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Photos courtesy Raoul Encinas, Karina Alcantar

Raoul Encinas is an IT consultant from Scottsdale who's into his sixth season as a high-stakes fantasy football player. He is pictured here at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

Raoul Encinas parties with his league after their 2012 draft in Las Vegas. The annual gathering is always a bit of a bash. "The two 'Romans' were just guys walking past who were in costume," he says.

Karina Alcantar is a die-hard Cardinals fan, sports commentator and an avid fantasy football player. About 20 percent of fantasy football players are women.

Published by Times Publications, Oct. 2012

For fantasy football fans, the off-the-cuff remark from a replacement referee to Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy during mid-September’s Eagles vs. Ravens game was the equivalent of a major political gaffe.

“One of the refs was talking about his fantasy team,” McCoy told Philly sports radio jocks Anthony Gargano and Ike Reese the day after the game, just the second week into an NFL season kicked off with inexperienced replacement refs called in because of the referee labor dispute. “Like ‘McCoy, come on, I need you for my fantasy!’” he said, laughing in disbelief. “Awww, what?!”

Within minutes, the quote was all over the Internet, and “#ineedyouformyfantasy” became an instant Twitter hash tag. The hapless ref, besides serving on an inept officiating crew, had broken the first rule of fantasy football club: he talked to a real player about fantasy football.

“They’re like fans, kind of,” McCoy said of the fill-in officials. “I’ll be honest, they’re like fans.”

The bad ref badly represented fantasy football enthusiasts, most of whom don’t consider themselves common fans, never mind wanna-be pro referees. The roughly 35 million who now play fantasy sports every year (according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association) don’t fantasize about being star quarterbacks either: the sheer number of fantasy football league names involving puns on beers and snack items bears testament to a couch-staking life.

No, if anything, the group they most identify with is the owners.

“It’s as close as you can get to owning your own franchise, unless you have an extra billion dollars or so sitting around,” jokes ESPN’s Matthew Berry in a video tutorial on the network’s fantasy football website, one of the most popular places to get started in the activity. “When you play fantasy football, you can become the manager, the coach, the owner, the president.”

Every principal in the game of pro football, that is, except the athlete. In fantasy football, aficionados form leagues, pool together prize money from nominal “buy-in” fees for entrants and draft real-life players for their own fictional teams. Depending on how their players perform in a number of real NFL games in a given week—how many yards each player gains and touchdowns are scored—they’re awarded points. Those in the league with the most points at season’s end get to take home the prize money.

For most dabblers, fantasy football is simply a fun diversion between a group of work buddies or like-minded strangers on the Internet. They’re usually guys, although 20 percent of fantasy players are now women.

“I don’t get massively into the stats of it and all,” says Brian Magee of Phoenix, who’s been playing fantasy football for about three years but says he’s still not “super-serious” about it. “It’s more just about the friendships, you know? You get to razz a guy if you beat him last weekend, and then he gets to razz you when you lose the next weekend.”

This season, for the first time, Magee signed on to two leagues: one at his workplace and one in his neighborhood. Because he got to draft two different teams, Magee now has two sets of all-star athletes to follow—not to mention his real-life Arizona Cardinals, whose games he attends at every chance. That means at least some of Magee’s players can both lose and win big on any given Sunday.

“Yesterday I was getting razzed by somebody who beat me at work, and I was likewise razzing my neighbor, because I was beating him in that league,” Magee says. “We do it more for bragging rights. We each put $10 into the pot, so it’s not like it’s big money.”

But for some fantasy football players, achieving simple razz equilibrium is not enough. High-stakes fantasy players can pony up anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 to buy into a league where the winner takes home a six-figure payout. And the NFL, which once disdained fantasy players as a particularly know-it-all brand of petty gamblers, now welcomes them. During last year’s Super Bowl, the NFL ran ads for its own fantasy football game with a $1 million payoff for the winner. Home scoreboards in NFL franchise stadiums scroll statistics on players in out-of-town games to satisfy the fantasy player whose mind—and often money—is on more than the game he’s attending.

“Some people get into it to where they’ve got five or six TVs and a couple computers going every game night and are tracking all of it,” says Magee. “But I wouldn’t want it to take me away from the fun I get just watching my favorite team play.”

Going pro

“It’s a right brain/left brain thing,” explains Raoul Encinas, an IT consultant from Scottsdale who’s into his sixth season as a high-stakes fantasy football player. “The analytics are there, the data is there, the decision-making is there. All the things that appeal to you if you have an interest and acuity in math. But in the end, sometimes when you have to decide which player you’re going to put in the roster, the emotional side of your brain kicks in and you put in your favorite player. And you know, sometimes that’s the right call.”

At 40, Encinas has a lot of heart for the game—and for the game of fantasy football. Just a few years ago, Encinas was coming off four months of heavy-duty chemotherapy, fighting a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that his mother had also battled. While in the hospital, the long-time NFL fan got into fantasy football as a way to stay occupied and stay in touch with friends.

“I had a group of friends when I lived in California who were very avid fantasy football players—fanatical, maniacal,” he says. “And for years and years, they’d been trying to recruit me into the league. Finally, in my moment of weakness, I said yes. And that year, I won the Super Bowl in my league. So of course, I’ve been hooked from then on.”

