Around this time of year, friends usually don't see much of James Harris, a 27-year-old Web designer from Paris, Ont. The baseball season is swinging into gear, hockey's biggest prize will soon pour champagne and football is rumbling out of winter hibernation.
But for a fantasy sports junkie such as Mr. Harris, this doesn't mark a time for recumbent hours of beer and television. This confluence of events means work: stats to crunch, players to scout, games to scrutinize and injury reports to scour. That's four hours a day right there.
"I'm not a gambling type of person," he says, "but I really got sucked in."
One in 10 Canadians regularly plays fantasy sports, according to a 2006 Ipsos-Reid poll. That means three million of us can probably identify with Mr. Harris, who has managed as many as eight teams at once.
In all, nearly 20 million North Americans have signed up for some sort of league, putting the popularity of online fantasy sports on a level with social networking websites such as Facebook, LiveJournal and LinkedIn. In a little more than a decade, fantasy leagues have become a billion-dollar industry.
The appeal for sports fanatics is a no-brainer. Online fantasy sports are much like the sports pools of pre-Internet days. Back then, participants would each pick out a roster of athletes in a given league, then track their statistics over the course of the season through newspapers. The poolie whose roster compiled the most points won a year's worth of bragging rights and a modest cash pot.
Today, SportingNews.com, Sportsline.com, Yahoo.com and dozens of other websites host fantasy leagues that do all the stat crunching. That has freed up poolies - or general managers, as they now prefer to be called - to spend hours at home and on the job to obsess over their team's progress. Last year, the average GM spent nearly $500 (U.S.) on fantasy sports, according to a report published by the consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
For most players, fantasy leagues are a pretty harmless pastime. But for some, the toll can be high. Take Mark St. Amant. A "huge" fan of the National Football League's New England Patriots, he signed up for a small fantasy league 10 years ago.
Within four years, it would lead his team allegiances to become murky, his friends to become annoyed and Mr. St. Amant himself to become unemployed.
Mr. St. Amant joined mainly to humour a few co-workers - and for a chance at the $600 pot.
"I was reluctant at first," the Boston resident says. "I thought, 'What is this geeky Dungeons-and-Dragons-like thing with fake teams and fake players?' "
His attitude soon changed. "Off the bat, it increased my interest in football tenfold,"
he says. "Pretty soon, I was hooked."
In 2002, Mr. St. Amant quit a well-paying advertising job to seek fantasy-football glory full time, and write about it on a blog. For up to 12 hours a day, he scoured stats and team injury reports for indications that a star quarterback might be playing hurt or that an unheralded rookie might be ready for a break-out game.
"If it was a nice sunny day and I should have been out running or walking with my wife, I was instead scanning the running-back rankings," he says.
Even so, at season's end, Mr. St. Amant watched a co-worker take the $600. "There's a lot of luck involved," he says. "I was putting more time into it than most people, and that wasn't enough."
Mr. St. Amant wrote a book about his fixation, Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie, but his experience is hardly isolated. Last year, a team of sociologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specialize in gambling addictions studied fan-tasy baseball league partici- pants.
They found that many GMs, in their obsessive quest for first place, demonstrated six characteristics used to identify pathological gamblers: excessive thinking about the game; needing more when less used to do the trick; inability to stop or cut back; irritability when stopping; playing to get away from problems and developing problems with family, school or work.
Study leader Bo Bernhard and his fellow researchers solicited anonymous responses from GMs on fantasy bulletin boards and chat sites.
"One guy told us he wears out mice during the season the way ballplayers wear out shoes," says Dr. Bernhard, who runs the gambling research program at UNLV and maintains several fantasy teams himself.
The average fantasy GM isn't surprised by such studies.
"One guy in my league is really crazy," says Nick Taylor of Montreal, a GM of three separate fantasy hockey teams. "He picks his team each year and keeps track by watching every single NHL game. This is a guy with three kids. He and his wife just had a new one a couple months ago."
That behaviour is also showing up at work. During the NFL season, U.S. businesses lose $1.1-billion a week in productivity to staff checking their stats and juggling their rosters during work hours, according to the Challenger report.
"Any form of gambling is prohibited on company time," says Chris Pepper, spokesman for Fidelity Investments Canada, which recently placed restrictions on employee access to fantasy sites. Aside from productivity losses, companies could face legal problems if fantasy gambling were to get out of control.
As more online ventures seek out GMs, the fantasy stakes will probably get higher. Several sites offer six figures in cash prizes, including cdmsports.com and grogansports.com. A $200,000 payday is now dangled before participants in the World Championship of Fantasy Football, the drafts for which take place in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
Still, the emergence of high rollers on the fantasy scene doesn't necessarily signal the birth of some new, severe form of addiction.
Mr. Harris managed to scale back his habit to a couple of hours a day. He had outside help. "I'm getting married in the fall," Mr. Harris says. "She gets irritated with it. I have friends who are into pools, and we're always talking about this player and that player. The significant others don't like that talk so much."
And even though Mr. St. Amant skirted addiction with his fantasy leagues a few years back, things worked out. He got his old job back. His wife stuck around. And last season, lightning struck: He won the pool.
"It is a positive social hobby that has drawbacks if you take it too far," he says. "And if you do, that's fine. Just bring on Dr. Phil."
1 in 10
How many Canadians regularly play fantasy sports
Amount spent, in U.S. dollars, by the average fantasy league GM last year
Amount lost in productivity each week during the NFL season by U.S. businesses