April 2, 2008— -- In this opening week of the baseball season, most major league managers have their home plates full with only one team to worry about. Cuong Truong has to manage players from different 10 teams.
Truong is no Joe Torre, but he is one of a growing number of fantasy sports enthusiasts. These fans spend countless hours at their computers pondering the statistical permutations of their own custom teams, made up of players from all the rosters in Major League Baseball.
"You're not always rooting for your team, you're rooting for the players," said Truong, 31.
With prices for concessions and tickets steadily climbing, more sports lovers are going online to get their fix.
They form leagues -- usually with friends -- and sign up for free accounts at Web sites like EPSN, Yahoo and MLB.com, though most offer upgraded services for an annual fee.
Each person becomes a "manager" of his own team in the league, and is randomly assigned a draft number in anticipation of opening day. Users draft MLB's top players to fill standard roster positions on their virtual "team." Because of this, predraft anticipation is high.
"Draft is such a big hype. It's so exciting," said Truong.
Depending on players' statistics, teams either play against other users in their league each week, earning points for winning those head-to-head matchups (the team with the most wins becomes the league champion), or teams forgo weekly games and instead accumulate points -- meaning the team with the most points at the end of the season wins.
Before the draft, Truong, a senior operations analyst, researched players. "In baseball, there's a chance you'll pick up better players that aren't top names. It takes a lot of research and sometimes it just takes getting lucky."
Last year, Truong had a bit of luck himself, drafting Matt Holliday, who surprised many when he "had a breakout year" with the 2007 National League Champions, the Colorado Rockies.
"Fantasy is a huge phenomenon with sports fans," said Raphael Poplock, vice president of games at ESPN.
Fantasy baseball leagues are climbing in popularity. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, more than 18 million people play fantasy sports online, and baseball has about 3 million players, second only to football.
ESPN's television show "Baseball Tonight" aired a draft-pick special, advising fans on the best players to choose for their fantasy teams. The show also offers daily fantasy updates.
Poplock said growing up "as a sports freak, I'd wait for my team to play. I'd watch other games but there wasn't as much vested interest as there is now."
Now, he said, fans are more interested in seeing how certain players perform, whether the players are on their fantasy team -- or someone else's in their league.
"Folks are keying in to individual players rather than teams," said Poplock, "It's a new way to consume sports."
It's not all fun and games -- fantasy sports are big business too. They have an economic impact of nearly $2 billion, with the average fantasy player spending $150 a year to participate, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University, says fantasy players are good for the sports business.
"They only want to entertain you to the extent that they can make money," and while Web sites make money from ad revenue, Watkins says, the "longer-term incentive is that they want to get more fans hooked on the sport."
Fantasy games make fans more engaged, says Matthew Gould, spokesman for MLB.com. "It brings them closer to the game. It makes them a better fan."
"A better fan is key to a becoming a return customer," said Gould.
The fantasy communities are the most active users across the variety of ESPN's media, from mobile updates to radio broadcasts, according to Poplock.
"We're really dedicated to serving our fans," says Poplock. "We're doing tremendously well from a business standpoint." ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Co, the parent company of ABC News.
Truong says though he does not pay, or bet, with fantasy baseball, it consumes another valuable resource.
"It eats up a lot of your time," he says. "To be honest, I do most of my research at work."
Striking a balance between reality and online fantasy is important for Truong. He will only read sports news when he has down time at work.
Additionally, Truong's company blocks some Web sites on company computers. "You can't log in to any of the fantasy sites, but what you can do is go to Yahoo Sports and read the articles."
Fantasy fans have been known to burn up hundreds of hours in pursuit of their hobby. Perhaps in response, many sites offer different kinds of fantasy games that are less time intensive.
ESPN has "a full sweep of simpler fantasy games" for the casual fan, says Poplock. And this season, MLB.com is offering a $1 million prize to the user who can win one of its simpler games, "Beat the Streak," says Gould.
"Commissioner-based leagues are very time consuming and you have to have knowledge of baseball to use it." Gould said that with Beat the Streak, "You can be a casual fan and just enjoy the game -- it takes 15 seconds."
Still, leagues have their appeal for fans, says Gould. "It gives them a sense of community with other fans, and they can engage in friendly back and forth."
Friendly banter is all part of the fun, says Truong. His league, made up of several friends living across the country, from New York to Florida, competes with one another creatively.
One of Truong's friends, and fellow fantasy player, named his team "I'm Apollo Creed" after the character from the Rocky series. "All year he would talk trash about others while using phrases from the Rocky character," says Truong.
Last year, in an effort to remind fellow players that at heart, he was still a Red Sox fan, Truong's team name trash-talked his own player, Yankees' Rodriguez. Now, he has a more subdued fantasy name.
Because this season, to avoid any potential conflict, Truong made sure not to draft any Yankees.