On any given Sunday, Tim Bettany of Hudson covers himself in New England Patriots merchandise. But ask him who he's really rooting for each week, and he'll admit it's not that team in Foxboro, Mass.
"It's 'Victorious Secret,'" said Bettany. "Those are my guys."
For the past 14 years Bettany, 46, has been playing fantasy football, and each year he tries to come up with a team name that will strike a funny bone, if not fear, in his opponents.
For Bettany and millions like him, the term "game day" no longer refers to whenever the local team hits the gridiron. Fantasy sports participation has surged more than 60 percent since 2007, and more than 32 million people ages 12 and older play in the United States and Canada, according to research conducted in the past year by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Fantasy football makes up 90 percent of the fantasy sports industry.
FSTA market research claims 19 percent of all males in the U.S. play fantasy sports. More women are playing fantasy football every year, too, according to FSTA, which claims 20 percent of all fantasy players are women.
With so many taking part, fantasy is real business for local sports bars and restaurants. Arena Sports Bar in Nashua, World Sports Grille and Portland Pie Company in Manchester, and Buffalo Wild Wings in Concord all advertise special packages for leagues' team draft day events.
"It's the first year we've offered these party deals, and we're booking a good amount of parties," said Arena Sports Bar Manager Matt Payton. "They'll come in with their laptops and we set them up with WiFi access, tables, food and drinks, and they just do their thing."
"We get a crowd in here watching the games, and they are keeping track of their teams on their phones," said Wendy Colby Fisher, event sales manager for World Sports Grille.
Each participant in fantasy football assumes the role of general manager for their "team." Before the start of the NFL season a group of participants form a league and hold a draft, where they each take turns picking current NFL players for their roster.
Once the NFL season kicks off, each fantasy football participant chooses on a weekly basis which players on their roster are starters. Points are awarded when the starters perform specific actions in real NFL games.
Bettany said when he watches the Patriots play against a team with some of his fantasy players on it, he's conflicted. He wants to see his starters do well enough to score him points, but not enough to win the NFL game.
He said it completely changes how he and his friends watch football.
"You're not just paying attention to your favorite team; you're recognizing more talent across the league," he said. "You have to pay attention to everybody."
And the NFL is paying attention to fantasy players. In 2011, the league began requiring teams to put fantasy football stats on their video boards.
Major cable TV sports channels have shows dedicated to fantasy sports; satellite radio has entire channels dedicated to them.
The pastime has become a lucrative pop-culture preoccupation since an estimated 2 million people competed before the Internet went mainstream, FSTA President Paul Charcian said.
"A lot of the growth has been driven by the Internet and the simplification that the Internet offers to fantasy play," said Charcian.
The Internet helped eliminate the frustration some players, such as Michael Beaudet of Manchester, said they encountered on a regular basis. Michael and some of his friends began running a fantasy football league in 1998.
"We would have to get together every Tuesday and spend hours going over the box scores from the games on Sunday and Monday, so we could update the team stats and try to post standings," says Beaudet.
A legal hurdle materialized during the summer of 2006, when a New Jersey plaintiff claimed online league registration fees paid by some fantasy sports participants constituted wagers or bets, and should fall under the state's gambling statutes.
The U.S. District Court in Newark ruled pay-to-play fantasy sports leagues are not illegal, confirming the activity's exemption in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which regulates online gambling and became law in 2006.
The distinction between placing wagers in online games such as Texas Hold 'em poker, for example, and paying entry fees for fantasy sports leagues remains up for debate. The UIGEA says fantasy sports are different because they have outcomes that reflect the relative knowledge of participants, not chance. But any prizes won from fantasy games must be determined in advance of competition and can't be influenced by fees or the number of players; otherwise, they're considered gambling and illegal.
A local challenge to the legality of fantasy sports came in 2012, when Attorney General Michael Delaney ultimately decided not to pursue gambling charges against Ross McLeod, a selectman and former Hillsborough County prosecutor, after it was discovered he shared email correspondence regarding fantasy football participation using a municipal email account.
"Ross was engaging in playing fantasy football with a half-dozen old friends, doing nothing different than what millions of Americans across the country do on a day-to-day basis, especially at this time of the year," said James Rosenberg, attorney for McLeod, told the New Hampshire Union Leader last October. "Simply stated, fantasy football is not gambling."
"Fantasy is clearly a game of skill," said Bettany. "It would be virtually impossible for me to win a fantasy league if I didn't watch the games and pay attention, and just randomly set my lineup. And I'm not even playing for money."