Cyber Sunday

Dawn Dancy has been disappointed by David Carr all season.
Daniel Kramer

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 managementor 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."

While the number of players in a league and the types of leagues vary widely, the basic rules are simple. Before each season starts, a draft is held in which all the players take turns picking about 15 real players, plus, usually, a team defense. So if there are ten players in a league, that means 160 picks. Even if the league commissioner sets a strict one-minute time limit, the draft will run at least three hours. Alcohol is helpful. Owner P.J. Mastro called the draft at his bar "15 rounds of pure hell." Once the picks are made, the league commissioner puts them all into a computer, and the teams are set. A randomly set schedule produces weekly matchups so that, for example, Mike's Gridiron Warriors might face Steve's Pom-Pom Kings. Fantasy players set their rosters before the games start Sunday, and then points are tabulated based on the real-world performance of their players. So if Mike has David Carr, and he throws three touchdowns and 248 yards, that might translate into 35 points for the fantasy team. Obviously, that's a fantasy example. Points are lost for interceptions or lost yards -- much more likely with Carr on the roster. If Mike's point total is higher than Steve's at the end of the weekend, Mike wins the matchup.

Over the course of the season, players can add or drop real players from their rosters. They can also trade with other players in their league. The last three games of the regular season are the fantasy playoffs. The top eight teams face off in a tournament until a single winner is crowned on the last weekend of the regular season. Easy, right?

"There's a lot more skill than people realize," says Lance Zierlein. "It's about projecting who's going to have a breakout season, who's over the hill and who's going to do well against which team on any given Sunday. That's skill. That's understanding football. That's doing your research. That's why the same guys win these leagues over and over." Zierlein speaks in the staccato, bullet-pointed type of speech common to anyone who talks sports for a living. As a morning DJ on KILT-AM/SportsRadio 610 and the author of a free fantasy football weekly newsletter, he has set himself up as a man in the know. Each week he gets some 80 e-mails from fantasy fans demanding the one little nugget of information that'll help them win their weekend matchups. "They don't care if I wax poetic on fantasy football issues. They just want the meat-and-potatoes of who to start, who to pick up. And you need to be right," he says. "They'll tell you if you're wrong. They'll tell you if you suck."

Zierlein started playing fantasy football in 1993. Back then, the office guy with too much free time calculated the game by hand. With the rise of the Web, fantasy sports became much easier to track. "Online has just made it huge because the programs are so good now," he says. This season, he's running three teams in three different kinds of leagues. His favorite is an auction-style league with his close friends. They rent out a room at Maggiano's, and the commissioner, who lives in Chicago, flies in every year. "One of the most fun days of the year for me, as a married man with kids, is going to my fantasy auction that I have where I see all my old buddies that I may only see once or twice a year," he says. "We have food, we have our drinks, and we just talk trash to each other." Each year they engrave the winner's name on a trophy, and he gets to hold on to it for a year, the same as with the real Lombardi trophy.

The appeal is simple, he says. "Everybody's a know-it-all. Myself included. They like to believe that they're as capable of doing the job the general managers in pro sports are doing, so this is their chance." A lot of the time on his show is spent ragging on the Texans -- especially this season -- and callers aren't shy about calling for somebody's head, he says. Zierlein wishes the tables could be turned. "Wouldn't it be great if Charlie Casserly [Texans general manager] could go to somebody's [fantasy] league and heckle the last-place guy? What a terrible job he did? 'Why did you draft this guy? Why did you get this guy here?' "  

Players and leagues can get cutthroat, depending on the prize, he says. Last year a player copied the NFL's Web site so that he could put up a fake news story about the Washington Redskins' Clinton Portis, writing that the running back was injured. He sent the link to his opponent, who benched the player. The link kept getting passed around, though, and CBS SportsLine fell for the hoax, reporting the nonexistent injury. Other leagues are more chummy, with the winner getting a meal or, in one case, some lap dances. "The high in fantasy football is not how much you win by, it's just winning and being able to brag to your friends that you're the best," Zierlein says.

Twenty years before the iPod, high school student James Serra had just discovered Steve Jobs's first earth-shattering invention: the Apple II. Serra was a self-described "half-jock, half-computer guy," and he was instantly hooked on programming. As a student at Clark High in Las Vegas, he noticed the baseball coach taking stats manually. "I said, 'Hey, Coach, I can write a program to track this.' " His program tabulated not only ERAs and batting averages but performance at home or away and against certain pitchers -- basically, the kind of things that make baseball nuts salivate. He entered the program in some computer competitions and took home first prize.

