Mark St. Amant was at a crossroads. The 36-year-old associate creative director at Keiler & Co., a Farmington (Conn.) ad agency, was finding it difficult to balance his workload with his fantasy football team. So like any ambitious professional with a healthy sense of priorities, he quit his six-figure-salary job for the chance to win a $700 prize pot. "I'd been playing in an office league since the late '90s and never won," says St. Amant. "I came close a few times, but it was an always-a-bridesmaid thing. I realized this job was draining my time and preventing me from winning."
St. Amant is hardly the only Type A fantasy extremist. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Assn., there are 30 million fantasy players in the U.S. and Canada—an astonishing 54 percent increase from just two years ago. And most of them are already pretty good at their jobs. According to a 2009 study by the University of Mississippi, the annual household income of a fantasy sport consumer is $92,750. In a study conducted by outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, half the people surveyed admitted that they spend at least one hour per day thinking about their fantasy football team. In other words, fantasy football has become, for better or worse, the new Internet porn for a generation of upwardly mobile, white-collar professionals.
It may be the inevitable consequence of the age we live in. Dr. Chris Alterio, an occupational therapist and owner of ABC Therapeutics in Amherst, N.Y., says the lines have been blurred between work and play. "Play spaces used to be more rigidly defined by the location of the bowling alley or the softball field," he says. These days, the play space has been reduced to about the size of a cubicle. "In the same way that we're answering e-mails at home," says Alterio, "people are now taking their play into the work environment." That's not all bad. "Workplace tolerance for small distractions is generally helpful for promoting employee satisfaction," Alterio says. "As long as it's held in check."
The problem is, it's not. Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that American companies could be losing as much as $1.5 billion in productivity during an average football season because of fantasy leagues. As a result, a war is escalating between office managers and rank-and-file fantasy junkies. And, like surfing questionable sites from your cube, playing in an office fantasy league can now get you fired. Last October four employees at Fidelity Investments in Westlake, Tex., were let go for alleged participation in a fantasy football league, which was deemed a violation of the company's anti-gambling policy. Among the accused was 26-year-old Cameron Pettigrew, who had worked as an account representative at Fidelity for almost three years. He was taken into a conference room and interrogated about his fantasy football activities for, by Pettigrew's estimate, 90 minutes.
"It seemed so over the top," Pettigrew remembers. "They were really intent on getting me to name names." Shortly after the incident, a Fidelity spokesman confirmed to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the company has "clear policies that relate to gambling. Participation in any form of gambling through the use of Fidelity time or equipment or any other company resource is prohibited."
Pettigrew didn't rat out his colleagues, but he admits that he knew of several leagues in the office, including some in which "people were betting hundreds and thousands of dollars." In Pettigrew's league, however, "we only had a $20 buy-in." Sadly, he was also the commissioner.
Rather than disappearing from the workplace, football fantasy leagues are going underground. Kevin Alansky, a 38-year-old former telecommunications marketing director, compares today's fantasy football leagues to Fight Club, the 1999 movie—based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk—about a secret cult where guys meet in basements and beat the hell out of each other. "It's become like a secret fraternity," Alansky says. "You can talk about it, but don't talk about it publicly. It's not perceived as professional. If you want to move up the corporate ladder, your fantasy football allegiances have to become more hush-hush."
Alansky was once told by a senior executive at his company that any involvement in an office league could damage his reputation. "He actually asked me to stop playing," Alansky says. "I didn't, but whenever I talk about it now, I'm always looking over my shoulder to see who's listening."
Not all league members are living in the shadows. Shergul Arshad, 40, a director of business development at Cambridge (Mass.)-based shopping website StyleFeeder.com, has been playing in office fantasy leagues since the early '90s. A self-described "early pioneer," his only problem with today's fantasy football is that the Internet has made the sport too accessible. "Before the Internet, you had to compile player stats manually," he says. "I once called the Detroit Lions' front office to find out if Herman Moore was injured and would be playing that weekend. But now, with all the online tools, it's almost like my 7-year-old and 9-year-old could draft a team and be competitive."
He compares fantasy football's current popularity with fair-weather fans of the Boston Red Sox who wear pink hats to games. "Sox fans are turned off by these bandwagoners who come in and buy their pink hats and pretend that they know what they're talking about," he says. "I feel the same way about fantasy football. There are so many people who suddenly got interested, and they're just poseurs."
This is not reassuring news for managers, who fear that even insincere interest in fantasy sports could be a drain on productivity. However, some workers cite specific evidence that fantasy football actually makes them work harder. Kyle Kadane, an information technology manager who once worked for a telecommunications company in Overland Park, Kan., says that his former co-workers involved in fantasy football were sometimes the first ones to arrive at work in the morning. "One week there were a lot of injuries in the NFL, and a few players had some really monster games," he says. "So the next morning, there were two dozen guys in the office at around 6:45 a.m. making new drafts for their fantasy teams." The result, he says, was that they got an earlier jump on the day. "We actually got more real work done than if we'd waited to come in at the designated time."
Dustin Ashby, the commissioner of the World Championship of Fantasy Football—a high-stakes league with a $300,000 grand prize—thinks the positive attributes of fantasy sports are underestimated. "It's a healthy game," he says. "It bridges the gap between top-level executives and mailroom clerks. And that creates social dialogue and breaks down barriers of communication. It really does create a community in the workplace."
There is something special about an office-based fantasy football community. St. Amant learned that lesson firsthand. After quitting his job to focus on fantasy football didn't pan out (his teams still didn't win), he used his newfound free time to think and strategize about...fantasy football. He even wrote several books on the subject and became a frequent guest on ESPN, where he sometimes debated with fellow fantasy enthusiast Meat Loaf. It wasn't until years later, when he'd returned to advertising full-time, that he won his first fantasy league trophy. "I guess that's kind of ironic," St. Amant admits. Or maybe it's just proof that fantasy football, like anything in life, is more fun when you're being paid to do something else.