Sports Illustrated Makes a Big Bet on Fantasy Sports

The venerable sports magazine extends its coverage in order to snare that number-crunching, sports-loving demographic who can't get enough.

For years, David Bauer, the deputy managing editor of Sports Illustrated has played fantasy baseball and fantasy basketball. Then this past summer, he became what you might call a three-sport fantasy athlete, participating in his first fantasy football draft. His top pick: Tiki Barber.

In the coming months, the time Bauer spends obsessing over his fantasy football team won’t be a distraction from his professional obligations. Rather it will be a professional obligation. To wit: last month, coinciding with the start of football season, SI rolled out a new, fantasy-focused insert in its magazine and revamped the fantasy page on its Web site. “I’ve taken up fantasy football,” says Bauer, “so that I can fully understand the mindset.”

The predominant mindset at SI these days is that fantasy sports are no longer a niche market that can be given haphazard attention. Over the past twenty-five years or so, fantasy sports — in which participants draft and manage imaginary teams that compete with each other based on the statistics generated by their players’ real-world counterparts — have grown into a major industry. What once served as a hobby for a handful of nerdy sportswriters now tantalizes and torments millions of statistic-addled Americans.

In other words, it’s a big market. And at a time when Time Inc. is busy paring down its magazine portfolio, the company has given SI the go-head to invest heavily in its ongoing fantasy initiative with the hopes of becoming the go-to provider of fantasy-related reportage.

“We’ve done fantasy coverage in the past,” says Bauer. “But it was more piecemeal. It has just reached a threshold of popularity where doing something like this is obvious and irresistible.”

Once upon a time, Bauer could have played fantasy football in a league hosted on No more. In retooling their fantasy strategy, SI officials have decided to jettison the games and to focus exclusively on providing fantasy content — that is, news bits about overrated quarterbacks, underrated running backs, and sleeper tight ends. The kind of stuff that jittery fantasy addicts like to paw over for hours on end.

“Some of the research we had done showed that the average fantasy football player has been in his or her league for six years,” says Stacey Vollman Warwick, executive director of SI Digital. “The other sites had such an entrenched history with their players. They weren’t going to leave those leagues to come play at SI. So we’ve decided, let’s partner up with some of the sites out there that are doing a really good job on the gaming side. And we’ll focus on the content and analysis.”

Each week during football season, SI now sends out a multi-page special Fantasy Plus insert to 750,000 of its more than 3 million subscribers — essentially to any of its readers who happen to fit the right demographic profile (read: young folks). The insert is the latest special section to appear in the magazine, following on the heels of a successful golf insert (which is still alive) and a star-crossed adventure section (which died a quiet, outdoorsy death).

From a business perspective, the increased attention on fantasy sports seems like a smart bet — Coke, Sprint and Jeep have already bought in as advertisers. But from an editorial perspective, there seems to be a risk. Could the added emphasis on fantasy sports distract the magazine’s staff from reporting on the real thing?

Bauer, for one, says that SI’s newfangled fantasy emphasis won’t take away from what the magazine has historically been great at — that is, telling timeless narratives about transient games. To hear Bauer tell it, you can have your Gary Smith and your James Quintong too. According to Bauer, the conflict for the magazine is minimal.

“Once upon a time that was a concern,” says Bauer. “Fantasy has taken such a firm hold within the sports world that it’s not considered eccentric or different. We hope that this information would be of value to a sports fan who’s not even playing fantasy.”

Whether or not non-fantasy players would enjoy such recent features as “Early Returns: start off with a bang by drafting these players” or “Three Surprise Workhorse Rbs” remains to be seen.

For the time being, much of the reporting on fantasy sports comes from SI staffers, who are already covering the real thing. For example, in addition to his column called “10 things I think I think,” Peter King, one of SI’s football reporters, will now also pen a “10 Fantasy Things” column.

“What we ask of Peter in a fantasy sense is that as he’s doing his other reporting — all of which is foremost and primary — that he keep in the back of his mind content possibilities for fantasy football,” says Bauer. “Because Peter himself is a fantasy football player, he has that mindset. We ask him to do two small pieces each week. One for the magazine. One for the Web site, where he offers his fantasy observations. The amount of time that it takes him is almost nil.”

Are there any SI writers who don’t play fantasy sports and have zero interest in writing about the subject? “There are some hardcore traditionalists who still find it reprehensible,” says Bauer, who declined to name names. “But they’re increasingly few.”

Correction: David Bauer is the deputy managing editor of Sports Illustrated.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.