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It's almost halftime. On a TV screen inside PJ's Sports Bar, Eli Manning just connected to Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. Shockey catches the ball in stride and hustles toward the 49ers' end zone, scampering 32 yards for six points just before time runs out. Wearing his No. 80 Shockey jersey, New York native Chris Caswell yells and claps, celebrating a touchdown by his favorite team. But the woman sitting next to Caswell, Talley Kinghorn, is going even crazier than he is -- and she's a Houstonian with no real ties to the Giants. The reason for her excitement: Shockey's on her fantasy team, Pair of Kings, and his touchdown just gave her a bunch of virtual points for the weekend.
Caswell is what you might call a traditional football fan -- he's happy about the touchdown because his team is closer to winning. But for Kinghorn, watching the game is different. After Manning's score, she's that much closer to winning the league's $1,000 top prize. "Best friends become enemies on fantasy football Sundays," she says gleefully.
A casual observer inside the joint might mistake the PJ's crowd for your typical neighborhood collection of blue- and white-collar workers sipping beer on a sunny Sunday afternoon. But a normal bar scene wouldn't have its biggest TV tuned to the NFL's Fantasy Notebook channel, which plays nothing but individual stats, updated in real time. On the smaller TVs, patrons watch the actual games, which are, after all, secondary to what's really going on: two $200 entry-fee fantasy football leagues with 12 teams each. That's nearly five grand on the line. It's not surprising that emotions are running high. All it takes is an interception or an 89-yard bomb, and your chances of walking away with the green in December can be shot.
PJ's is the kind of bar where the customers keep their own koozies behind the counter. The bar's original fantasy league started in 1995, and since the expansion to two leagues a few years later, the only way to join is if somebody dies or moves away. One of the players is serving in Iraq right now, and he's still in the league, having a friend manage his team. (Full disclosure: Houston Press publisher Stuart Folb plays in the PJ's league. He just missed making the playoffs.)
The fantasy players are pretty much PJ's only patrons today. Near the front door sits a table piled high with chips, tacos, enchiladas and cherry pies. The potluck theme is Mexican, and there's more than enough here for any quinceañera. At the bar, Dawn Dancy sits scowling at the TV. Her team, Harry's Hooters, is still in the mix, but it's having a bad day. Following her husband's advice that "David Carr doesn't belong on any fantasy team ever," she benched the Texans quarterback, only to have him throw for 219 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville, some of his best numbers all year. "Of course he did, because he's on my bench," says the Heights resident. Caswell is full of the same lamentations, as his two teams are bringing up the rear. "I'm running an infirmary this year," he says of his injury-plagued team. Last year Caswell took home a thousand bucks in prizes, so he ponied up $400 for two teams this year, Cazmanian Devils and Caz's Chick Magnets.
The players in PJ's are just a microcosm of the fantasy universe. Since emerging on the Web in the late 1990s, the game has come to dominate the way people think about sports, the way the NFL is marketed, and even the way games are broadcast. Along the way, there's also been a lot of smack-talking.
Once the province of die-hard sports fans and numbers geeks, fantasy football saw more than 12 million people sign up this year, becoming virtual general managers of their own squads. Since August they've drafted teams, managed trades, set lineups and talked copious amounts of trash on message boards, all for a game that doesn't really exist. The average fantasy player spent $150 on software, expert advice, real-time tracking and other services in 2004, making fantasy football a $2 billion industry, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. None of that includes the estimated millions of dollars in league entry fees tossed into pools and divvied up among the winners.
Each fall when guys congregate at the water cooler, the topic naturally turns to football, but in the past few years, employees have started talking more about "their" teams and less about their hometown teams. In September, Denver International Airport's computer system had so many employees visiting fantasy football sites -- 30,000 hits one Sunday -- that the airport issued a warning, saying the visits were "wreaking havoc" on systems and firewalls, the Associated Press reported. The memo recommended players use public pay computers for "those season 'make or break' transactions."
Fantasy football got its start in 1962 when a part owner of the Oakland Raiders hatched the idea with friends over drinks in a New York hotel. The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, according to a lengthy article in Fantasy Sports Publications, accepted only sports journalists, people working in team management or fans who'd purchased ten season tickets, setting the bar to entry very high. Scotty Sterling, one of the founders, told the magazine, "Competition was fierce. Friendships were destroyed. There were some divorces. But guys tried like hell to get in."