Fantasy football is hardly a couch potato pastime anymore. Step into a Long Island sports bar / restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, and you'll see them. There, among the Jets and Giants lovers exclusively interested in the hometown teams, fantasy football players are a different breed of fan. Telltale signs: They're watching multiple games at the same time, rampantly checking stats on laptops or iPads they've brought out with them.
"My life is dedicated to fantasy football 24/7. That's all I'm doing in the fall," says 17-year-old Michael Walsh of Plainview in between sips of soda at Buffalo Wild Wings in Hicksville. Most Sundays, he spends hours here with his friends, watching several games on the restaurant's 89 flatscreens. "Sunday is everything. You watch every game, and each one is exciting because with fantasy football, you have a stake in every game."
Fantasy football has changed the way people enjoy the game. Players build their own franchise online by cherry-picking real NFL players from around the league to be on their virtual team, which squares off weekly against lineups created by friends and family. Since what happens on the field in real life affects how well the fantasy team does, fans no longer just root for their favorite team on game day; they spend the afternoon tracking touchdowns and turnovers made by individual players.
"You choose who you want to play and who you want to bench," explains Clay Zoller, 18, of Syosset, who was watching the games with his laptop on his left and a basket of wings on his right a few steps away from Walsh. "If you bench a running back and he has a good game, that's your fault for not playing him. You really never know what's going to happen."
GETTING OUT AND ABOUT
While plenty of fantasy football lovers still watch the action by channel-surfing and stat-tracking comfortably at home, the game has migrated into the more social atmosphere at sports bars and restaurants where players are welcome with laptops, tablets and smartphones in tow.
"Draft parties have become a big trend in our chain," says Jim Talalaj, general manager of Buffalo Wild Wings in Hicksville. The company launched a national promotion to encourage fantasy players to meet in person at preseason parties to pick their teams. Among the perks: free "draft kits" that included gift certificates for $100 of food on future visits. A similar push was on at McCann's in Massapequa and Nutty Irishman locations in Farmingdale and Bay Shore, which courted fantasy leaguers with free Wi-Fi and draft party menus.
SUNDAY IS FUNDAY
David Stoler of Jericho has been a fantasy player for decades, before the Internet made it so easy to manage teams. Today, he plays with his children, Jade, 9, and Hunter, 12. The trio can often be found at Buffalo Wild Wings on Sundays, huddled around a laptop. "My big joy is doing it with my kids," says Stoler, 45. "They help me make decisions, and they get excited."
While some people play for bragging rights, others play for money. Justin Oland, 34, of Commack, said he won all three leagues he was in last season, walking away with a few thousand dollars. "It was a good year last year," he says.
Oland spends his Sundays surrounded by his buddies at The Main Event in Plainview, where the crew has a standing reserved table.
They all play in the Pat Morita Memorial Fantasy Football League, which has a championship trophy named The Miyagi, after the late "Karate Kid" actor.
"We talk trash to each other online, then we come here to battle it out," says Oland. "This is the day we look forward to all week."