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(Reuters) - Tom Brady is back, and for plenty of fantasy football fans his return marks a dramatic shift in strategy. The New England Patriots star quarterback will suit up this Thursday for his team’s season opener, after U.S. District Judge Richard Berman threw out the National Football League’s four-game suspension against him in the now notorious “Deflategate” case.
The development is a game-changer in the league – and for the millions of fantasy football fanatics across the country, especially those who put their money behind Brady in early drafts.
Last year an estimated 41 million people played in fantasy football leagues, most wagering upwards of $100 for the season. In fantasy football, participants create virtual teams by “drafting” existing players from the NFL. Each week a fan's team goes head-to-head with another in the league, and the score is based on the real-life, statistical performance of the people on the fan's squad.
For many leagues, drafting wraps up this week, although, depending on a league’s rules, a fan may be able to trade players throughout the season.
In general, fantasy football team owners receive points each week when their players do something right (for instance, a wide receiver catching a pass for a touchdown) and lose points when they do something wrong (such as a quarterback throwing an interception).
For some fantasy football fans, the allure of drafting Brady, the Super Bowl XLIX most valuable player, outweighed concerns about his potential four-game suspension. LONG SHOT
“There’s always your stats guy; there’s always your fan guy,” said Zack Jones, editor in chief of SportsbookReview.com, a sports analytics and commentary site. “And there’s always the guy who wants to go for the long shot.”
Stuart Green, a 10-year fantasy veteran, said he did not pick up Brady - but his 13-year-old son grabbed him in the seventh round of one of the numerous leagues he participates in, in a draft held prior to the Berman ruling.
"He now thinks he’s a genius,” quipped Green, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan and senior vice president of strategic accounts at Symphony Health in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania.
“We all were just kind of staring at (Brady’s name) on the board wondering if anyone was going to do it,” said Todd Wachtel, an attorney in New Jersey who has wagered $265 this season. Eventually, Brady went in the ninth round of his 10-person draft.
“I have two friends who drafted Tom in the third round (in separate drafts), and they could not be happier,” said Jason Jepson, a vice president of a public relations agency in Austin, Texas, whose eight-person league has a total of $2,000 on the line. “They are celebrating as their friends berated them.” GAME CHANGER
Brandon Marianne Lee, founder of Her Fantasy Football, a fantasy ranking and analysis site, and an analyst for fantasy site FanDuel, said Brady’s return to the field could have repercussions for the players around him.
“The biggest impact is on wide receivers,” Lee said, noting that Patriots receiver Julian Edelman’s value from a fantasy prospective has increased dramatically. Wide receivers working with a top-tier quarterback are likely to be more productive than those working with a backup, even a good one.
Experts say fantasy fans would be wise to look at how Brady’s week-one status affects the rest of his team. With a reliable quarterback active for week one, Patriots receivers could catch more passes and, subsequently, pick up more fantasy points.
“(The ruling) moved Brady up, obviously,” noted KC Joyner, a senior ESPN NFL & Fantasy Football Insider and analytics expert. But “it helps the guys around him.”
For example, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski is now a top-five draft pick, Joyner said. ‘WHO IS LAUGHING NOW?’
While Brady will return to Gillette Stadium this week, the “Deflategate” saga is far from over.
After the judge overturned Brady’s suspension, the NFL appealed the ruling. If successful, the NFL would have the power to reinstate Brady’s suspension. And it remains unclear whether this could affect the 2015 season – and fantasy football.
It is this instability that may be a driving force behind the recent popularity of so-called “daily fantasy” leagues. Hosted by sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, these leagues allow team owners to draft a new team each week, rather than holding onto a single team for the entire season. While you can make trades for new players in season-long leagues, daily fantasy leagues allow you to wipe your roster clean entirely, making it easier to move on from a player who gets injured or misses games due to personal conduct infractions.
FanDuel and DraftKings saw their unique audiences grow by 485 percent in 2014, according to data cited by a Forbes report earlier this year.
“Every week is a new week,” said Cal Spears, the CEO of RotoGrinders, a daily fantasy news and analysis site. Daily fantasy football offers more flexibility for people wondering whether a player – including Brady – will be available for the entire season.
Jamie O’Grady, an attorney and the editor of The Cauldron, a sports news and analysis site, said, “no one knows” the timeline for the appeals process. “The league doesn’t necessarily want to litigate this in the near term because they want to focus on the season,” O’Grady says.
For Lori Jung, a public relations specialist with firm Hudson West, who put up $150 for her 10-person league, that risk was too great.
“I picked up starters,” Jung said. “I don’t like to take any kind of gamble.” Jung’s strategy means that – barring a last-minute injury or personal conduct issue – every player she drafted will be on the field in week one.
Even so, Brady went in the second round of her draft – and the person who drafted him took a fair share of jeering for the move.
“But who’s laughing now, right?”
Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Lauren Young and Steve Orlofsky