Today, Encinas’ league, called the Dollar All Day League (D.A.D. for short), holds its annual drafts in Las Vegas, and the gathering is always a bit of a party. He also belongs to one made up of golf buddies from around the Gainey Ranch area. “The friendly leagues I belong to charge a $100 buy-in, which is about average,” he says.

But this year Encinas is also taking part in the national Fantasy Football Players Championship (FFPC), a high-stakes fantasy event with a $200,000 grand prize. The entry fee isn’t cheap: $1,725 for the live, in-person draft in Las Vegas and $1,600 for the online draft.

The D.A.D. league is also entered in a $750 FFPC contest competing for a $4,000 pot.

“They hold your money in escrow, and it’s all very serious,” says Encinas, whose wife is fortunately also a fantasy football player. “It’s not a fly-by-night operation.”

Keeping track of so many players’ statistics week to week can get a bit daunting, especially when you’ve got so much money in the game. “That’s why a lot of people won’t get into more than one league. What happens is you might have, say, Tom Brady in your team in league A, and then in league B, some other owner has him. So you can get a little bi-modal, where you’re both for and against Tom Brady at the same time!”

Double fantasy

Fantasy football’s roots date back to the early 1960s, when a limited partner in the Oakland Raiders together with a former Raiders PR manager and a local sports reporter started an informal league called the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, or GOPPPL for short. Most of the early leagues—including the oldest-known continuously running organization, the G’national Football League (GFL), founded in Florida in 1979—were made up of mostly older men with mileage in football-oriented lives: administrative affiliates, professional sports journalists and long-time season ticket holders.

Today’s fantasy football players, however, come from all walks of life. “It’s funny what a diverse group we have in the league I belong to,” says Aaron Kolodny, who works as circulation director at Times Media Group. “One of the guys is a contractor at NASA, another is a very wealthy real estate investor in Tucson, another is one of the head executives at a major credit communications firm in Phoenix.”

More women are also getting into the action: according to the most recent estimates, some 7.2 million women participate in fantasy sports, comprising about a fifth of all participants.

“It’s still primarily a guy’s thing, but that seems to be changing,” says Karina Alcantar, a die-hard Cardinals fan and sports commentator on the daily podcasts of Tim and Willy, the popular morning radio duo recently dropped by KMLE-FM, but who just signed a deal with KTAR.com. Alcantar’s hoping to follow the broadcasters back into radio should they ink a new deal. In the meantime, she’s keeping an eye on openings for a fantasy football commentator on Fox Sports. “I don’t feel like such a minority anymore. I pretty much fit right in.”

The growing demographics have captured the attention of the sports industry, which by creating national leagues, selling merchandise and targeting advertising to enthusiasts has leveraged fantasy football into a $550 million-a-year business, according to the Associated Press.

Some get into the game much more seriously than others. Titlecraft, a Minnesota-based trophy manufacturer, specializes in expensive handcrafted trophies tailored specially for the fantasy sports player. “As a serious player, you’re in it for more than bragging rights,” says the company’s ad copy. “You want the ultimate prize—in all its rub-it-in-their-face glory.” There are even lawyers today, on websites such as FantasyDispute.com or SportsJudge.com (which touts itself as “Real Lawyers, Solving Real Fantasy Sports Disputes”), who will settle arguments between owners of fantasy leagues for fees ranging from $15 to $100. On blogs all over the Internet, fantasy league owners rail against real-life team owners and head coaches for leaving favorite fantasy players out of their starting lineups or utilizing running backs in unexpected ways. Fantasy players have a term for such coaches: “fantasy killers.”

It’s no surprise that a fantasy player eventually wrangled a job as an NFL replacement ref, attempting to goad the Eagles’ McCoy into point scoring that would benefit his fantasy team. Experienced fantasy players admit it can be a challenge separating fact from fantasy.

For Encinas, the key was meeting some of his real-life football heroes in person. Last year, upon being named to his fifth Pro Bowl game as an alternate, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald decided to stage an impromptu contest for his Twitter followers: be the first to find him and his brother Marcus in the parking lot of a Scottsdale nightclub and win a trip for two to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii as Fitzgerald’s guests.

When the tweeted clues revealed the club to be an eatery just blocks from Encinas’ home, he and his wife, Monique, threw on their Cardinals jerseys and beat everyone else to the spot. The couple not only won the tickets, but after telling Larry and Marcus about Raoul’s battle with cancer—the Fitzgerald brothers’ mom died of breast cancer—they also became friends with the superstar athletes. Soon after their meeting, Larry called to invite the couple to dinner, and over the course of their time in Hawaii, Raoul and Monique attended parties with scores of sports stars, and golfed with Fitz and his friends. Raoul even went skydiving over Oahu with Larry, Marcus and former Cardinal Jaymar Johnson.

Hanging with his heroes changed how Encinas looks at the players on his fantasy roster.

“It was fun to finally meet them in real life,” he says. “When they’re not on the field, they’re regular people with interests that go beyond football, or fantasy football.

“Sometimes it’s more interesting to get to know them as people than stats. – end —