Thursday, August 19, 2010

A different draft on their menu

Bars are rallying fans of fantasy football leagues

Summer’s winding down but take heart football fans, it’s finally the most wonderful time of the year. The NFL season doesn’t start for a few weeks, but for the legion of converts around the country, the real action is already heating up as fantasy football leagues plan their annual draft events.

Fantasy football — the game in which friends compete against one another as general managers of imaginary teams selected from real NFL players and accumulate points based on their on-the-field performance — has become one of the most popular pastimes in the country.

Jason Waram, vice president of fantasy games and social media at ESPN, says that companies like his and Yahoo! Sports Fantasy, two of the biggest fantasy sports operations, don’t reveal the number of users they have. But according to a June survey conducted by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 27.9 million people now play fantasy sports, 74 percent of them, football.

Every August, leading up to the season, is “fantasy Christmas,’’ says Andrew Miller, president of Fantasy Football Champs, a Newton-based online service that provides advice for fantasy football players. Most leagues hold their own drafts during the last two weeks of August. For Miller the draw of fantasy football is self-evident. “What kid, what adult, doesn’t want to be a general manager of a football team and make trades?’’ he asks.

Part of that appeal, of course, is the chance to win money. “Fantasy games are considered games of skill, so it’s legal to have cash prizes,’’ Miller says.

But it’s also a bonding experience for players, says Paul Marnikovic, general manager of Stadium Sports Bar and Grill in Quincy. He has been playing in the same fantasy league since he was a sophomore in college in 1997. His bar, along with many others in the area such as Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar and Grill and McGreevy’s in Boston, offers package deals for fantasy leagues looking for draft-day locations.

Marnikovic says his fantasy draft day is one of the only times of the year all of his friends from throughout the country still make a point of getting together. “For me it’s a great way to catch up with old friends. Everybody gets married and has kids, otherwise you might not see them.’’

Stadium, as well as the Cask’n Flagon and Game On!, have incentives for leagues to come in for their drafts, including food and drink specials, private rooms with wireless Internet access, couches, multiple TVs, and projection screens for laptops. Details and prices vary at each bar, and groups will want to call to reserve accommodations ahead of time.

“We have our back area in the club as a VIP room,’’ says Robbie Ludwig, manager at Cask’n Flagon. They’ll also have a dedicated server available to post the progress of your draft on display boards. Mike Brucklier, director of operations at Game On!, says the popularity of fantasy football drafts and games is tied into the popularity of the NFL itself.

“The NFL is the number one league in the country, obviously, but people have gotten past the point of just watching their team and being excited about just what Tom Brady does,’’ Brucklier says. “Fantasy football gives people a vested interest in following all of the games because one of your guys is playing. It makes it that much more fun to watch the game.’’

Waram says the number of users is up for ESPN Fantasy Football compared to this point last year, a trend he believes is likely to continue. “I still think there’s a bunch of years left of some pretty positive growth.

“I think it’s people’s appetite for information, and the respect of the NFL athlete,’’ he says. “People want to be a part of that, have some stake in the game. And it gets those high school buddies back together, once a year, or the old college gang. The draft is that seminal event that everybody is able to take part in.’’

Now you just have to pick the right place to do it.

Draft sites

Stadium Sports Bar and Grill, 1495 Hancock St., Quincy. 617-328 0076. Also at 232 Old Colony Ave., South Boston. 617-269 5100.

Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar and Grill, 1265 Boylston St., Boston. 617-236-7369.

Game On!, 82 Lansdowne St., Boston. 617-351-7001.

Cask’n Flagon, 62 Brookline Ave., Boston. 617-536-4840.

McGreevey’s, 911 Boylston St., Boston. 617-262-0911.

Halfway Cafe, 51 Main St., Maynard. 978-823-0002; 200 South Franklin St., Holbrook. 

Scoreboard Sports Bar and Grill, 15 Middlesex Canal Park, Woburn. 781-897-4000.

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