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Not your typical draft pick

Times Staff Writer

WHEN U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced a dry little bill affecting a modest government panel sifting through the nation’s antitrust laws, it didn’t exactly grab national headlines.

But Brandon Smith was psyched, even though he knew next to nothing about the Antitrust Modernization Commission Extension Act of 2007. Smith, a 24-year-old law student from Brooklyn, N.Y., is an avid “fantasy” Congress player. It’s a game similar to fantasy baseball and football leagues, but in this league, players draft teams of representatives and senators, and earn points depending on how well their bills survive the treacherous political gauntlet.

When the bill passed, Conyers’ little-known coup earned Smith a whopping 50 points and vaulted him into his league’s lead.

“It may seem weird to get excited about this type of stuff in the abstract, but it’s the same way that in fantasy sports, I can get excited about random stats,” Smith said.

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Fantasy sports leagues still dominate the genre, but more and more leagues devoted to other interests are lighting up computers across the nation.

Instead of picking the NFL’s top running back, how about a fantasy husband? There’s a website for that, along with fantasy leagues centered on celebrities and Hollywood blockbusters.

“People have always enjoyed taking ownership of the things they are into recreationally, and the Internet has made that more and more accessible to more people,” said Nancy Baym, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.

An estimated 15 million to 18 million people manage fantasy sports teams, according to a study conducted by the Fantasy Sports Trade Assn. Revenue is raised through participation fees in the $2-billion industry, and 90% of the participants are men, the study found.

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But Andrew Lee felt left out of the action in his cramped Claremont McKenna College dorm room three years ago.

His roommate, Eric Chow, kept screaming “boo-yah” during a Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. A fantasy football victory, a week’s worth of strategy and trash talking with friends, rested on the game’s outcome.

LEE, then a freshman, lost his concentration while scrolling a political blog. And then, something dawned on him. “I thought that if there was a way for people to relate to Congress as much as they can to sports, then it would make for a better government and more-informed nation,” Lee said.

He started Fantasy Congress. Users draft a mix of senators and representatives -- each league can establish a different cap on draft picks -- to play for colorfully named teams like “Barack N’ Roll,” “The Obaminators,” and “FDR’s Revenge.” Seasons last the length of Congress’ two-year cycles.

“My first thought was that it was a cool idea,” said Arjun Lall, 21, who along with three other friends poured hours into creating the league with Lee.

“My second thought was, ‘who would play this?’ ”

Actually, a lot of people. The league has attracted more than 66,000 users since its inception last October.

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MOST points are earned through steps in the legislative process. If a player’s political draftee introduces a bill into Congress, a player earns five points.

The further the bill goes, the more points a player receives, and if the bill is signed into law, players earn 50 points.

A new feature allows teams to earn points for positive media coverage and lose them for getting slammed in the press -- the fantasy football equivalent of a quarterback throwing an interception.

Smith, the law student with political aspirations and a fantasy sports junkie, said the appeal of participating in something that combined two of his interests was intriguing.

And just as in fantasy sports, there is a good deal of strategy involved.

“At first I thought of picking Obama, but then I decided he was going to be on the campaign trail too much and not paying attention to legislation,” Smith said. “Instead, I took Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), a rising star that a lot of people don’t know, and it’s paying dividends.”

Smith may need to reload soon. On Tuesday, Vitter apologized after his telephone number appeared among those associated with an escort service in Washington.

For much of the year, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), sat atop first place in points, before recently being supplanted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

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Well, as a staffer, I can attest to the game’s accuracy,” said Michael McQuerry, Jackson-Lee’s spokesman. “This is fun, but at the same time it goes to show you that some people are paying attention to Congress.

Not to say that the site hasn’t ruffled political feathers. Andrew Lee received an e-mail earlier this year from a San Gabriel Valley high school teacher who said that Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) playfully griped about her last-place standing during a class visit earlier this year.

“The bad thing is that of course, somebody has to be in last place, but she’s doing OK now,” said Lee, 21. “She’s been getting a lot of co-sponsorships of late.”

Napolitano said she doesn’t know much about the site, but said, “I give them a lot of kudos for getting youngsters engaged in Congress.”

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LIKE Lee’s start, many other fantasy leagues began out of frustration over men’s fascination with sports.

Erica Salmon called herself a sports widow because her husband, Neil, spent so much time checking his fantasy sports team online.

She joked with friends, saying she should start a league that interested her. Eventfully the jokes turned into discussions, and the discussions turned into the Fantasy Fashion League.

