Fantasy boosts reality: NFL TV ratings hit a record this year thanks in part to fantasy football leagues

The estimated 29 million Americans who play in fantasy football leagues are helping the NFL's TV ratings to a record year. That includes the 10 San Diego moms who call themselves the Hail Marys.

When they first gathered three years ago, the group of women in their 30s and 40s was so green that one member asked if "fantasy" meant picking the hottest NFL players. Now they're a bunch of obsessives who, in building and competing with their pseudo-teams using real players and figures, pore over yardage stats and go by huddle-tough nicknames like the Grinder. And they watch each game like it's wanted for murder.

"In fantasy football every game counts," said Kierstan Cleary, a pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of two young sons who described herself as at most a casual fan before joining the Hail Marys. Her viewing of games on TV during that time, she estimates, has tripled to about 30 per season.

And that, in a nutshell, helps explain why the story of TV viewing this fall has largely been one of the NFL and will likely go down as pro football's most-watched season ever. Twenty-six NFL games so far this season have grabbed 20 million or more viewers, a feat achieved by only nine non-football shows, according to the Nielsen Co. — and seven of those non-football shows were episodes of ABC's smash "Dancing With the Stars." Fifteen NFL games so far this year have averaged more than 25 million viewers. Just nine games hit that mark for the entire 2009 season.

The growth of the Internet has fueled the rise of fantasy football, and that in turn is driving record growth in NFL ratings. Fantasy has become the TV executives' friend for two reasons: It has vastly broadened the game's appeal to include people who previously followed football lightly or not at all, and it rewards viewers for paying close attention from kick-off to the game's final seconds. Fantasy has changed the meaning of the game far beyond the traditional rooting interest shared by hometown fans.

"It's not just that, 'I'm an Eagles fan, and I'm going to watch the Eagles,'" said Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming at ESPN, which has seen double-digit rises in "Monday Night Football" ratings this season. "[If] I happen to have Peyton Manning as my starting quarterback and I happen to have Chris Johnson on my fantasy team … I'm going to watch the Titans and I'm going to watch the Colts, 'cause I want to see how those guys are going to do."

The fantasy site fanball.com, which is operated by Liberty Media, estimates that at least 29 million Americans play fantasy football. An entire media industry devoted to the subject has exploded, seeking to satisfy the "owners'" insatiable demands for the latest stats on the approximately 1,700 players in the NFL. That the Internet is uniquely suited to fill that type of number-crunching and record-keeping role has only accelerated the expansion of fantasy football.

"Before the Internet and before they had stats services like NFL.com and ESPN, which are running stats for you," said Michael Fabiano, a longtime fantasy football analyst who now works for NFL.com, "I was doing it on pen and paper. Now it's much easier."

The real breakthrough may have come over the last few years, as many websites aimed at hard-core fans have dropped subscription fees and offered their services free. Yahoo, for example, shed its $9.99 per-season charge for real-time fantasy scoring, as a raft of no-charge competitors flooded the market. After years of slapping its own brand on a game devised by CBS Sports, the NFL started offering its own free online fantasy game this year.

"The NFL realizes that fantasy football is growing the popularity of the sport," Fabiano said.

Nobody knows the intrusion of the make-believe into the real world as well as the players themselves, who are adapting to the changing dynamics wrought by fantasy. It's become commonplace for NFL players to mention or joke about their fantasy performances during television interviews with network hosts who manage their own teams.

Meanwhile, dozens of players, including stars like San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, keep fantasy owners abreast of their injuries and pre- and postgame moods through Twitter. And Maurice Jones-Drew, another top fantasy running back, penned a weekly fantasy advice column for Sports Illustrated magazine this season. (The Jacksonville Jaguar and former UCLA star manages a couple of fantasy teams of his own and revealed he had to trade several draft picks to get himself on his own fantasy team.)

No productive player can escape the long reach of fantasy owners, even those few who aren't engaged in the nationwide game. "Yeah, I've heard people go, 'Let's go, Tolbert, tonight! I've got you on my fantasy team. You're starting on my fantasy team!'," said San Diego Charger Mike Tolbert, who has become a surprise fantasy favorite running back this year with 11 touchdowns. "I don't know how it works, so I'll be like, 'Uh... OK.' I'm still going to do my job."

But is there hard evidence that fantasy players actually watch more TV? Well, yes — to some extent. The subject is, of course, of great interest to network executives, who make their livings scheduling programs that lure advertisers — and who also have to stare across the negotiating table when NFL officials demand higher licensing fees for a professional sport whose value seems to be going nowhere but up.

David Poltrack, the research guru at CBS, recently crunched rating data for the NFL, looking for a fantasy effect. Poltrack said he operated under the assumption that if fantasy players were really boosting the numbers, then the ratings for non-home-team games that air in big TV markets would be rising relative to those of home-team games, when the enthusiasm of the non-fantasy-playing sports fans is presumably much higher.

And that is indeed the case. In 2007, ratings for non-home-team games represented 58% of the ratings for home-team games. The following season, the number spiked to 62%. And last year, it climbed another percentage point, to 63%.

"It is sort of gradually creeping up," Poltrack said. "That would be somewhat supportive of the hypothesis." He cautioned, however, that other factors could be at play in boosting NFL ratings too, including league parity and increasingly fancy, high-definition TV productions. The availability of DVRs has also enabled viewers to avoid having to make painful choices, common in the past, between live sports and favorite scripted series.

But few people within the industry question that fantasy is having a major influence. According to an ESPN survey, 70% of respondents who played fantasy football said their make-believe games led them to watch real NFL matchups they might otherwise have skipped.

There's also evidence within the ratings themselves. On Dec. 6, the New England Patriots had a 24-3 lead over the New York Jets at halftime. And yet, amazingly enough, ESPN's viewing at the start of the third quarter — around 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast — amounted to an 11.7 household rating, or just 2% lower than at the start of the first quarter. New England ended up rolling to a 45-3 rout. Was the tenacious viewing entirely due to top fantasy picks like the Patriots' Tom Brady? Maybe not, but it's hard to find another explanation for how an absolutely suspense-free game — even between two storied ball clubs in major East Coast TV markets — could become cable's 10th most-watched program of all time in households.

There are lots of people out there now who have new reasons to stay glued to those football games no matter who's winning. Just ask the Hail Marys.

"You could have a running back that his team lost, but he just kicked butt in the game and he just blew it out for you in your fantasy team," Cleary said. "You pay attention to all the finer points."

scott.collins@latimes.com

Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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