Lara Mord and Diedra Geye found a spot at the bar in a downtown Minneapolis establishment on a perfect Saturday afternoon. They talked and laughed as good friends do, but they came primarily for business.
They craved fantasy football insight from experts at a four-hour fantasy boot camp in preparation for their league draft.
"We do a lot of research," Mord said.
They aren't alone. Fantasy football is played by 36 million people in the United States and Canada, according to Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Fantasy football has mushroomed into a billion-dollar enterprise that attracts a diverse swath of the population. Charchian estimates the industry adds two million new players every year and that women now make up 20 percent of leagues. The fastest growing demographic is 18-and-under as more parents introduce their kids to fantasy football.
Hundreds of players -- men and women, young and old -- attended a fantasy camp hosted by Charchian and a panel of analysts who offered tips and suggestions as fans, armed with laptops and notebooks, consumed their words like gospel.
One segment focused on running back "sleepers." Panelist Christian Peterson presented research on "lightly regarded running backs who thrive in zone blocking schemes." That microscopic detail underscores how sophisticated fantasy players have become.
"You have to dig way deeper to try and find angles and some insight," Charchian said.
The fantasy football boom coincided with the birth of the Internet, which made fantasy teams easier to manage while allowing family, friends and college buddies to connect more effectively. High traffic dot-com outlets such as ESPN, CBSSports and Yahoo! devote considerable resources to assist in league operation and glean statistical analysis, injury news and draft advice from fantasy "experts."
The NFL embraced fantasy's mainstream appeal in the mid-2000s and launched its own platform on NFL.com in 2010. The league recently held its first NFL Fantasy Draft Week in New York, which included appearances by Commissioner Roger Goodell and several Hall of Fame players.
Fantasy football has contributed significantly to the NFL's soaring popularity and TV ratings success. More people share a rooting interest in the league because they're emotionally (and financially) invested in the weekly performance of their fantasy team. That helps drive various NFL media platforms such as DirecTV's Sunday Ticket and NFL RedZone. Studies show that a majority of fantasy players use multiple screens while watching games, typically a TV, laptop and a tablet or iPhone.
"Fantasy owners consume twice as much televised football as their sport-loving counterparts who don't play fantasy," Charchian said. "These are super-consumers."
They come from all walks of life. Fridley native Noel Thompson formed a league made up of youth children's pastors and ministers in California. Eagan resident Glenn Hamilton plays in a league with fellow air traffic controllers around the country (their league name: FAA Interservice Area Coalition). Beth Rohde of Lino Lakes was selected randomly for an all-Twitter league organized by the brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers last season.
Back to basics
Bloomington native Michelle Battles started an all-female league with friends and co-workers in Los Angeles. Her group included a few women who knew nothing about football, so Battles held a party and conducted a power-point presentation on Football 101.
"Everything from the basics of, 'There are 32 teams in the NFL, they play 16 games, QB stands for quarterback, what a running back does,'" Battles said.
Tom Carr grew up in Blaine and helped form a fantasy league comprised strictly of punk bands in the Las Vegas music scene.
"It's a weekly contest where you have no control over it," said Carr, a guitarist for a band called The Quitters, "but yet you get to destroy your buddy."
Adrian Peterson doesn't play fantasy football, but the Vikings star running back hears from people who do "every day." Fantasy players inundated Peterson's Twitter feed this summer looking for updates on his progress from knee surgery. Peterson thinks it's "cool" that people draft him in leagues, but he admits some become overzealous in their pursuit for inside information.
"I don't pay attention to it to the point where I get involved and give guys [injury] information," he said. "You've got some crazy fans on there. If you don't give them the type of information they want, they'll go left field on you with some of the stuff they say. It's like, 'Wow, fantasy football is this important?'"
'Until they die'
Charchian offers one stat to illustrate fantasy football's grip on fans.
"Eighty percent of current fantasy players plan to play for at least a decade more," he said. "Half of them plan to play until they die."
Fantasy players devour analysis before drafts. Geye listens to Charchian's two-hour fantasy show every Saturday on KFAN to stay current on fantasy news. She and Mord took copious notes at Charchian's fantasy camp.
Mord started their league 12 years ago because the men in her husband's league had a strict no-female policy. Her league is co-ed and has become a social hub.
"I'm competitive and I like to win," Mord said. "And I like to beat the boys."
The social component drives interest and allows people to stay connected across time and distance.
"I always call fantasy the first social network because it brings friends together," said Cory Mummery, director of NFL Fantasy.
Most leagues also offer a financial prize for winning. The average league entry fee is $70 across all fantasy sports, but players are attracted by competition as well.
"It gives you that little edge for a game that you normally wouldn't care about," said Hamilton, who has played in his air traffic controller league since 2005. "All of a sudden, you're rooting for Eli Manning to throw that touchdown on Monday night because you need it."
Drafting the enemy
Sometimes that creates a dilemma. Thompson, the youth minister, has an outline of the state of Minnesota tattooed on his right arm and is a diehard Vikings fan. But he drafted Rodgers last season when the Packers quarterback "kind of fell in my lap."
"I said, 'Man, I'd be crazy not to draft him,'" Thompson said. "When they played the Vikings, I said I hope the Vikings win 100-99."
Fantasy football occasionally carries deeper personal significance, too.
Brian Szulczewski served as commissioner of a fantasy league at a Twin Cities restaurant where he worked as a bartender for 25 years. In 2006, he suffered a brain aneurysm and died 10 days before his 50th birthday.
"When the league found out about his death, a bunch of them wanted to end the league because Brian was the heart and soul of it," said Brian's sister, Sue.
Instead, one of the owners invited Sue to continue Brian's team in his memory. She accepted and won their league the following season. Team owners share stories and memories of Brian every year during their draft.
"It's a fellowship of people and a common interest," Sue said. "I'm grateful that they asked me to continue on by taking over his team to keep the league going."
BY THE NUMBERS
Million fantasy football players in the U.S. and Canada
Percentage of fantasy football players who are female
Average entry fee for all fantasy sports leagues