- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Jeff Surdej has one rule of the fantasy sports industry down pat: If you can keep score with it, you can make a fantasy game out of it.

Surdej took that advice to heart two years ago when he formed two fantasy leagues based on professional waterskiing and wakeboarding tours — hardly the stuff of “SportsCenter” highlights.

“My buddies and I got to talking and thought it’d be a cool idea,” said Surdej, a water sports enthusiast who has lured about 1,000 users to Web sites like fantasywaterski.com. “And I think it will definitely help grow the sport.”

Surdej is a prime example of a trend in the fantasy sports industry: auto racing, golf, fishing and even niche sports like curling and cricket now are fodder for a whole new segment of fantasy games.

About 16 million adults in America played one or more fantasy sports last year, nearly 13 million of them participating in football and 5 million in baseball, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

But fantasy auto racing, led by NASCAR-oriented games, drew 4.16 million players, more than both basketball and hockey. Fantasy golf now lures more than 1.1 million players, 7 percent of all fantasy sports participants.

Meanwhile, fantasy leagues for niche sports are popping up all over the Internet. There now are leagues for curling, paintball, waterskiing and cricket. Fans of popular television shows like “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Deal or No Deal” created their own leagues, forcing industry experts to ponder exactly what constitutes a fantasy sport and what’s just entertainment.

“It boggles your mind a little bit that there’s enough interest in some of these things,” said FSTA president Jeff Thomas, who recently took a call from a man in India looking to form a fantasy badminton league.

In response to the emergence of these new games, the FSTA recently decided to expand its annual survey of fantasy enthusiasts, asking participants what fantasy sports they played aside from those based on major sports leagues.

“Fantasy sports is going through an evolution,” said Kim Beason, an associate professor of park and recreation management at the University of Mississippi who is conducting the survey on behalf of the FSTA. “Because of technology, everything’s open to be a fantasy sport. This year, we’re really trying to explore what’s out there. There are sports out there we need to look at to see if we need to evolve.”

In the last five years, the top fantasy sports providers — including AOL Sports, Yahoo! Sports and ESPN — have expanded their game lineups to include soccer, auto racing and golf. ESPN also now offers a game based on the Bassmaster fishing tournament, which it televises. For these larger fantasy game providers, there’s a clear business motive at work.

“Fantasy draws interest, period,” ESPN fantasy sports analyst Matthew Berry said. “We’re in the business of promoting sports. The more people who play fantasy sports, the more people will pay attention to sports. Fantasy is a great way to grow a sport and to validate it.”

Yahoo! Sports said some of the new games, such as golf, are part of a segment of casual games that are a growing part of its business.

For NASCAR, which attracted more than 280,000 subscribers to fantasy games on its Web site alone last year, allowing fans to select and root for drivers in mock leagues has been a key part of its marketing strategy.

“Fantasy NASCAR offers that entry point,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. “It’s been really important to the sport, not only for the converted fan but for attracting new fans as well.”

And even smaller fantasy leagues have found a way to make a buck, it seems.

Surdej’s leagues this year grew enough to attract sponsors, who chipped in to give away more than $5,000 in prizes to the winners. It was successful enough that Surdej intends to form a new fantasy league for this year: wakeskating.

“I think this definitely has the potential to be a real business for us,” he said.

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