About the same time, he and his friends were getting into fantasy baseball and football. Fantasy baseball was played through the mail, since there was no way to keep up with it without devoting serious time and energy. Each week, they'd send in their rosters to a company that kept track of the games and get back data on how they did. "They were about a week behind at best," Serra says. For football, they'd just use the Monday box scores and add it up themselves.

When Serra was getting ready to draft his team in 1992, he went looking for some appropriate software but couldn't find any. So he went ahead and wrote it himself, using a 286 processor. The next year, on a whim, he put an ad in one of the few fantasy sports magazines, hoping to sell a handful of copies at $40 each. Instead, he sold more than 100. "I was ecstatic," he remembers. Customers then asked for league-management software, so he wrote that and sold even more. "My products were better than a lot of others because I was a programmer who understood fantasy football," he says.

In 1994, he and partner Jim Lenz launched, the very first fantasy site on the Internet, just as it was becoming public. Serra provided the software, and Lenz offered expert advice. Football and baseball had about the same number of adherents until 1994. That's when the Major League Baseball players' union went on strike. Since then, football has become the dominant fantasy game, with three times as many players as baseball, Serra says.

A New York native who grew up in Vegas, Serra moved to Houston in 1996 to take a programming job with Pennzoil. He settled in Spring, and while consulting for area energy firms, he continued to sell his software. When the Web really blew up in the late 1990s, he put out a Web-based version, and sales took off. In 1999, he noticed that he was making enough money from the software during those two months of preseason sales in July and August to live off the rest of the year. When sales went up the next year, he quit consulting to focus full-time on his company, First Place Sports Software. Today, Serra's customers -- which include such celebrities as Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling -- have more than 30,000 players in leagues, and his gross sales total about $250,000. Not bad for a kid whose dad dealt cards.

"They act like fantasy people are just these insane, obsessed geeks," says Serra, who talks with a New York-meets-Vegas accent and could probably land a supporting role on The Sopranos. Just a few days prior, Bob Costas was interviewing quarterback Peyton Manning, this season's biggest whipping boy for fantasy fans. Manning is currently leading his 13-1 Indianapolis Colts on their way to a Super Bowl, but fantasy fans have been calling him a bum for not throwing four touchdowns per game like he did last season. Costas was sympathetic to Manning, saying, "These fantasy people -- they have to be stopped. They're turning sports into geek-a-rama." Serra gets upset when the game is portrayed like that. "That's 100 percent false," he says, pointing out that his customers are doctors, lawyers, accountants and even pro athletes. (Costas turned down an interview request, and industry insiders speculate he caught hell from both the NFL and fantasy fans.) "They're just regular guys," says Serra. "It gives you the opportunity on Monday mornings to shoot the breeze with people at work."  

In 1998, Serra and three other guys started the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Today the association includes about 280 companies, and one of the biggest boosters of fantasy football is the NFL itself, but it wasn't always that way. "We went to them and said, 'This is a great thing for you,' " Serra remembers. But the NFL wasn't biting. Fantasy football smacked of gambling, and the league wanted nothing to do with it -- that is, until it conducted a study and found out that the average fantasy fan watches an extra two to three hours of football per weekend. The demographics are sweet, too. According to FSTA's numbers, the average fantasy player makes $72,750 per year and has a bachelor's degree. Suddenly the NFL was interested. "Duh, we knew that for ten years," Serra says. "That got them interested, and they saw the potential of drawing more people into the NFL."

Anyone who's watched football in the past five years has seen the change. Games are now stat-heavy, with pop-up boxes on individual stats coming after every play. "You always know where everybody stands within the game," says Tony Petitti, the executive producer of CBS Sports. Every CBS game broadcast features Game Trax so spectators can stay on top of the rest of the league, as well as Stat Trax for keeping tabs on players in that game, so that if, say, Kansas City TE Tony Gonzalez just caught a 65-yard bomb for a TD, the viewer will get an update on his performance that day. "We try to make a design that's really passive, so it doesn't overwhelm anything else on the screen," Petitti says.

Both CBS and an NFL spokesman said fantasy football is great as a fan-development tool, because of increased ad revenue and the boost to the brand's reputation. When talk turned to the money on the line, though, they got a little less boosterish. One of the NFL's dirty little secrets (or not, depending on how you view sports betting) is that gambling is a major force behind TV viewership, especially the sales of the $239 NFL Sunday Ticket, which broadcasts every single NFL game. "Honestly, I don't know who's sicker -- the compulsive gambler or the compulsive fantasy football addict," says Zierlein, the sports DJ. "They're both sick, in different ways. Both of them are likely to have the NFL Sunday Ticket playing at their home, and they're likely to drag in a television from the other room."

