Joshua Fletcher became interested in fantasy sports when he was in high school.

Written By David Greisman, Photos by: Phil Grout

Every week, when Joshua Fletcher watches football on TV, he cheers on his beloved Baltimore Ravens — and extends his rooting to numerous other players, all on teams with which he has no emotional bond.

If Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is having a great day, for example, so was Fletcher. That’s because Fletcher is one of more than 33 million people in the United States who play fantasy sports. That number is impressive enough. And when you take into account the amount of time (and for some, the amount of money) they spend, it is clear that fantasy sports have become a reality.

“It’s another form of competition,” said Fletcher, a 22-year-old senior at McDaniel College in Westminster.

Today’s fantasy sports world has grown tremendously from the early days of rotisserie baseball, but the premise remains similar: In rotisserie baseball, people drafted players and then got scores based on how players did for the season.

Here is how it works: People join fantasy leagues, often online on websites such as ESPN or Yahoo, forming fictitious teams that will compete against others’ – friends or family members, colleagues or complete strangers. Those people are simulated owners. They draft teams of players chosen from an entire league and pick which players will be “active” on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

And then the fun begins. How an athlete performs in real sports corresponds with how an “owner” does in fantasy sports; the owner may get points for receptions, touchdowns, yards or even how a football team’s entire defense does, as well as other statistics. In some leagues, those points may add up over the course of a season. In others, particularly in football, one fantasy player might be competing directly with another for a specific week. There also are variations on the theme, but for all, people tend to invest plenty of time and emotion as they tune in, follow how their players and their opponents are doing, and hope for the best.

Fletcher got into fantasy sports when he was in high school. Although he is largely involved with football, he also plays fantasy basketball and once tried fantasy baseball.

But this is not just a hobby. It can be an involved pursuit. And it is big business; a billion-dollar industry.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, the average fantasy sports player will follow nearly 18 hours of sports a week, with nearly nine hours a week spent following fantasy sports. Pro football is by far the most popular, with more than 25 million playing, followed in order by baseball, auto racing, basketball, college football, hockey, golf and soccer. There are leagues for other sports, too.

Many leagues are free, although almost 47 percent of players will pay fees in the hope of winning a prize at the end of the season. Players tend to spend the season monitoring their leagues — the fantasy ones and the actual ones — to see how players are doing, whether anyone needs to be benched, and if there are any trades that can be made.

Major networks and companies are involved. There are now countless website articles and television broadcast segments analyzing fantasy sports. You can turn on ESPN, hear a former coach or player talk about an athlete who is hurt, and then listen to a fantasy sports expert delve into how that real-life injury has repercussions on the fantasy world. A 24-hour fantasy sports television network was expected to launch in March – yet another outlet to feed the beast.

“I’ve seen it consume people,” said Fletcher. “I was in four leagues, but every week I spent maybe 30 minutes [on them]. I’ve seen people spend hours with in-depth research and analysis.

“I always watched a lot of football,” he said. “But now with the fantasy piece, it added an incentive to watch more.”

The same is true for Troy Pfister, a 32-year-old Westminster resident who started playing fantasy football about seven years ago out of curiosity. At his peak, he was in five leagues.

“It’s an easy way to feed one’s need to be competitive,” said Pfister. “And by doing multiple leagues, you’re bound to at least do well in one of them.”

Pfister has cut down on the number of leagues he plays: one with people he does not know online, and then a pair of leagues with family and coworkers that allow them to talk trash with each other during the season.

Pfister’s wife has also taken an interest.

“She likes the Ravens, but as soon as the game is over, she’s like, ÔWhy am I watching football?’ Fantasy football is almost an excuse to watch. I let her in on who I’m picking or who I’m starting or sitting,” said Pfister. “She kind of gets behind it and wants to see some of the other games as well.

“There’s this extra level of excitement. It’s the same for me. I like football, but I didn’t necessarily want to watch anybody other than the Ravens. But now, through fantasy football, there’s a reason to care beyond just the pure sport of it.”

For some, that reason can include money. Pfister only plays in free leagues: “It’s a crap shoot if your team is going to do well or not, because you never know who’s going to have an injury,” he said. “It seems like a waste, though the allure of winning money is a little enticing.”

Fletcher has paid to play before, and has even earned a few hundred dollars for winning one league.

“I kind of prefer not to have money involved, though,” said Fletcher. “When money gets involved, people get real serious about it, and it adds stress. I like having fun. É When it was a money league, you’d beat someone by one point and they would look for some statistical error [to try to have the result overturned].”
The competitive aspect can sometimes overtake people’s better qualities, he said.

“There are times when people joke about someone getting hurt so they can win,” said Fletcher. “These are real people’s lives, and we’re playing a fantasy game.”

There can also be interesting situations that arise from drafting players from around the league and then watching those players face your hometown team. For example, a Baltimore Orioles devotee could be rooting for his team to beat the Yankees, all while hoping that Yankees player Alfonso Soriano hits a few home runs.

That is not the case with Pfister and Fletcher. For both of these Ravens fans, if their team triumphs in fantasy it does not trump their team being victorious in reality.

“I always prefer the Ravens to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Fletcher said. “While both are just games, I’d much rather the Ravens go 2-0 against the Steelers than if I win in fantasy.”