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It's First and 10 For Fantasy Football on Facebook

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Are Facebook users ready for some football?

This fall, a couple of start-up software companies are trying to make a business out of melding two popular online activities: social networking and fantasy football.

It certainly doesn't sound like much of a stretch. Fantasy sports leagues, in which groups of sports fans band together and create fictional teams with rosters of real athletes that win or lose depending on their athletes' performances in the real world, have always served as a way for friends to connect remotely around a shared interest.

And yup, that's pretty much the same type of low-key social activity that sites such as Facebook are good at.

"If you look at the primary reasons people play fantasy football, there's a big overlap there in what fuels social networks," said Mike Kearns, co-founder of Citizen Sports, the San Francisco start-up behind the recently launched (and generically titled) Fantasy Football 2008.

This isn't Citizen Sports' first Facebook application. The company already had millions of Facebook users logging on to hundreds of groups for fans of teams in sports from baseball to rugby.

Kearns says his company strived to provide the tools serious fans want but also tried to provide options to simplify things for the casual fan who doesn't want to invest much time. Citizen Sports has 170,000 active users on Facebook and plans to launch applications on MySpace and Bebo next year. The Washington region has had the second-largest uptake for the software so far, according to the company; the area is just behind New York City in terms of active users.

Citizen Sports isn't the only start-up trying to grab some turf in this market for this football season. Jon Brelig, a 24-year-old Facebook user and fantasy football fan, logged on to the social networking site last year to start a league but was surprised to find no application to do that. "I just assumed there'd be one," he said.

Brelig and his small start-up team are hoping their application makes fantasy football more of a social experience than it is at traditional fantasy-sports-hosting giants such as Yahoo Sports by allowing participants in different leagues to compare stats with each other more easily.

"Yahoo has a great system," he said, "but you're confined to your league of eight people." The application, called 08 Fantasy Football, has more than 40,000 active users.

Fantasy sports have existed since 1980, said Greg Ambrosius, president of the Washington-based Fantasy Sports Trade Association. In the early days, hobbyists had to track player data on pads of paper. The pastime started to gain traction in the early days of the dot-com era, when automated tools eliminated much of the grunt work involved in calculating which fan's team was up or down. Moving to social networking sites "makes a lot of sense," Ambrosius said.

Like many fantasy football fans, Ambrosius has always used the hobby as a way to stay in touch with people, much the way people use Facebook to stay in touch with friends. He argues that the early wave of fantasy sports applications, started in the days of the dot-com boom, were the Web's first social networking sites -- and it's not a surprise that software developers would see the connection and bring the hobby to sites like Facebook so that users can also connect with their non-fantasy-sports-loving friends.

According to Nielsen Online, 11.7 million Web users visited one or more fantasy football sites last September, up from 10 million the year before. And those fans spend a lot of time managing their teams; the average user spent about an hour and 45 minutes at his or her league's host site each month. The two most popular fantasy football host sites, Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com, are also the two most popular sports news sites, coincidentally or not.

But the fantasy sports market might not be easy to crack, as it skews toward guys who aren't young and who may already have their habits locked down. The FSA says the average fantasy sports enthusiast is 39 years old and male. Other research indicates that the typical player has been in the same league with his buddies for seven years.

Sports Illustrated, the venerable sports magazine, has mostly stuck to the sidelines as the fantasy industry grew, but it's jumping in with Citizen Sports now in the hopes of reaching the Facebook crowd.

Until now, said Jeff Price, president of Sports Illustrated's digital operations, "the cost to get people to switch over was just too significant, and there wasn't anything new for us to bring to the game."

The magazine supplies stats and analysis for the application and landed major advertisers, such as AT&T for the free application's pages. Price said that all ads for the season have already been sold.

Some fantasy football fans say they are interested in taking their pastime to Facebook, though this might not be the year they do so.

Graham Marsden, a Reston resident who is the organizer of a three-year-old fantasy football league, recently checked out the Citizen Sports application, though he ultimately decided not to use it.

"My league was clamoring for me to find something on Facebook, because everyone uses it every day," he wrote via e-mail.

There's no reason fantasy football won't eventually be a huge success on Facebook, he said, but this season he and his group of college friends will stick to Yahoo.

While he said he likes the free live statistics in the Fantasy Football 2008 application, Marsden said he prefers the way Yahoo lets him more closely manage how the teams in his league score points. Marsden has set up a Facebook group for his group, called Megolithic, to facilitate trash talking and even used the social networking site to schedule the group's offline draft get-together, scheduled for today.

Ambrosius, the president of the fantasy sports industry trade group, said he's already in eight leagues and hasn't tried the two new services yet. He's not a Facebook guy.

"I'm 48," he said. "I'm too old for that stuff. I wouldn't have any idea how to get on there."

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