The NFL spokesman, who plays in his own fantasy league, said he wasn't aware that some leagues might play for money and pointed out that the NFL's site is free. When Petitti was asked about the difference between gambling and fantasy, he gave the perfectly reasonable explanation that money wasn't a requisite. "It's different than people wagering on the outcome of the game. It's not guys going out to place bets that are illegal," he says. Still, a CBS flack called this reporter back to find out why the interview had gone off topic. "The NFL does not want gambling as part of their total package," says Zierlein. "It's a little hypocritical. 'We like the average fan involved with fantasy football, let's do everything we can.' But when it comes to point spreads, they're very hesitant to mention that."

Offshore sports books, most of which exist on murky legal footing and are based in Costa Rica, are trying their best to get some of those fantasy players to plunk down cash on traditional wagers. "We try to convert people in the fantasy industry and make them bet with us," says Jennifer Cameron, advertising director for the VO Group, which owns several books in Costa Rica. Her companies go to fantasy trade shows and try to get players signed up. "It's sort of like bingo; people are betting and just not realizing it."

But while the high-dollar leagues grab attention -- one company offered a million-dollar league, and there are lots of $10,000 or $20,000 ones out there -- most players don't put up anything close to those amounts. "There's the money aspect, but contrary to what people believe, that has very little to do with it," says Serra. "You can win a few bucks, but you want those bragging rights. You want the ability to go to your friends and say, 'I trumped them.' "  

Romy Cassack isn't your typical fantasy player. As a woman, she's firmly in the 5 percent minority of players. "I decided fantasy football was the only way I would ever come to understand football," says Cassack. While she's a huge basketball and hockey fan who always has money on March Madness ("It's important to be involved in the Big Dance," she says), the appeal of football had always eluded her. Along with a few friends, including one in London and one in Las Vegas, she started up a league this season with a $20 entry fee, even naming it Bragging Rights. A sixth-grade reading and computer teacher at an area private school, Cassack used to spend her Sundays "reading novels that 11-year-olds read and getting really pumped about them." But since September, she's been doing a lot less of that. "You pay $7 to see a movie for two hours. This is like hard-core entertainment," she says. As a rookie, she's made a few mistakes, such as drafting Daunte Culpepper in the first round, whom she called a "general disappointment." She also has a tendency to overvalue players with funny names, such as Edgerrin or Tiki.

Her league has been a success, though. Her football knowledge, once paltry, is now firmly average. During one weekend matchup, she was up by just one point going into the Monday Night Football game. Her opponent had one of the team's kickers, and since each point after touchdown equals a fantasy point, she figured she was cooked. But when that kicker's team found itself down, it had to go for two-point conversions after every score. "I didn't even know that two-point conversions existed, and so I was like, I totally thought I had lost. But then I looked it up, and it said that I won. I was like, 'How is that possible?' " she says. "My sister's like, 'You are such a jackass. I can't believe you're so obsessed with football and you don't even know what a two-point conversion is.' "

The 33-year-old even found fantasy football connected her to her class's preteen boys, many of whom have fantasy teams, although not for money. Each Monday she has the Fantasy Football Check-in, when kids brag about their teams. "It's just like any other insane addiction," she says. "You know, normally you'll only be rooting for one team. This way, you'll be rooting for one player on almost every team. So it makes the games more fun." Despite her rookie status, Cassack managed to sneak into the playoffs and will definitely finish in the money. She may even win the league. "Life is good," she says.

If Peter Brown hadn't been elected to City Council with 51 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff, he could have blamed fantasy football. His campaign manager, Bill Kelly, is an avid fantasy player, and while Kelly was running Brown's second try at a seat, he was also managing his fantasy team, Joe Mama, in a ten-member, $10-entry league on Yahoo. When the league started in August, he hustled onto the message board and, as he says, set the tone early. "Adios Mofos. I hope you fucking bunch of retards eat shit and die. Joe Mama's gonna dominate," he wrote. "Peter will sometimes come in when we're talking about it and kind of look at me funny," says Kelly.

On most Tuesdays, fellow campaign workers and league members drop by the main office for some smack-talking. Patrick Tyczynski is one of them. Before joining Brown's campaign he worked for Hubert Vo, another politician who might have complained about fantasy football, had he not eked out his 16-vote victory in 2004. "Back then, when I had my own desk, I spent a lot more time," says Tyczynski. "I probably spent two hours looking at fantasy football." Tyczynski even shelled out $30 to get Yahoo's StatTracker and expert advice, all to win a share of a $100 pot. "It's a good kind of stress relief," says Kelly. "Instead of looking at cable buy times or money leaving my office, I get to look at fantasy football for a few minutes.

