For some high-rollers fantasy football is no game, and it's big business

Rob Brotzman, left, and Mark Handwerger watch NFL games while monitoring their fantasy football teams at Buffalo Billiards in Washington DC. 2010. (Photo by Juana Arias/For the Washington Post)
Rob Brotzman, left, and Mark Handwerger watch NFL games while monitoring their fantasy football teams at Buffalo Billiards in Washington DC. 2010. (Photo by Juana Arias/For the Washington Post)

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By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 11:37 PM

Josh Miceli was about to become a rich man. Just 22 at the time, the Bay Area resident had forked over $1,800 to enter the World Championship of Fantasy Football main event with his father and stood one game from the $300,000 grand prize.

That's when Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams took it upon himself to score four touchdowns and rush for 108 yards in a crucial game against the New York Giants at the end of the 2008 season. Miceli's payoff declined by 90 percent.

"Truthfully, I threw up that night," Miceli said.

An estimated 20 million people play fantasy football, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, creating a $4 billion industry based on countless office, home and online leagues.

But less than a thousand gutsy souls are willing to put up the kind of cash that Miceli and his dad, a financial adviser, invested in a competition over which, despite their football expertise, they have so little control.

"Is it surprising to me? I think yes, to an extent," said Dustin Ashby, owner of WCOFF's parent company, Gridiron Fantasy Sports. "At the same time, when you think about the amount of enjoyment that one gets out of being in a fantasy football league, I mean it's every Sunday. Now it's Thursdays at times, Saturdays and Mondays. You're engaged in every game."

If you don't play fantasy football, read any of the dozens of magazines and Web sites devoted to it, or watch the TV sitcom based on a league founded by a group of friends, the game works like this: Players (team owners) "draft" teams of real-life NFL players and compete against each other based on those players' actual on-field performances each week.

Web sites host perhaps hundreds of thousands of leagues and countless media outlets, from ESPN to local radio stations, offer advice on which players to start each week based on the real NFL matchups. NFL athletes play as well, fielding fantasy teams comprising teammates and opponents they will encounter on the gridiron.

Competition ranges from friendly to uber-cutthroat, and prizes can be bragging rights to the $60,000 that District residents Mark Handwerger and Rob Brotzman play for.

The pair has made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas the past four years to participate in WCOFF's $5,000 auction league. In that time, they estimate, they have dropped roughly $30,000 on fantasy football. That figure includes entry fees as well as airfare, lodging, food and golf at luxury courses.

The longtime friends have made some recent concessions to the economic downturn by forgoing plush accommodations for a chain hotel off the strip. There is a breakfast buffet there after all, and they can't go hungry before a day of fantasy football mania that includes hours of player acquisition in multiple leagues. Handwerger and Brotzman also participate in a WCOFF-run $1,000 entry league.

"It's a little aggressive," said Handwerger, 47, a lifelong Redskins fan and graduate of St. Albans prep school, "but it's rare that you get an opportunity to compete against the best of the best."


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