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Lawyers, insurance firms cash in on fantasy football

  • Story Highlights
  • Magazines, Web sites, TV shows spin off $800 million fantasy football industry
  • Two sites offer real lawyers to settle fantasy-sports disputes for $15 each
  • Experts: Game provides cheap entertainment, "welcome escape" from hard times
  • Prizes include $1 million, trophies made of Carpathian elm, Swarovski crystal
By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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(CNN) -- Henry Olszewski was stoked in 2008 when he, along with millions of Americans, drafted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to his fantasy football team.

Titlecraft sells handmade fantasy football trophies, some with Swarovski crystal, left, for up to $799.

Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury last year sparked an idea at Intermarket Insurance.

About eight minutes into the season, a 220-pound safety was blocked into Brady's knee, tearing two of the quarterback's ligaments. Brady's season ended, as did Olszewski's.

"That Monday, [Olszewski] came in the office, and he was bummed out," said Anthony Giaccone, president of Intermarket Insurance. "He asked, 'Why can't we buy insurance for fantasy team players?' "

Thus spawned the brainchild for Fantasy Sports Insurance, which guarantees that NFL players won't miss a certain number of games. FSI will reimburse a fantasy player's entry fee if they do.

It's one of a blitz of bizarre businesses cropping up in the $800 million industry of turning quarterback stats to greenbacks, said Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Photo See fantasy football's top 10 prospects »

Charchian is familiar with the wellspring of offbeat companies fueled by the fantasy football craze; he owns LeagueSafe, which stores league entry fees in a bank until it issues a payout to the winner at season's end.

Other specialty businesses, he said, range from the obvious, such as trophy companies, to the esoteric, such as fantasy dispute resolution.

You read the last one correctly.

Web sites like fantasydispute.com and sportsjudge.com offer to mitigate fretful fantasy feuds. Think there was collusion in a trade or your league commissioner is playing favorites? Write up your dispute and send it to one of the sites. For $15, a lawyer will settle your quibble.

How It All Began

Legend has it Bill Winkenbach, a limited partner with the then-AFL's Oakland Raiders, invented the game in a New York hotel room in 1962. Reporter Scotty Stirling and a Raiders publicist helped him craft the idea.

The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League debuted in 1963. The eight teams picked skill players but also offensive ends and individual defensive players.

Players who played multiple positions, such as the Houston Oilers' George Blanda, could be drafted twice. Blanda was drafted as a quarterback and a kicker.

Stirling, now scouting director for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, said he saw Winkenbach in 1991. "He told me, 'I told you we should have copyrighted the damned thing.' "

Winkenbach died in March 1993.

Source: Fantasy Sports Publications

For the uninitiated: Fantasy football players generally "draft" NFL quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and team defenses and use their statistics each week to score points in head-to-head matchups.

Countless variations have proliferated, as have magazines and Web sites beholden only to fantasy players. Sort the top picks by position at SI.com

The NFL has introduced the RedZone Channel, which flips between games where a team is on the verge of scoring, CBSsports.com has launched a live Web show called "Fantasy Football Today," and cable's FX is scheduled to air a sitcom based on a fantasy football league this year.

The stakes have skyrocketed as well. The World Championship of Football offers a $300,000 top prize. The Fantasy Football Open Championship's is $1 million. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that a group of well-heeled financiers has a 10-team league with a $100,000 entry fee.

A June study by the research company Ipsos says three in 20 American men (and one in 20 women) play some fantasy sport.

"It takes the fans of one sports team and makes them interested in every game that's happening," said Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager for CBSsports.com. "It's a welcome escape, as much of sports is right now."

Not all fans are enamored, however. ESPN's Colin Cowherd explained his aversion on his radio show last month, saying fantasy football was too time-consuming and, in his experience, for "total nerds and geeks."

"I'm a gambler, lived in Vegas. My friends are gamblers. We don't play fantasy football," he said. "We're busy. We have jobs. We have careers. We have lives. We don't have time for three-hour draft parties and an hour or two on the computer every week to update our fullback situation."

But more than 22 million Americans and Canadians do, Charchian said, and the economic downturn doesn't seem to be sacking the industry.

"It's hard to get out. It's enmeshed in your social circle," he explained.

Also, with most leagues costing less than $10 a week and with the average player spending nine hours weekly researching and tweaking his or her roster, "the dollar-per-entertainment value is really advantageous," Charchian said.

Fantasy players at CBSsports.com spent an average of 102 minutes per visit on the site, according to Nielsen data from last year. The site has more users willing to pay to play, whereas competitors like NFL.com and Yahoo! host predominantly free games, "so it's more meaningful to them," Kint said.

Kint could not divulge specific figures but said "millions" play CBSsports.com's free and pay games. Entry fees and related fantasy products make up about 30 percent of the site's non-advertising revenue, he said.

Advertisers are getting wise to the "coveted market," comprised largely of young, educated males, Kint said, as evidenced by the site's partnerships with Ford, Snickers, Buffalo Wild Wings and Dave & Buster's.

"When people are down and depressed, they look for escapes. Fantasy football fills that void like booze and anything else that kind of distracts you," said Ed Reichow, owner of Titlecraft, which builds custom trophies only for fantasy footballers.

Reichow had the idea after a decade of making trophies for his personal fantasy league. He sold 70 trophies in his first year and is on track to sell more than 100 this year.

They are handcrafted from materials such as cherry, Carpathian elm and Swarovski crystal and range in price from $129 to $799, he said.

"It's something you can really pass down if you want to," he said. "And the wife isn't going to get upset if you put it on the mantle, because it's nicer than some of the furniture in the room."

But what would the wife think about buying insurance policies on your fantasy football players?

Some spouses must be OK with it because, FSI's Giaccone reported, business has been threefold what he expected -- this, despite that it costs considerably more, percentagewise, to insure a fantasy quarterback than it does a real quarterback.

Chris Nash, an underwriter with Australia-based Sportscover, which insures athletes, said the average U.S. football player pays up to 4 percent of the sum insured. FSI's products range between 10 percent and 15 percent of the league entry fee.

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Despite the contrast, Giaccone described fantasy insurance as a must-have for fantasy die-hards. He went so far as to question the sanity of some fantasy players who might ignore his product.

"If you are playing fantasy sports and you have Tom Brady on your team, you'd be crazy not to insure him," he said.

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