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Commentary: Fantasy trumps reality when it comes to the NFL

Happy holidays, everybody. We're in the midst of something called National Fantasy Football Draft Weekend and if you can't reach your friend/spouse/sibling/child for hours on end, well, he (or she) is likely drafting a team.
How big is fantasy football? The Jacksonville Jaguars are opening a fantasy football lounge in their stadium to allow fans to stop watching the game they paid dearly to see, walk inside, pull up a couch, grab a drink and check out games on TV while poring over all manner of NFL statistics.
"Our fans are consuming fantasy sports and stats at a level they never had before," Jaguars Senior Vice President Hussain Naqi told Bloomberg Sports. "We want to remove any obstacles to a fan coming to the stadium."
That's probably easier than improving on that pesky 2-14 record, but no jokes about the Jags because the Falcons and 49ers have plans to build similar lounges.
"Technology, interactivity and fantasy sports," said 49ers exec Paraag Marathe. "That's what really drives our ratings and keeps people coming back."
There was probably a time when the game itself did that, but we now live in "Red Zone" world, where NFL fans are just as happy to watch a channel that can show three teams on the verge of scoring, as well as the leading runners, receivers and passers of the day, as a channel with their favorite team playing.
The NFL is losing some fans - partly because fewer kids are playing football, partly because the parity the league was built upon hasn't really existed for years, partly because of the rules changes that everyone hates - but fantasy football just keeps growing.
It is a national obsession. More than 25 million otherwise rational people play, spending more than $2.5 billion on it, according to Fantasy Sports Trade Association. (Less than $1 billion is spent on all other fantasy sports combined.)
Given the choice between rooting for the color and logo of the local team or rooting for their own fantasy players, more and more fans opt for the one that could put money in their pockets rather than the one that takes money out.
(Of course, whether you're tuning in to watch your favorite team or your fantasy players, you're still tuning in. Ratings remain huge in an era when ratings for everything else stink.)
Full disclosure: I'm writing this as I simultaneously participate in an online draft. (That's my excuse for why I'm counting on Cecil Shorts more than his immediate family this year.)
An owner in our league was just congratulated by Snickers for making a "Satisfying Sleeper" pick. What good is an obsession if it can't be monetized by big companies, right?
I use this particular draft as research and practice for my main (read: more costly) league, which officially begins its 22nd season today with a high-tech, in-person auction at an Irish pub in Bel Air. There will be joysticks, a computer-generated voice telling us who is on the clock, a color-coded display projected onto a white wall, and, of course, the same lame jokes that have been told at these auctions since the first George Bush was in office.
While online drafts can be done in the time it takes to watch "The League" on FX, I'll be spending five hours or so with largely the same group of people I've been spending significant time with on the last Sunday in August since 1992.
More than two decades is a long time to do anything. No one knew anything about the Internet when we started. The league founder initially compiled statistics out of USA Today, and it was often Tuesday or even Wednesday before we knew the outcomes of our games.
There are 14 of us in the league. Six have been there from the beginning; most of the rest since the early years. Pretty much everyone has changed jobs a few times since. (Many have changed wives, too.) We've had defections for reasons ranging from anger at the NFL to a beef with someone in the league to, gulp, incarceration.
Attendance on auction day is mandatory, and an inability to keep the date open on your calendar is grounds for expulsion. (My wife will tell you we cut short our honeymoon by one day to return in time for the auction; I'll tell you it was just a coincidence.)
Every year, just about every owner returns. I mean, who quits fantasy football? Twenty-five million people can't be wrong.
I'd like to think this remarkable continuity and longevity is about the camaraderie and traditions and the little community we've formed. To some degree it is.
But it's also because watching games without any sort of personal investment is sooooo 1970s.
The NFL recognizes this. Hence, these new lounges. Because the league doesn't care how you're spending your time at the stadium any more than it cares why you're watching the games on TV. Just pay for the PSLs and tickets and show up on Sundays. And, hey, if you could buy a licensed jersey or two, they'd appreciate it. How much for a Cecil Shorts anyway?

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