Odds are, as you read this, people you know may be poring over statistics, obsessively reading expert analysis and plotting against friends, family and strangers all over the country. No, they're not trying to become the next Bernie Madoff; they're just excited because it's fantasy football time again. But could they also be in danger of putting their finances on the injured list?
For most people, fantasy sports offer harmless, relatively inexpensive fun, says Marcus DiNitto, managing editor of SportingNews.com.
"If you are disciplined enough to not get yourself in trouble and not to chase your losses, and you treat things as an entertainment expense, and you sort of build that into your budget, then I think it's justifiable," DiNitto says.
However, fantasy players can find themselves in dangerous territory if they aren't careful. Leagues can be expensive, and it's easy to spend recklessly or run afoul of tax law.
And if players become so wrapped up in fantasy sports that it eats into their productivity at work, it may even put their jobs at risk, says Judy Lawrence, author of "The Budget Kit: The Common Cents Money Management Workbook" and publisher of The Money Tracker Web site.
"If someone else is having to pick up the slack on your team, or someone's having to cover for you, that's going to have some kind of an impact on co-workers and ultimately ... on your career," Lawrence says.
Ballpark numbersIn fantasy sports, fans across the country form leagues and draft real-life players from their favorite games -- from baseball and football to basketball and hockey -- to become part of their "fantasy" team for that specific sport.
These fantasy teams then compete against each other on a weekly basis. Real-life statistics are used to compile points. For example, a fantasy team owner who drafts quarterback Peyton Manning will score points in his or her fantasy league if the real-life Manning throws touchdown passes during that weeks' NFL game.
At the end of the season, a champion is crowned based on how the fantasy teams performed during the year.
In a few short years, fantasy sports have gone from a fringe hobby for sports enthusiasts to a staple of countless water-cooler conversations. An Ipsos study commissioned by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association found 27.1 million Americans played fantasy sports in the sports seasons stretching from 2007 to 2008.
For fans, it's easy to see the appeal behind this massive growth. Fantasy sports transform an average Joe or Jane into a combination of coach and general manager. Fans get to pick their teams from a star-studded list of their sport's best players and decide who to play and who to bench on game day.
As with most hobbies, the cost of playing fantasy sports is largely up to the individual. The Ipsos study found the average fantasy sports player spent $467.60 per year playing in an average of six leagues from various sports.
"There's a full range, from a few dollars to several thousand dollars," DiNitto says. "The average fantasy player is probably playing in leagues with entry fees from $50 to $100. Some leagues have transaction fees if you add or drop a player. To pick up a free agent, it might cost you a couple dollars."
Fantasy sports enthusiasts who want to start their own leagues may have to pay a little more upfront, DiNitto says, but league "commissioners" can then recoup the cost when they sign up the other fantasy owners in their league.
Many popular fantasy sites -- including Yahoo, CBSSports.com, SportingNews.com and ESPN.com -- offer free versions of their statistics-based games.
"You can play for free for an entire season," says Jeff Thomas, founder and CEO of World Fantasy Games, which recently launched the new fantasy Web site RapidDraft.com. "Half of players generally play free."
Players who don't mind paying extra can "get all the bells and whistles," DiNitto says. These perks may include real-time scoring, customized video highlights, detailed statistics and expert advice.
But for most fantasy football sites, a shot at a hefty cash prize is the most expensive premium feature. Many pricier niche leagues owe their high price tags to a significant pot of gold for winning players at the end of the season.
"There are high-stakes competitions where it might be $1,500 (entry fee) for a team and they have a $300,000 prize," says Thomas.