For years, women complained about being left on the sidelines as their husbands and boyfriends played fantasy sports. Now, they want to be part of the action.
Though statistics are difficult to come by, fantasy sports executives say the ranks of women playing fantasy football are growing. David Geller, director of fantasy sports at Yahoo (YHOO), estimates that 12 percent of the top fantasy site's players are women. "We have seen an upward trend," he said in an interview with DailyFinance.
On ESPN, about 18 percent of the fantasy sports content on ESPN.com is consumed by women. In June, average minutes per female visitor in the ESPN Fantasy section increased seven percent, according to the Walt Disney (DIS)-owned network. Last year, the number of women fantasy players grew in the "low double-digit percentages" year-over-year, gains ESPN expects to achieve this year.
The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company expects more players to sign up for its game ahead of next month's start of the NFL season. Interest is soaring on other sites as well including FanHouse, a sports site that, like DailyFinance, is owned by AOL, a division of Time Warner (TWX). ESPN, the leading sports media franchise, and News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox Sports are also pushing their fantasy games as baseball season starts to wind down. Facebook is even promoting a fantasy sports game.
Game operators report interest is growing. Yahoo's Geller quipped, "Fantasy sports tend to be recession proof."
Fantasy sports means real dollars for media companies. A few months ago, Yahoo decided to make its live scoring feature, a big convenience for fantasy players, free. Fox Sports -- which operates on Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN network -- announced it would offer new free fantasy games in conjunction with OPEN Sports Network. FanHouse's game with Fleeflicker is free as is ESPN's.
"This generates a lot of users and a ton of page views," Peter Schoenke, president of Rotowire, a Fantasy sports information service, said in an interview. "Yahoo will face tough competition from Fox which has some 'serious building blocks' such as broadcasting NFL games."
Having more female fans may make fantasy football -- by far the largest of the fantasy sports -- even more desirable to advertisers. A study by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association argues that there are about 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada who like to pretend to be NFL gurus in their spare time. Players are well-heeled, with an average household income of $94,000 and spend more than average on everything from beer to airline travel.
For women, this represents a sea change. A few years ago, a group of football widows formed "Women Against Fantasy Sports." The tongue-in-cheek site offers "advice" to football widows on how to cope with the "addictions" of their husbands and boyfriends to fantasy sports. Ironically, there are ads from Google (GOOG) on the site from its fantasy sports service.
Fans such as actor Jordan Zucker reject that criticism.
Zucker, 34, runs the "Girls Guide to Fantasy Football", a site geared at women who want to pretend they are NFL head coaches and general managers. The site, which features her pithy video commentary, started a few years ago after she and her friends got into the hobby. She also runs an all-female fantasy league.
"I liked the sport but never got into it," says Zucker, who has appeared on the sitcom "Scrubs." She adds that her male opponents "see me as a force to be reckoned with."
Nonetheless, men sometimes underestimate their female opponents on the virtual gridiron.
"Quite frankly, I think most of the players don't really check to see who they are playing," says Jean Olson, an ESPN.com "uber league" player from San Francisco. "They assume that it is only men who play these games."
One man, who was behind her in the standings, recently mouthed off in a chat room about Olson's supposed lack of fantasy sports prowess. Men who blab to female fantasy players rarely can back up their talk with actions.
"Usually however, those men who mouth off the most turn out to be the worst eventual players and often end up with dead teams," she said.
Stephania Bell, a physical therapist, turned her knowledge of sports injuries into a job with ESPN where she provides reports for the Web site. During her first season playing in a co-ed league, the men did not take the women seriously. Male fantasy football fans questioned her competency when she first started her job with the sports network. Those doubts seemed to have disappeared.