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A man looks at football information on a table.

Men spend more time watching TV football when involved in fantasy football. They also need to keep abreast of stats and trends.

Fantasy football is reality TV for legions of players

By David Ruth

Published on September 18, 2004

When Miami Dolphins star running back Ricky Williams retired from the National Football League weeks before the 2004 season, thousands of computer screens around the country lit up. We're talking about more drama than any reality TV show can offer. And that kind of fascination (read obsession) is available from sunup to sundown on Sundays this fall and winter for fantasy football fans.

Fantasy football is a relatively easy sport to play. First you need 10 to 12 friends or coworkers to create a league and become "owners" of teams. Then you hold a draft, where you select players from current NFL teams and create your own roster of players. Once the NFL season begins, you start your head-to-head matchups against other fantasy owners. The scoring systems vary, but for the most part your team gets points from NFL players' real game performances. You tally up the points your players earned versus your opponent's team and you have a winner.

"Fantasy football participation has been growing and growing; we haven't seen it plateau yet," says Charchian.

Is fantasy football a fad or a trend? The "sport" has been around for more than 40 years, since the late Oakland Raiders partner Bill Winkenbach came up with the idea. Winkenbach, meeting with a couple of reporters in a New York hotel, pitched the concept. The three of them promptly spent most of the night making up the rules of the game. (Oh Bill, you never knew what you wrought.) Fantasy football really kicked off with the Internet, and University of Minnesota alum Paul Charchian, whose fantasy football Web site draws more than 4 million monthly users, says it's as vibrant as ever. "Fantasy football participation has been growing and growing; we haven't seen it plateau yet," he says.

Charchian cites industry survey results that attest to fantasy football's popularity, especially among men. The top reason? Competition. In many cases it's to out-strategize coworkers, since fantasy football leagues are often built with office mates. It's nice to beat Bob in the next cube because he didn't know there was a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms in Miami and that his quarterback was unlikely to score many points.

Douglas Hartmann, University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology and author of the article "The Sanctity of Sunday Football: Why Men Love Sports," agrees with the competition factor but also offers up the notion of "masculine communities." "It's hard for men in this society to come together and have male friends. Fantasy football is a virtual community," he says. "Fantasy football is a place where guys can go and be guys and not feel bad for it." Hartmann also says it's a place where men can jab back and forth on a sometimes sophomoric level and go out of bounds from society's rules.

Men do watch more TV football when involved in fantasy football. Charchian says that people who are in leagues watch an average of two more hours of football each week than those who are not. In recent years, the NFL has finally acknowledged fantasy football and now has related information on its Web site. There are radio and television shows dedicated to the activity and just two weeks ago, the Star Tribune began a weekly column to update and advise league members with player information.

So while "the Donald" may fire folks on TV's "The Apprentice," he regularly gets trumped, as fantasy football team owners fire players daily because they're not performing well enough for them. Hey, if your players don't cut it, cut them. Now that's reality TV.