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Web Exclusive: Fantasy football is big business

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(CNN) - You may think fantasy football is good for sparking trash talk with co-workers, but for a growing number of companies, it's also good business, really good business. 

Fantasy has become reality for millions of sports fans. The fantasy sports industry says it will bring in an estimated $1.2 billion dollars this year. The most popular game by far -- football. 72% of all fantasy players manage an NFL roster online, paying the associated fees.

"People in this country really like watching the NFL. And people in this country really like talking to their friends, especially online, going back and fourth, giving a little boast here, a little bit of trash talk there.  It lets them do both of those things simultaneously," says Rachel Nichols, CNN Sports Anchor. 

And don't expect this fantasy to go away any time soon. IBISworld, a market research firm, forecasts a 7.6% jump in annual growth over the next five years. It's a crowded playing field -- 273 companies host fantasy leagues. Yahoo sports is the leader. ESPN and CBS Sports are close behind, drawing traffic from their TV audience. 

"I think for a lot of companies, fantasy has meant one thing and that is revenue.
Fans are so interested in getting that edge against other players that they're willing to pay for it," says Matt Bean, Managing Editor SI.com.  

So who is playing fantasy football? The average team owner is a 41 year old white male, makes $92,750 and is married. He owns a home  and he spends $467 dollars per year playing fantasy sports. ESPN is playing right into that audience, but watch out guys, the ladies are signing up as well and the NFL knows it. 

"Women are becoming increasingly an audience for the NFL the numbers on that are really impressive. And it's a way for women who do like the NFL, who genuinely like football, to get involved in the game without having to know or be familiar with some of the more arcane things that we traditionally more associate with men," says Nichols. 

So the women in your league may not know the running back for the '78 dolphins, but they probably know who to play at running back on Sunday.
 
It seems the fantasy football sites are benefiting from the competition. Consider this: just 7% of players visit only one site for their research, compare that to the nearly half that check 4 or 5. All those eyeballs mean higher advertising revenue.

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