The first thing Nima Vaez-Zadeh does before starting work during football season is check up on his fantasy football team.
“During the season when players get hurt, you’ve got to change your lineup, add people from the waivers,” the 30-year-old says. “You do spend up to an hour during lunch or whatever kind of monitoring everything, making sure you're picking up the right people and your lineups are set.”
Fantasy football is a competition in which participants create imaginary teams from among the actual players in the National Football League (NFL). They score points based on the actual performance of their players in the real games. Money is often part of the equation. Each fantasy football participant contributes a certain amount of money to his or her respective league, which is won by the top player or players at the end of the season.
Washington-based Vaez-Zadeh, a key account manager in the hospitality world, is one of an estimated 12.5 million adults in the United States who will play fantasy football this year. But some estimate the number is actually much higher.
The Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association (FSGA) says there are 59 million fantasy sports players in the United States and Canada, and that about 39 million of those players prefer fantasy football. Overall, the fantasy sports industry is worth more than $7 billion a year, according to FSGA.
Like many Americans, Vaez-Zadeh has been playing fantasy football for years. And he doesn’t just take part in one competition. This season, he’s participating in four different fantasy football leagues with, in order, high school friends, college friends, co-workers and relatives.
“I enjoy it. You know my dream growing up was always to be, like, a GM [general manager] of a professional team,” he says. “This is the closest I'll ever get to it, so it kind of makes me feel like I could put together a super team on my own and monitor that.”
But is that fun costing U.S. employers billions of dollars?
“We're anticipating that fantasy football is going to cost employers this year around $9 billion in lost wages being paid to workers that are otherwise being unproductive participating in fantasy football activities in the office when normally they would be working,” says Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Although there’s no conclusive way to track employer losses, Challenger estimates workers will spend 30 minutes daily during work hours — outside of breaks or their lunch hour — checking on their players, proposing trades and doing related research.
But Challenger doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, he thinks it would be a mistake for employers to crack down on fantasy football in the workplace, especially with smartphones and social media already providing lots of distractions for workers.
“Fantasy football is one of those few areas that employers can insert themselves,” Challenger says. “They can start their own league, and it gets people within the office talking to each other, often people from different departments within your organization ... and we feel like that's a really good investment for companies in terms of the culture of their organizations, employee morale and camaraderie.”
Challenger has seen these results firsthand. His company sanctions an official fantasy football league.
“We have a trophy that you get your name engraved on at the end of each season and get to keep that on your desk all year,” he says. “So, it's kind of a fun non-monetary incentive.”
Vaez-Zadeh’s workplace doesn’t run an official league, but he says members of the leadership team do participate in the office fantasy football league.
Of course, everyone wants to win, but for Vaez-Zadeh, a key benefit of fantasy football is keeping in touch and interacting with old friends during the 17-week NFL season.
“A lot of you will do a live draft, so everyone plans a weekend to get together so you get to see each other,” he says. “Every year, you already have something on the books where you'll see each other again. It gives you bragging rights for the year, too.”