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The Globe and Mail

Fantasy football has exploded in recent years but may be pipe dream for CFL

Toronto Argonaut fans photographed during the CFL Eastern semi-final game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos at the Rogers Centre on Nov 11 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It has, incredibly, become a $2-billion industry, one that sucks in nearly 22 million Americans every year and consumes billions more dollars of manpower in offices across North America.

It is fantasy football.

Fantasy sports in general have exploded in recent years (growing by 60 per cent in the last four years) and it is football – and specifically the NFL – that has been the major beneficiary, with 72 per cent of those who play focusing their energies on the sport.

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That type of fanatical fandom does wonders for the $9-billion business that is the NFL, too. The majority of fantasy football aficionados (55 per cent) watch more games and buy more tickets (up to 0.6 more games per year), becoming more engaged with the league the more involved they are in their drafts and transactions.

One recent study by USA Today determined fantasy football users spent an average of an hour a week on their lineups.

Where that love of fantasy football hasn't quite caught on yet, however, is in the CFL, a league with just eight teams, fewer players and, obviously, a smaller fan base.

With the Grey Cup in Toronto on Sunday expected to pull in a massive TV audience (by Canadian standards), some analysts believe the next untapped market for the league could be on the fantasy side of the game.

"Based on the studies out there, it just seems like it'd be a logical step for the CFL to push the fantasy football aspect on its fans and to get more fans," said Derrick Newman, a Calgary-based freelance journalist and self-professed fantasy football nut who presented his own study at the How Canadians Communicate About Sports Conference earlier this month in Banff, Alta.

"People are spending upward of $500 or $600 on this thing every year. And then there's the time spent."

Newman's piece, called "Living In A Fantasy World: How Fantasy Football Has Influenced Professional Sports," compiles from various sources some of the best available research on the economic impact of fantasy football, including all of the numbers cited above.

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Unique to his analysis, however, was a rare look at the CFL and why it lags behind in the area of fantasy sports. Newman notes that is currently the only established option for fantasy players who follow the league and has significant limitations given the current composition of the CFL.

With so few teams and players in the league, fantasy general managers are left having to draft defensive players. "With the lack of teams, and subsequently the lack of games on a week-to-week basis, it might never take hold of the fan base like it has done south of the border," Newman writes in the study.

"In an average fantasy football league there are 12 teams, so roughly a third of actual NFL teams, giving managers the ability to pick and choose their players from specific teams. If you used the same model in the CFL, the number of fantasy teams would have to be somewhere between two and three."

One solution to that issue may be in expansion. The CFL will add a ninth team in Ottawa in the near future and has considered a potential 10th team in Quebec City or Atlantic Canada.

The more teams the better for fantasy purposes – although even 10 franchises may not be enough.

"I just look at it as such a big marketing tool," Newman said. "If they could find some way to make it work. Maybe they focus in more on the defensive aspects. There's got to be something there, whether it's adding more teams or different stat categories than the NFL does, to make it more popular."

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