08/24/2006 12:00AM

Fantasy football has real benefit


If you're a football fan, you've probably been approached by friends, family, or co-workers about playing in a fantasy football league this year. Or maybe you've been getting e-mail invites mixed in with your spam.

The fantasy world is big-time, as every website seems to have a league, and has it grown to the point where there are regular segments on ESPN's SportsCenter leading up the NFL season.

Here in Las Vegas, fantasy leagues are as popular as everywhere else, though there's also a segment of the population that views fantasy sports with disdain, saying things like "real men bet on the games."

When I first moved to Las Vegas in 1998 and started betting on football, I kept playing in my fantasy leagues because I had a lot of fun with them. However, I became frustrated with all the times I would be cheering for players that were going against teams I had bet on, and would regularly have such thoughts as "I hope Marshall Faulk has a good game for my fantasy team, but not too good of a game because I bet against the Rams." Or, "I don't want the Packers to score and to lose my bet, but if they do, I hope it's a Brett Favre pass."

That caused me to drop fantasy football for a season, but what I found out is that if I wasn't in a fantasy league, I didn't pay enough attention to individual players. I would know that the Rams were going over the betting total every game and the offense was doing well, but I wouldn't know if Kurt Warner was spreading the ball around to all of his receivers. I was looking at teams instead of individuals, which can lead to superficial judgments when not looking at the details.

Now, I'm in one draft league and one auction league, and the auction league includes individual defensive players. I feel if I'm not in a league like that, it's too easy to focus on the offense when watching games. With fantasy play giving me that extra focus on both sides of the ball, I feel my handicapping and analysis is that much stronger (even though you wouldn't know it from my results last season, but that's another story).

So, I'm definitely in the camp that believes fantasy and handicapping/betting can go hand in hand. But don't just take my word for it. Here's what others have to say:

* Greg Ambrosius is the editor of Fantasy Sports Magazine and founder of the National Fantasy Football Championship, a high-end league with a $100,000 first-place prize.

"It's just like horse racing," Ambrosius said. "You can't just show up at the track and expect to win. Fantasy sports is all about the research and looking at stats to give you an edge. Just like in handicapping, you have to be smarter and do more research than the next guy. If you're doing that for fantasy and know the strengths and weaknesses of all the players, you're already ahead of other bettors."

The fantasy football championship draft, with a $1,250 entry fee, takes place on Sept. 1, simultaneously at the Stardust here in Las Vegas, the Oakbrook Marriott in Chicago and the New York Hilton. Players compete in 14-team leagues through the first 13 weeks of the NFL season, with the top two finishers in each league (approximately 50 in all) competing over the next three weeks for the top prizes. The deadline to register for any of the draft sites is midnight Sunday, and you can do so by calling Ambrosius at (715) 445-4612 ext. 284 or logging on at fantasyfootballchampionship.com.

* Matt Berry, aka the Talented Mr. Roto (at the appropriately named talentedmrroto.com), is one of the most prolific fantasy writers on the Internet. He has been giving fantasy tips on SportsCenter, and will be part of the "Fantasy Show" on ESPN2 with Ron Jaworski starting next Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

"Gamblers and fantasy players look at the same things," Berry said. "You're looking at player performance and trends, you know if someone does better on the road or at home, on turf or on grass. As a gambler, you might not have a bet on every game, but with fantasy, you usually have an interest in every game - whether it's your players or players on the team you're playing that week."

* Stephen Nover is the author of "Winning Fantasy Football," available at Gambler's Book Shop here in Las Vegas (gamblersbook.com), and writes articles and sell selections at covers.com.

"Fantasy football really helps with handicapping," Nover said. "With fundamental handicapping, it helps with analyzing players and with their weekly matchups, and prepares you for the inevitable injuries, especially if you're in a bigger league with deeper rosters. You're a step ahead of other handicappers if you know about a team's backups and how they'll fare. Fantasy also helps with situational handicapping because you have to always be looking ahead and knowing a team's bye weeks and their big divisional games."

So, if you've been avoiding joining a fantasy league because you're more interested in betting the games, you might want to give it a second thought. Even if it's a free online contest with hundreds of thousands of entries and very little chance of cashing, the time spent could be well worth it when applied to your own handicapping.