Growing fantasy legions pump up NFL combine appeal

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) As many as 12 million viewers will tune into the NFL combine at some point to watch draft prospects do nothing more exciting than run sprints and lift weights.

Other than coaches, general managers and scouts, who makes time in the middle of the day to devote to projecting a kid’s future?

The answer won’t surprise anybody with a fantasy football team. For them, the combine has become must-see TV.

Ryan Satterlof, a fifth-grade Indianapolis math teacher and fantasy devotee, was among 600 fans watching Saturday’s workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Select groups of fans have been invited to the combine workouts since 2012, and only about 1,000 will get the chance this year.

”The NFL handed out forms if we wanted to chart times and stuff,” he said. ”But I was just trying to take in the moment. … I won’t make any serious judgments – even on players I saw here – until after the draft.”

The combine and fantasy football were low-key endeavors when Satterlof, now 37, and a few high school buddies organized their first fantasy league in 1994.

”We used to have to comb through newspapers and other publications to play back then,” he said. ”Now, everything is at your fingertips.”

That’s not a coincidence. The explosive growth in the audience for both has gone hand in hand. The combine has nearly doubled its audience since 2007. The number of fantasy competitors, meanwhile, is expected to top 30 million this year, but more impressive is how many have become serious players.

According to Nielsen’s annual ”Year in Sports” report, the number of daily fantasy football players climbed to 5.1 million last year – up nearly 500 percent from 2013. The number who track their teams and compete on mobile devices is up to three million, an even more-astonishing 847 percent year-over-year jump. Nielsen attributes the growth in mobile to just two outlets that feature daily games – FanDuel and DraftKings.

Men in their mid-30s and early-40s (estimates put the number of women competing at between 10-20 percent) with disposable income make up the core audience for both the combine and fantasy. That correlation is never clearer than when quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers – the key point-producers for fantasy teams – go through their paces at the combine.

Last year, Nielsen research tracked a 30 percent spike in combine viewership to the moment when then-Texas A&M and current Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel took the field. One of the other most-watched moments at the combine came when Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive end attempting to become the first openly gay player to make it in the NFL, held a news conference.

”The hubbub – over everything that happens here – is so much more than what I went through in 1987,” recalled Rich Gannon, an 18-year NFL veteran now working as a radio host for Sirius XM. ”And it’s still not an ideal situation. For me, as a quarterback, trying to throw in an empty stadium was tough. It messes with your depth perception. I wish there had been even a few people in the stands, the way they do it now.”

The combine began in 1982 as a way to save teams from traveling around the country to scout prospects. But it didn’t earn a spot on most fans’ sports calendar until 2004, when the fledgling NFL Network showed a handful of highlights during a one-hour studio show. This year, the network will beam 45 hours of live programming.

And just as Manziel moved the meter in 2014, look for highly regarded QB prospects Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston of Florida State, who were matched in the Rose Bowl, to be the stars this year. Another heavily watched segment Saturday will feature top running back and wide receiver prospects dueling in the 40-yard dash.

That event took off in 2008 after Chris Johnson, then a largely unknown running back from East Carolina, motored down his lane in 4.24 seconds. That record time helped Johnson zoom up the draft board – Tennessee picked him 24th in the first round – and it’s at the center of a social media explosion each year as fans speculate whether anyone will cover the ground faster.

”We track who and what is being talked about on social media, and everyone is obsessed with the 40,” said NFL Network spokesman Alex Reithmiller. ”Last year, buzz started building around Kent State wide receiver Dri Archer. We had him at 4.16 (seconds), which would have beat Johnson.

”Social media went crazy for a moment,” Riethmiller added, ”but unfortunately, when the official time came back, he was at 4.26.”

That’s why the NFL Network is adding to its technological toolbox, trying to better match up the numbers in real time. But whether all that improved data accurately projects a player’s ability to make it at the next level remains an open question.

”I’m not a big track meet guy. And it’s a track meet until they start hitting each other,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. ”That’s when you see football. Too many guys sky rocket because they ran a 4.3, then you turn the tape on, they don’t hit anybody. So you can’t get too enamored by the numbers.”

Likewise, savvy fantasy players understand there’s plenty of work left after the combine.

”For instance, I really like Amari Cooper, the wide receiver from Alabama,” said Satterlof, who got his invitation by winning a league sponsored jointly by the hometown Colts and the NFL. ”But I’m not sure how much seeing him today will give me an edge. And if he gets drafted by a a team with a bad quarterback, well …”

Then what?

”Well,” Satterlof said a moment later. ”I guess it’s not hard to see how this turns into a full-time obligation.”