There will come a day this month when millions of women across the country will mourn the loss of their husbands and boyfriends. Following summers spent frolicking together on beaches, barbecuing on the deck, and picnicking in the park, wives will be left behind while their loved ones go on to a better place: their fantasy football drafts.
Yes, fantasy football has created a whole new generation of "sports widows"—especially in sports-mad cities like Baltimore. These women are left in the lurch while their husbands spend the better part of the 17-week football season—September through January—watching games, checking statistics, and trading players for their fantasy football leagues. But many women are refusing to become statistics. Instead of bemoaning the game and nagging their husbands, they're finding other ways to fill their Sundays. Or they're proving the old adage true: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
When Scott McCarthy, 30, heads down to his Westminster basement in August for his team's fantasy football draft party, his wife Stephanie will be there at his side. Stephanie, a mortgage broker, is as die-hard a Ravens and fantasy football fan as her husband. So while the wives of the league's other players sit next door gossiping and drinking wine during the six- to eight-hour draft party, Stephanie will be with her husband and the eight other men in their "Smoke Fest" fantasy football league.
After about the fifth hour, the other wives usually head over to McCarthy's to check in on the draft, Stephanie says. They usually complain and get pretty annoyed, she says, adding that the women get irritated because they don't "get it."
"They hold it against me," she says. "They say, 'why do you have to play every year?'"
Originally from Detroit and the daughter of a semi-professional football player, Stephanie has always been a football fan. In the Ravens' 11 years in Baltimore, she's missed only a few home games. When the birth of her second child last October threatened to disrupt her near-perfect attendance record, she simply scheduled her C-section on a bye week followed by an away game to ensure that she'd be there in the stands for the next home game.
Thanks to fantasy football, the McCarthys spend about 10 hours on Sundays and three on Monday nights together during football season watching the games, plus half an hour each day watching ESPN's SportsCenter and countless hours on the computer making about 20 trades a week, Stephanie says.
And forget losing her husband to fantasy football—Stephanie says that her obsession has kept her away from many social functions, most notably a girlfriend's bridal shower. But, she says, most of her friends and family know the drill and don't extend invitations, or even call, on Sundays.
In a nutshell, this is how fantasy football works: People form leagues, usually of 10-12 players, who then hold a draft in which actual NFL players are picked to create imaginary teams. Many leagues hold virtual drafts online, but those who want to kick the season off live will gather at someone's house and spend hours and hours selecting the NFL players for their teams. Their real-life players will accrue fantasy points by scoring touchdowns, piling up rushing and passing yardage, and kicking field goals.
As with so many other things, when the Internet came along, it seriously pumped up the appeal of fantasy football. Tedious hours spent scoring with notepads and calculators could now be spent making trades and researching injury histories online, while websites hosting fantasy football leagues did all the organizational work. It didn't hurt that the NFL, the most popular pro sports league in America, embraced fantasy football, helping its popularity skyrocket. (Last year, the league's TV outlet, NFL Network, produced a series of funny, guys-are-goofy-when-they-obsess-over-dumb-stuff commercials, and on Sundays, the channel is a constantly updated source of player statistics.)
Now, fantasy football is a mainstream obsession—and it's big business. A 2005 survey by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association found that 93 percent of the between 18 million and 39.6 million fantasy sport participants played fantasy football. And one West Virginia Wesleyan College study of online fantasy sports participants found more than half spending at least an hour a day just thinking about their team, not to mention the time spent watching the games and researching player statistics. The survey also found that one in four fantasy players spends more than $500 a year on games, with even the average player spending $360. Plus, all those websites catering to fantasy sports leagues are raking it in, according to Fortune magazine—CBSSportsLine.com generated $15 million in sales from 1.3 million players in 2005.
Finally, male obsession with fantasy sports has become so pervasive that it works as a punchline in the summer comedy Knocked Up. A wife, convinced her husband is cheating on her, follows him . . . to his fantasy baseball draft (where he is entirely kitted out in Orioles gear).
While Stephanie McCarthy has been a football fan her whole life, many women get involved with fantasy football as a way to spend more time with their husbands. Melissa Adler, 30, originally joined her husband Brian's fantasy football league because they were short a player.
Melissa has a female friend from college who is a major fantasy football player. When she would call the Adler house in Reisterstown, Brian ended up spending more time on the phone with her than with Melissa. "I wanted to be part of it and understand what they were talking about," Melissa says.
Like Adler, most female fantasy football players end up playing for social reasons, says Dr. Thomas Bowers, co-director of the Sports and Entertainment Academy at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "Women get into fantasy football for boyfriends or spouses," Bowers says, while men play for "bragging rights."
Back in 2000, Bowers conducted a survey of students and executives in the sports and entertainment industry and found that fewer than 10 percent of fantasy sports participants were female.
Bowers is currently working on an update of his initial study and doesn't yet have concrete findings, but he does note that the number of women playing fantasy sports is definitely on the rise.
