AURORA | Many times in the upcoming NFL season, the most tried-and-true Denver Broncos fans will curse Peyton Manning under their breath.
A Manning-to-Demaryius Thomas touchdown pass will bring the majority of “Orange Crush” fans to their feet, but the same play will bring others to their knees as it could spell potential doom for their fantasy football team.
Welcome to fantasy sports, where a sports fan must weigh his or her personal allegiances against the fortunes of the mythical group of all-star players they “own” in cyberspace in the quest to win money, bragging rights or in some cases, merely pride. It’s an addiction in Aurora and across the nation that gets rolling again Sept. 5.
The NFL’s booming popularity in the past decade-plus has spawned the phenomenon of fantasy football, which unites the most macho football fans with the geekiest of stat geeks. It’s part of a fantasy sports industry that topped 32 million players over the age of 12 in the U.S. and Canada alone in 2010 according to an estimate by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
The reach of fantasy football has only grown since then. Offices, families and groups of friends play against each other, as well as total strangers across the world and the country brought together over the Internet. The lure of the imaginary gridiron isn’t just limited to obsessive football geeks, either. In Aurora, fantasy leagues have popped up in seemingly unlikely places, from school districts to Aurora’s municipal departments.
“When your own team doesn’t do well, it gives you a focus on something else. It’s fun to do with friends,” said Marina Kopytkovskiy, an engineer with Aurora Water. “It’s another thing that you have to talk about. It keeps you really current on football in general.”
For Kopytkovskiy, this year’s fantasy football draft is also a way to make inroads with a new group of coworkers. A graduate of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Kopytkovskiy came to work for Aurora Water two months ago. The draft and the subsequent season will offer connections to players in Aurora Water and beyond, as the league encompasses public works employees and other city departments.
“A lot of different departments participate and you meet a lot of people that you might not meet on a daily basis,” she said, adding that she’s already started formulating a plan of attack for the upcoming draft. “You always have a game plan. I can’t disclose it though.”
For the hardcore fantasy football manager, the rest of the day is spent scoreboard watching, riding the highs of their players successes and fighting the feeling of dread when their opponents’ players hit a big play. The agony and the ecstasy isn’t over until the final whistle of Monday Night Football, which decides many close games.
“You’ve got to keep up with the players, do some analysis and research with them,” said Aurora City Councilman Brad Pierce. Because of that time commitment, Pierce said he won’t take part in this year’s league at his job as a paralegal. “It’s the amount of time, since I’m running for re-election. I’m a big Broncos fan. I hone in and have tunnel vision. But with fantasy football, you get that bigger picture perspective.”
Online drafts are available at virtually every hour of the day or night, but the real fun for most serious fantasy football players comes with live drafts. Friends, families or coworkers get together in one room and pick their teams round by round, pouring over whatever “research” they’ve put together beforehand.
Those live drafts have become big business at local bars and restaurants. Brian Littrell, the general manager of the Tavern Lowry bar and restaurant, said the entire month before football season’s official kickoff has become a critical time for the business. Along with other sites in the Tavern corporate chain, the restaurant just west of Aurora hosts fantasy football draft specials where a group of up to 12 can get unlimited beer for $100.
But the phenomenon goes deeper than the business aspect, Litrell insisted. It’s more about community, he insisted, and serving an important need. Littrell mentioned an employee who takes part in five leagues and serves as the commissioner in three.
“We have so many local neighborhood regulars, and they’re proud of us. We host 35 to 40 draft parties every season,” Littrell said. “It’s an integral part of our neighborhood.”
It’s not the first time football has been a gateway to community for Kopytkovskiy. Kopytkovskiy is originally from Belarus, and football and other American sports served as an important cultural bridge when she was a new arrival to the U.S. growing up in Utah. This year, however, her childhood loyalties may make her a target for ridicule in the city’s league, as well as the other two fantasy leagues she’s playing.
“My favorite team is the Philadelphia Eagles. It originates with Allen Iverson and their basketball team. I became a fan of the city,” she said. “They’re coming to town this year. I’m sure that will be great,” she added with no small amount of sarcasm, pointing to the jeers that her Eagles jersey will likely draw when she goes to the game at Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High.
“I’ll defend myself,” she added.