“A lot of women say, ‘I don’t bug my husband now because I can understand what he is going through,’ ” said Salmon, 32, of Philadelphia.

In the league, which debuted in the fall of 2005, combinations of celebrities and designers earn points every time they appear on a magazine cover or walk the red carpet at awards shows. The more exposure, the more points a player receives. Those who accumulate the most points by the Academy Awards win their league.

“Some people are casual but we play every day,” said Jennifer Hayes, 33, of Missouri City, Texas, who drafted Chanel with her top pick. “We get together for all the parties and make a day of it.”

When a woman in Texas won the league, Salmon persuaded the woman’s husband to buy her a Swarovski crystal tiara because the popular jewelry designer was a crucial member of his wife’s fantasy team.

“Now that was funny,” Salmon said. “She called me to thank me for starting the league.”

Kim Cramer, an accountant in Tallahassee, Fla., also found herself drowning in the fantasy sports league talk surrounding the office water cooler.

Cramer, a baseball fan, enjoys watching sports but couldn’t picture herself poring over sports statistics enough to join a league.

So she asked herself what the topics are that women bond over as much as men do with sports?

“Men and relationships,” Cramer said. Hence, Fantasy Husband was born. In Fantasy Husband, users select three men from 20 real-life husbands profiled on the site, then ask them how they would respond to a hypothetical problem in a relationship.

Each week, the men are presented with a new scenario, such as a wife who wants a tummy tuck, but the budget doesn’t allow for it. Or a wife who says that she was embarrassed by her husband’s obnoxious behavior at a company function, but did the husband truly care?

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PLAYERS earn points, assigned by a social worker and a marriage counselor, based on how the men respond to that week’s dilemma.

A mere 10 points are awarded for a response that rates calling a divorce attorney, and the ideal response nets 100 points.

Todd Galloway, 27, of Boston, also started a fantasy league that deals with celebrities. His site tracks how many times a drafted team of celebrities is mentioned on selected blogs.

“All the things guys do with fantasy sports, the girls are doing it,” Galloway said. “They are talking trash and holding draft parties.”

The top draft picks are usually Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. But the savvy participants wait for a celebrity to have a baby, or star in a movie, before picking them up from a free-agent pool, Galloway said.

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OTHER fantasy leagues give participants budgets to draft teams of musical artists or allow them to select upcoming movies to see how they perform at the box office.

And SOAPnet, a cable television station that shows soap operas, recently introduced a fantasy game in which players draft actors and earn points based on their “soapy moments,” such as having flashbacks or returning from the dead.

The newer fantasy leagues are “a new way to target another demographic and expand the industry a little more, especially in the female demographic,” said Jeff Thomas, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Assn.

But for fantasy trailblazers like Salmon, the site has a more practical result.

“My husband is always telling people that the Fantasy Fashion League is saving marriages,” she said. “Wives don’t care how much time their husband is researching fantasy football because she is sitting next to him researching Versace.”

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fantasy leagues

If you don’t care about the slugging percentage of Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, but know all about Britney Spears’ latest shenanigans or Rep. Xavier Becerra’s (D-Los Angeles) pending legislation in Congress, one of these fantasy leagues may be for you:

Fantasy Congress

www.fantasycongress.com

The site allows players to draft politicians, trade them and pick up new ones through waivers. Points are largely earned through politicians sponsoring bills and how that legislation fares. No cost.

Fantasy Music League

www.fantasymusicleague.com

Players run their own fantasy record label and are given $70 million in cyber money to sign up a roster of 10 musicians. Participants earn or lose money based on how artists do on the real Billboard charts. Cost: $10/season.

FaFarazzi

www.fafarazzi.com

In this game, if a player has Spears during her head-shaving incident or Paris Hilton en route to jail, they are doing pretty well. Points are earned when teams of celebrities are mentioned on selected entertainment blogs. No cost.

Fantasy Moguls

www.fantasymoguls.com

Draft a team of six movies about to hit the big screen and earn points for how they perform at the box office. No cost.

Fantasy Fashion League

www.fantasyfashionleague.com

Draft a combination of celebrities and designers and earn points when the designers’ creations are worn by celebrities at awards shows. Cost: $20/season.

Fantasy Husband

www.fantasyhusband.com

Players pick from a pool of 20 real-life husbands who are polled on relationship scenarios. If a fantasy husband opts to phone a divorce attorney, you’re in trouble. Cost: $6.95/season.

Fantasy Soap League

www.fantasysoapnet.com

A team of soap stars earns major points if the stars get slapped, come back from the dead or have a flashback. Cost: $9.99/season.

Source: Times reporting


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