And once they've started playing, women find themselves getting more competitive. They reportedly like the aspect of "owning" the players and telling them what to do, Bowers says, adding with a laugh that many husbands say that this is what their wives like to do with them. "Men don't ever mention control as a reason for playing fantasy sports," he says. "I find that fascinating."
Of course, not everyone finds football so fascinating. You'll still find more women at Loehmann's on autumn Sundays than Looney's Pub. So what happens when women don't get sucked in to the football season?
There are a few alternatives. Tired of hearing her "obsessed" co-workers go on and on about fantasy football, accountant Kim Cramer started fantasyhusband.com, where players get to choose one husband from a panel of 20 who they think will best react to a given scenario.
"Women don't follow sports that obsessively," she says. "Women talk about men and relationships. I thought, 'why not make a fantasy game about relationships?'"
Cramer's seven-week, fantasy-husband seasons coincide with the NFL's season. She says the majority of last year's players joined because their husbands are watching football or out hunting. At the end of the season, the winning player receives a jewelry prize, like this year's strand of black pearls.
And fantasyhusband.com isn't the only fantasy football spin-off created for women. Tabloidfantasyleague.com is among the many fantasy celebrity sites that have sprung up in recent years. The site awards points when celebrities appear in photographs in the "big four" tabloids: In Touch, People, Star, and Us Weekly. Fantasyfashionleague.com has more fantasy options for women, including fantasy fashion, beauty, celeb, and shoe editions.
Lori Baylin is mystified by her husband Scott's enthusiasm for football. "I don't understand how he can get so wrapped up in it," she says. "He's usually the calmest, nicest, most gentle dentist," she says, but on game days it's a different story. During a Ravens game one Sunday, while the couple briefly lived in Miami, Lori was lying on the beach and could hear Scott screaming at the TV all the way from their apartment.
So three years ago, Lori, 33, sat Scott down for a talk about his extreme football obsession. A hardcore Ravens fan, Scott used to spend at least 12 hours on home game days tailgating, cheering, and drinking. He would wake up before dawn to prepare for his more-than-50-person tailgate and would stay out past dinner on Sunday nights. That was before kids—and fantasy football. Now, Scott has trimmed his game days down considerably.
Fantasy football has been a way to stay involved in football without spending as much time away from the house, Scott says. He spends two to three hours a week on the computer at their Reisterstown home making trades and checking players' stats for both of his fantasy football leagues, in addition to the hours spent watching games on Sunday.
And rather than join in, or nag him about his fake teams, Lori considers Sundays her time to do what she wants, often spending time with her family, the similarly "widowed" spouses of Scott's football friends, or on play dates with their two children, ages 3 years and 11 months.
Sarah Granai, 27, turned Sundays into her own money-making venture. While her husband Joe, 30, who works in IT for Marriott, is glued to two computer screens all day Sunday during football season, Sarah works as a barista at a local coffee shop.
"I work on Sundays because I know he's definitely going to be home," she says. Which means that at least fantasy football ensures Joe is available to watch the couple's 14-month-old daughter in the family's Columbia home.
If she's not working, Sarah often hangs out at bars or restaurants with the other fantasy football widows, while the guys are at the Granais' house. Though she says she's happy that Joe's found something he likes, she's nostalgic for the days when the two would stay home to watch the Ravens.
"We used to watch the football games together—now he has all the guys over instead," Sarah says. "I guess I miss it a little bit, but he likes it."
Sarah says Joe gets more upset when he loses fantasy football than when the Ravens lose a game. (For his part, Joe disputes this notion.) "He takes it so personally," she says. "If he loses, he's in a bad mood for three days."
But, on the other hand, he takes pride in the weeks where he's victorious, something that mystifies Sarah.
"I think it's weird. I just don't understand it," she says, baffled. "I don't get why they are so proud when they do well. It's not them doing it, it's the football players."
Some guys, like Andy Wiedel, end up having to manage their fantasy teams and their wives' plans, though. Wiedel, who runs his own all-male fantasy football league, did his best to get his wife, Kimmie, to embrace fantasy football. He decided to introduce her into the sport with baby steps. "I set up a little league so that she can play against me and her nephews," he says. "I'm trying to convert her."
Wiedel's plan worked for one year, when Kimmie had a winning season. But as soon as her game starting going downhill, so did her enthusiasm. "She's a competitive person if she's winning, but if she's losing, she just loses interest," Wiedel says.
And inviting her into his men-only league [Full disclosure: Copy Editor Alex Ball is a former champion of this league] was never an option.
"A guy inviting his significant other or wife to a draft would be against man law," he says. "That would be a big no-no.
"We had a guy get ripped on because he had the nerve to even bring up a wedding question during the draft," Wiedel laughs.
So Wiedel and the other members of his league work their hardest to set up "play dates" for their wives. "We try to give them an alternate activity," he says. "It could be anything they want. . . .
"We try to set up stuff so they're entertained and have less reason to give us grief."