Fantasy football: Another lockout casualty?

Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly said that ESPN The Magazine had canceled publication of its annual fantasy football guide. The magazine has postponed publication of the guide during the lockout. This version has been corrected.

May 28, 2011

Typically, Memorial Day weekend is a time of promise for the $800 million fantasy football industry and an important milestone for the game’s estimated 30 million players.

With the NFL draft completed, prized free agents signed and initial offseason workouts conducted, the most prominent brands in the highly competitive and lucrative fantasy football marketplace routinely launch exhaustive campaigns to entice fans.

Not this year. With the NFL lockout in its 77th day, ESPN The Magazine has postponed its annual fantasy football guide, which would have appeared on newsstands and in 2 million mailboxes in early June, at a loss of millions in advertising revenue, according to one industry analyst. Other giant content providers, such as Sports Illustrated, are holding out, hoping to publish when the lockout ends.

Sports bars that count on fantasy draft parties for revenue stand to lose thousands of dollars, as do hotels in places such as Las Vegas that host more elaborate fantasy football gatherings.

“In a word, there’s a fair amount of anxiety because the football season generates more revenue than the rest of the sports combined for most of our member companies,” said Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, whose membership includes all the industry’s flagship brands and then some. “While most people remain pretty optimistic that there won’t be missed time, missed games or, in a worst-case scenario, a missed season, it’s still made things complicated.”

Kevin Ota, director of communications for ESPN digital media, said postponing the guide was an editorial decision. “If and when things straighten themselves out, the data and the information that would go into that publication would be out of date, inaccurate or otherwise,” he said. Diana Pohly, president of the Pohly Company, a Boston-based media consultant, estimated that ESPN could lose $3 million to $4 million in ad revenue.

Speculation on hold

There is no measuring the apathy and disappointment of the game’s rabid followers, who put together their own “teams” and win or lose each week based on the on-field performance of actual NFL players. With each passing day of the work stoppage, the offseason pursuit of evaluating players’ fantasy value becomes almost pointless. Will Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s stock rise, say, if the team acquires a quarterback such as Donovan McNabb? It’s not worth speculating yet, fans say.

And that means some are holding onto their money as well.

Mike Nguyen, a senior sales manager who lives in Springfield, wrote in an e-mail that his fantasy football budget is “on the shelf” until the lockout is settled. By this time, Nguyen usually has paid for access to Rotowire.com, one of the more comprehensive sites around, to begin his research.

“This season, what’s the point?” he wrote.

Other leading fantasy football guides, including Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports, remain committed to regularly scheduled publishing. Then there’s Athlon’s, another of the industry’s most recognized fantasy football annuals, which is in a holding pattern, although Managing Editor Mitch Light confirmed in an e-mail that the magazine intends to publish shortly after the lockout ends. Athlon has not made a decision as to whether it will publish if the lockout stretches into September.

Less clear is the potential cost to online content providers, whose data often is the lifeblood of preseason drafts but becomes the exclusive source of scoring and other information during the regular season. Although many sites provide real-time team scores free of charge, others also feature live individual player scoring for a fee. Additional paid content can include the latest injury news, more in-depth analysis and wireless updates.

Yahoo is the most visited fantasy football site, according to recent data compiled by Experian Hitwise, a leading Internet analytics service provider. Yahoo, which offers free team scoring but charges for its enhanced game tracker function, claimed nearly 46 percent of all fantasy football visits in September 2010, with ESPN next at 34 percent and NFL.com third at almost 14 percent

“Until there is definitive word from the league, we are proceeding as if the season will not be impacted by the lockout,” Yahoo’s David Geller, a fantasy football product manager, wrote in an e-mail. “This means we will continue with our standard development and release schedule for the fantasy football game.”

‘Uncharted territory’

Geller indicated it was too soon to assess the impact of the lockout on Yahoo because its fantasy football registration does not begin until later this week. But CBSSports.com, meantime, is trying to attract customers now with discounted fees for early registration and a “Gridiron Guarantee” that promises credit or a refund if games are lost or the season is canceled.

Still, it’s all but unthinkable that players would make substantial financial commitments to fantasy football while labor strife is threatening the start of the regular season, multiple games or the entire schedule.

“We’re really in uncharted territory here because since the fantasy industry has matured, we haven’t had a really significant work stoppage that’s been meaningful to us,” Charchian said. “Clearly if there’s lost games, there will be fewer fantasy leagues. I don’t think there’s any way around that.”

That also means fewer fantasy football draft parties, which generate sales during a period when the restaurant industry is annually at its most sluggish, according to food service experts. At Buffalo Billiards, a popular destination in the District on NFL Sundays, owner Mark Handwerger, himself a member of several fantasy leagues, estimated he would lose tens of thousands of dollars if the lockout compels fantasy football players to abandon draft parties.

Handwerger also said that if the lockout isn’t settled by mid-June, he would not travel to Las Vegas to participate in the World Championship of Fantasy Football, a high-stakes competition that stages player acquisition conventions in four cities across the United States.

Tom Lawler, a lobbyist who lives in the District, travels as well for his league’s draft, but the trip to Waco, Tex., could become a casualty if the lockout persists. Lawler, who has played in his league for roughly a decade, said he devotes approximately $1,000, which includes travel, food and lodging, to fantasy football each year.

“Everybody’s got schedules and various other interests,” Lawler said. “Once [fantasy football participation] falls off, something else is going to take its place, and I think that’s the biggest concern that the league has. Once everybody goes away, how do they get them to come back?”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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