WASHINGTON -- Fantasy football has become a rite of fall for millions of Americans. As the hobby has grown, it has spawned a multibillion dollar industry and even a successful television show rooted in the obsessive nature that such leagues can create.
The average fantasy football player spends three hours per week managing his roster, but invests a stunning nine additional hours per week either reading or watching something about fantasy sports, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. With an estimated 33 million fantasy sports participants in the U.S., that's nearly 400 million hours per week spent on what amounts to an imaginary sport.
Some might call that time wasted on something meaningless. And that's exactly where Meaningful Wins hopes it has found a way to channel all that energy and attention into something productive.
When one thinks about titans of fantasy football, a Major League Baseball executive might not be the first person to come to mind. But Texas Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine and his business partner and college buddy John Ellis are leading the charge in trying to channel some of the $2.1 billion spent on fantasy football each year into helping worthy causes.
"I've been in a league with my college friends ever since we graduated," says Levine. "Last year, we posed a question to the league: How about instead of personal gain this year, we pick a nonprofit? Everyone was open to it. If anything, it enhanced our experience."
Now, he's bringing his idea to the public.
The system is simple: Anyone using an NFL, CBS, Yahoo!, RT or ESPN fantasy platform can sign up and choose how much they want to donate. Each player in the league can pick a beneficiary from 10 featured charities. Win the league, and your chosen nonprofit benefits. If you lose, you're still donating to a good cause (instead of to your idiot buddy who just got lucky with that waiver-wire claim) and receiving a tax write-off.
It might seem unlikely that people would be willing to part with a portion of their winnings, but Levine points to his group's research.
"We did some focus groups to try to determine the reason people played," he says. "It was some combination of staying in touch with old friends, bragging rights, the ability to make trades, and then making money."
Levine, an Alexandria, Virginia, native and graduate of T.C. Williams High School, didn't need to go far to look for inspiration for his efforts.
"You turn the calendar to the middle of August, and our players become rabid fantasy football fans," he says of the Rangers clubhouse. "They all show up wearing the jerseys of their favorite player."
That passion even extends to baseball: One day in early September 2013, Jayson Werth walked around the Nationals clubhouse, going about his pregame routine. As many of the players do before hitting the field, he wore non-Nationals gear, sporting a sparkling-new New York Giants T-shirt.
Werth, an Illinois native, is not a Giants fan. The only reason for his selection of this particular shirt was to rib coach Trent Jewett, a native of Dallas and a huge Cowboys supporter. Werth, it turns out, had bought a shirt for every opponent the Cowboys faced for the rest of the baseball season.
Former Rangers pitcher Mike Adams is one of the many athletes helping Meaningful Wins get up and running. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Just like the Rangers, and every other team around professional baseball, the Nationals have their own fantasy league. When then-rookie Ian Krol ended up with the first overall pick last season, he was picked on relentlessly.
That good-natured mockery seems pervasive, as Levine describes his interactions with former Rangers reliever and current Philadelphia Phillie Mike Adams.
"You can always trade Mike some third-string wide receiver in exchange for a star, just because he wants all the Cowboys on his team," jokes Levine.
It's a sentiment many fantasy players can relate to. But more importantly, that's the same Mike Adams who encouraged Levine to add Operation Smile to his list of charitable partners. Ever since Adams' son was born with a cleft lip, he has become one of the organization's most public supporters, going so far as to help a family he met at the mall pay for a procedure for their son.
While they are rabid fantasy football fans, major league baseball players also have the means to help lift such an effort financially, one that Levine has seen first-hand. That makes them perfect spokesmen for this effort.
"Our players alone give back close to $675,000 to nonprofits each year," he says.
That's how most of the 10 featured partners have been chosen -- through personal connections of the athletes helping to promote the program. There's Hall of Famer Greg Maddux's Candlelighters, the Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada, where Maddux calls home. Or former major leaguer and current MLB Network host Kevin Millar's Children's Miracle Network, supporting 170 children's hospitals across the country. There are now close to 120 athletes supporting the product by using it and spreading the word.
"Our criteria was that we only partnered with five-star nonprofits -- those that have fulfilled their mission statements to the best of their ability," says Levine.
Levine hopes to expand to include March Madness in the spring, and perhaps other sports if the idea catches on. For now, there's still time to register at meaningfulwins.com before the season starts and make sure your fantasy league makes an actual difference in people's lives.
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