sports are letting their imaginations run wild. Normally, a website has a finite amount of ad space to sell. But fantasy games are expanding the parameters by attaching value to the reams of available minutia. These executions allow media outlets to maximize placement without overwhelming the user with sponsor messaging.

ESPN.com, for example, has GMC's Never Say Never Award, given to the team able to pull out a last-minute win by the smallest margin. Yahoo Sports has a Biggest Blowout Award sponsored by Toyota, which also backs its "Hall of Fame" staging area--where users can post photos of their league trophies and talk smack--and its Medal Leaders tally, which rewards individual players for game-day performance.

"Some of the sites go a little overboard," says one digital buyer. "It's like, 'This space where you can talk shit to your buddies is brought to you by Geico. The top five QBs of the week are brought to you by Pizza Hut.' But when it's just one or two lead sponsors, it's less intrusive. It's like seeing a [linear] Chevy spot four times in a quarter . . . repetition eliminates clutter."

Not surprisingly, NFL broadcasts are becoming laden with real-time fantasy stat updates. There are now even two cable TV programs devoted exclusively to fantasy sports: ESPN2's 90-minute The Fantasy Show, which averaged 1.2 million viewers on Oct. 23; and NFL Net's midnight show, which drew 166,000 viewers on Oct. 20.

As fantasy continues to grow it has helped engender a new breed of football fan. A New York Giants fanatic, say, might not draft Eli Manning because he always looks like he's afraid there are monsters under his bed, so he or she takes San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Before fantasy, you wouldn't think of staying up late to watch two iffy AFC West teams lock horns on Monday Night Football. Now, there's no such thing as a blowoff game. You stay up for the Chargers-Chiefs game because you need to see your starting signal caller put points on the board. As a bonus, you can text that buddy who picked Kansas City's Jamaal Charles in the draft to remind him that he's down a starting running back.

That (anti)social element helps make fantasy football so engaging to so many. And it's what inspired Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer to create the FX comedy The League. Less a send-up of fantasy football than an indictment of human nature in general, its central thesis is that everyone secretly hates his or her friends and revels in tormenting them. The show basically uses fantasy sports as a framing device for a host of petty animosities and sexual peccadilloes.

"We wanted to do a show about people who've been friends forever, and yet are enthusiastically horrible to each other," says Jeff Schaffer. "Fantasy football is a perfect medium for that, because one of the main reasons people play is it gives them an opportunity to humiliate one friend for the enjoyment of the rest of the group. If you treated a stranger the way you treat your fantasy football friends, you'd be put in jail."

The Schaffers play in a fantasy league with the six principal cast members, and the standings reflect an emerging segment in fantasy sports. "I won our league last year," says Jackie Marcus Schaffer. "Katie [Aselton], who plays Jenny on our show, won the first year. So, yeah, we're doing OK for ourselves."

While the FSTA estimates that male players account for as much as 75 percent of the fantasy football base, women are increasingly buckling their chin straps. Last season, female viewers made up 33 percent of NBC's Sunday Night Football deliveries; moreover, 46 percent of the 111 million Americans who tuned in to Super Bowl XLV were women.

"There's this prevailing notion that fantasy is played by a bunch of sports wonks crunching the numbers on their Excel sheets, but we're increasingly seeing that football is becoming part of the zeitgeist," says Yahoo Sports' Geller. "It's a bit like during March Madness when everyone in the office joins the NCAA pool. Technology democratizes the fun."

While fantasy football has helped pump millions of dollars into the media space, the phenomenon is only as sound as the NFL itself. Faced with the prospect of a lost NFL season, Fantasy Football Index in July scrapped its annual draft guide. The company estimates it lost half of its annual revenue as a result.

ESPN The Magazine also put the kibosh on its annual fantasy football guide. The Boston-based media consultant Pohly Company estimated that ESPN may have lost as much as $4 million in ad revenue as a result.

As for the professional athletes who have climbed aboard the fantasy football juggernaut, the game doesn't always reward self-confidence. Maurice Jones-Drew may regret choosing himself in the first round of this year's draft; through the first eight games of the season, he's ranked ninth among running backs, scoring 100.5 fantasy points on three touchdowns. Fantasy sites are labeling Jones-Drew something of a bust, although some analysts believe he'll find the end zone in the latter half of the season. Sometimes the self-proclaimed "gurus" do know more than the pros.