Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Mark St. Amant was at a crossroads. The 36-year-old associate creative director at Keiler & Co., a Farmington, Connecticut, advertising agency, was finding it difficult to balance his workload with his fantasy football team. So he quit his six-figure-salary job for the chance to win a $700 prize.
“I’d been playing in an office league since the late ‘90s and never won,” St. Amant says. “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 not the only Type-A fantasy extremist. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, there are 30 million fantasy players in the U.S. and Canada -- 54 percent more than two years ago. Most of them are pretty good at their jobs: According to a 2009 study by the University of Mississippi, the annual household income of a fantasy sports consumer is $92,750, Bloomberg Business Week reports in its Sept. 13 edition.
Outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that American companies might be losing as much as $1.5 billion in productivity during an average football season because of fantasy sports.
Some offices are taking action. Last October four employees at Fidelity Investments in Westlake, Texas, were let go for alleged participation in a fantasy football league, which was deemed a violation of the company’s anti-gambling policy.
Rather than disappearing from the workplace, some fantasy football 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 men 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 says he 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.”
In fantasy football, team owners pick real NFL players for their teams, then compare their players’ statistics to determine winners of games.
Into the Light
Not all league members are living in the shadows. Shergul Arshad, 40, a director of business development at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based shopping website StyleFeeder.com, has been playing in office fantasy leagues since the early 1990s. 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.”
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, Kansas, 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.
Dustin Ashby, the commissioner of the World Championship of Fantasy Football -- a league with a $300,000 grand prize -- said 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 wrote several books on the subject and became a frequent guest on ESPN. It wasn’t until years later, when he’d returned to advertising full-time, that he won his first fantasy league title.
“I guess that’s kind of ironic,” St. Amant says. 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.
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