Fantasy football is every armchair quarterback's dream, giving regular Joes the chance to draft their favorite pro football players for an imaginary all-star roster and then score points each week based on individual players' statistics.
But as nerdy as that sounds, the armchair game has grown so wildly popular that it's changing viewership habits and spurred a variety of shows specifically produced for its devotees who closely track the performance of their players.
This season, the NFL Network launched a fantasy football TV show, offered to each team's local affiliate. It includes statistical information and performance projections on popular fantasy players.
DirecTV has expanded its football offerings to include a "Super Fan" package that allows viewers to watch up to eight games on the same screen and a "Red Zone" channel that catalogs significant moments in each game, like an interception or a 70-yard touchdown drive.
"Next year, we'll take it even further and offer the ability to track fantasy stats and call them up using the remote control," said Bob Marsocci, a spokesman for El Segundo-based DirecTV Inc.
Fox Sports Network and CBS Sports also carry fantasy-based programs that track game and player statistics, and executives said they are discussing or already planning to increase the offerings.
"(Fantasy football) has had a very serious impact on some of the programs we're offering," said Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports' vice president of research and programming.
A recent study commissioned by the National Football League found that 15 million adults play fantasy football each year. A typical player is 25 to 54 years old, male and an avid NFL fan. The study also showed that fantasy players watched about three more hours of televised football a week than non-playing fans.
The question is whether it's affecting ratings. Officials at DirecTV note that its NFL Sunday Ticket subscriptions, which provide viewers with access to all regular season games, have increased by 10 percent each year since its 1995 debut. That package includes cellar-dweller games that only devoted fans or fantasy football fanatics would likely care about.
"Fantasy players are mostly people who were heavy football viewers before they played fantasy anyway," said Mulvihill. "I don't think it's creating heavy interest more than redirecting prior interest in a new way."
In fact, a comparison of late September Sunday afternoon games broadcast on Fox shows only a miniscule uptick in households that watched between 2002 and 2003 two hundredths of a percentage point.
While fantasy football has been around since the 1960s, it really mushroomed in the 1990s as home computers and the Internet made it faster and easier for players to track statistics, manage their teams and keep in touch with fellow players.
"Fantasy (football) has been great for us," said NFL spokesman Dan Masonson. "If you think about it, fantasy football players will follow more players and more games than those people who are just watching their favorite team."
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