By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer
Fantasy football has an estimated 30 million players nationwide, a TV sitcom built around it and, now, its own convention produced by the same people who run Comic Con.
The first Fantasy Football Fest will be held at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City this weekend, a two-day event expected to attract 25,000 fans who will participate in fantasy drafts while they meet — and maybe pick up a few tips from — real NFL veterans, including Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Bruce Smith.
"Our whole world is focused on awesome fan experiences," says Greg Topalian, senior vice president of ReedPOP, whose company organizes not only major comic book conventions, but a penny arcade expo, "Star Wars" celebrations, and an Ultimate Fighting expo — all of which draw huge crowds. "We felt like this is a similar type of community, really passionate.
"There's been no physical way to do a draft and enjoy fantasy with friends and the rest of the football community."
Now, there will be, and Topalian sees the attraction of the festival on Saturday and Sunday as more about every aspect of football. But with fantasy at the core.
"We looked at what do fans value beyond fantasy?" he says. "They buy sports memorabilia, so we will have an exposition floor and Steiner Sports will be supplying memorabilia.
"Football is also a lifestyle thing, so we will have tailgating, beer-tasting, all part of being a fantasy player and a fan."
Those fantasy players will be able to get help from experts in the make believe, if you will, and can ask former players their opinions on who to draft and when. A separate area of the arena, which has housed everything from the Miss America pageant to concerts to title fights, has been set aside exclusively for leagues to conduct drafts.
The National Fantasy Football Championship, which began in 2004 as the industry's first multi-city, high-stakes event and awarded more than $1.4 million in prizes last year, will hold its draft there this weekend.
SiriusXM satellite radio will broadcast 19 hours of live programming on its fantasy sports channel, including an experts' draft. As an added enticement, Stratmish, a fantasy football tournament format that launched this month, will offer a chance for a fantasy player to win $2 million in a season-long event.
"We want to be the name brand for fantasy sports as we roll out our programs for 20,000 to 30,000 people who will attend," Stratmish President Michael Shaldone says.
Having the people behind Comic Con running things not only appealed to Stratmish and Steiner Sports, but to several other companies that will have a presence at Boardwalk Hall. New Era will display the official NFL sideline cap. Fathead is involved, as is Roto Experts. Caesars Entertainment and the Taj Mahal hotel also are part of the festival's promotion.
And why not? Topalian estimates there are more than 30 million fantasy players in a $550 million — and growing — business that includes television shows, dozens of magazines offering advice, and, naturally, gambling.
"The League," a sitcom built around a fantasy league, is headed into its fourth season on FX, and a paper for the Journal of Sport Administration & Supervision released last year found some relationship between TV ratings for a particular game and whether it featured popular fantasy starters.
With such popularity, a convention makes sense, Topalian says.
"If the comic industry can have a Comic Con, that is good for the industry," he says. "And this will be good for fantasy sports."
Adds Shaldone: "Comic Con was very relevant. They had a system in place where we know they have had success, already have the credibility in the marketplace, and we have a lot of confidence knowing they have run successful similar events on a large scale."
Topalian's company is hopeful of making it an annual event, growing it to include celebrities, moving it around the nation, making it "become part of a fantasy football community's year."
The big enticement for fans is that $2 million payoff.
Through Stratmish, players compete in fantasy groups of 12 and must finish in the top three to advance each week. The first nine weeks of the regular season serve as satellite tournaments leading to a field of 4,096 going into Week 10. Random head-to-head matchups ensue until the field is whittled to 32 finalists in Week 17.
All 32 finalists will win money, ranging from $5,000 for exiting in the first round of Stratmish's playoffs, to the $2 million megaprize for winning it all.
"Our game is not competition to the way people play now and that is critical to us and the public in general," Shaldone says. "They will be doing their draft parties at the Atlantic City venue and selecting their teams and evaluating players, and we are a complement to that.
"We are excited because this is our inaugural season and it is theirs, too. We anticipate being major players with everything they do."
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