"I think it's all secondary to talking smack," says Kelly, explaining the game's true allure. "Late Sunday night you watch the Chris Berman show on ESPN to see who's good and who scores, and then you just got to talk smack." In Cassack's league, one matchup involved two engineers, one at BP and another at Exxon. The banter in the lead-up to the weekend's games quickly deteriorated into talk about teams exploding or leaking oil all over Alaska's coast.  

A.J. Daulerio used to run the now-defunct gambling site and occasionally picked on fantasy football, usually making fun of the fantasy columnists. But he gets the appeal, especially when it comes to trash talking. "I know for a fact that when your team plays well, it does take over your life," Daulerio says. He's currently playing in a league with a bunch of experts and is doing poorly with his team, Heather on a Plane, named after a porn film. "I was watching it quite extensively at the time, and I was a big fan of her work," he says. The worst insults he's ever been on the receiving end of came a few years ago when he canceled a trade involving Marshall Faulk for Peyton Manning and Tiki Barber (it made some sense a few years ago). A female co-worker who had become a "fantasy football nutjob" wasn't happy. "I've never received more just graphic, just horrifying e-mails in terms of what she was going to do with a ball peen hammer and my nuts," he says. "I was literally fearing for my life the next time I saw her."

Last season Zierlein named his to trick his opponents into going to the URL, which used to feature a photo so disgusting it shouldn't even be described in an alternative newspaper. If the whole thing has a frat-boy feel to it, that's because even though the analogy is crude, it's also accurate.

"For people who used to compete in sports and then you don't anymore, fantasy sports is kind of your chance to compete again," says Zierlein. "But at the same time, the great thing about competing in sports isn't the winning or losing, it's the camaraderie. It's all about guys who don't get to see each other anymore." Wives, girlfriends, kids and jobs tend to get in the way of passing around photos of naked Asian girls crapping themselves. Fantasy football gives husbands a way to get away with it.

It's the first Sunday in December -- chili week back at PJ's. Things have gotten a little more intense with playoffs just around the corner. Still wearing his Shockey jersey, Caswell is out of contention with both his teams, and says it's been a "rebuilding year," but because of PJ's division system both his teams have become spoilers and could keep other players out of the playoffs. "I crush people's dreams," says Caswell.

Caswell is draining Miller Lites and watching one of the biggest matchups of the season for the PJ's crowd: the Dallas Cowboys versus the New York Giants. With the Texans going nowhere but the front of the draft line this season, it's been the Cowboys offering hope for Texas fans. But because of the large number of New Yorkers at PJ's (P.J. is originally from New Jersey), the place is pretty evenly split, with the New York crowd up front and turning around to flip a friendly bird every now and then. "That means 'I love you' in New York-ese," jokes patron John DeMarco. His "Yankee chili" -- made with beans -- is sitting up front and is off limits to Dallas fans.

"Is this still the early games?" asks Caswell. "I feel like I've been here eight hours," he says, putting his Giants koozie over another beer. As with any rivalry game, the trash talking is running heavy, especially with Dallas being only one touchdown behind, but because of the real game and fantasy game going on, the whole thing becomes kind of meta. It takes a keen ear or a lot of practice to figure who's picking on whom and why.

After Eli Manning misses a pass, Caswell says, "Nice try."

"Nice try…nice try?" implores his buddy, looking skeptical. "Apparently he's not on your fantasy team."

Caswell mutters something back about how you can't get upset over every little play. These players may be focused in on the big game, but you can see their eyes darting around to check stats in the other matchups, doing the mental calculations. Their $200 buy-ins are starting to become very real.

Another player, Tonja Griffin, comes over and starts ragging on Caswell for being a Yankee and because his fantasy team sucks. "Shut up, Tonja," yells Caswell. But Tonja's nowhere near shutting up. Dallas fails to make a comeback in the final minute, and the Giants hang on to win 17-10. Meanwhile, the Texans are folding in the final minute against Baltimore, much to the dismay -- but hardly the surprise -- of everyone in the bar. But for Caswell and the rest of the crowd, it's no worries. They've still got the afternoon and night games, and there's plenty of beer behind the bar. The fantasy stats keep adding up. The regular season won't be over until January 1, and for fantasy players, that's a long way off.  

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