"Everyone here is competitive, so it can get pretty heated," says Larry Moore, 28, a broker with Boston-based Telluride Group who works at the CME, which he calls "a perfect atmosphere" for fantasy football heckling. "We’re already standing on top of each other, so it’s easy to go back and forth a lot. We already know how to push each other’s buttons."
Much of the banter is juvenile and profane. Inside the walls of most workplaces, taunts are slightly gentler: "You coach like you learned the game in Europe!" or a sarcastic "Your great quarterback lost it for you!"
Fantasy football leagues usually have about 10 teams, with each player acting as a team owner and assembling a lineup of real NFL players. Fantasy league results are based on statistics from each week’s real games.
Though some women play, office leagues are predominantly made up of men in their 20s and 30s who are single and have time to hang out and watch games together. When a spot opens in a league, its managers invite those who they think will fit in well with the group.
At its best, fantasy football builds camaraderie in an office. At its worst, it solidifies cliques and prompts confrontations over hurled insults or unpaid debts to the league. The peek it provides into colleagues’ personalities can be disconcerting.
"You get a sense of people who don’t want to lose at any cost. Once they do start losing, their attitude in the office is sour for the rest of the season," says Chicagoan Jim Madigan, 33, a staff attorney for Washington-based civil rights organization Lambda Legal and a competitor in a league with colleagues from a previous job.
"When you’re playing for money, even a little, it ratchets up the competition. Even people with six-figure salaries see it as the most important competition. They are playing to win a few hundred bucks, but it’s more about pride."
Talk trash ... or else
A distaste for such "hazing" leaves some colleagues relegated to the sidelines.
"There have been guys who we didn’t invite to play because they didn’t get into [trash talking], and they didn’t enjoy the social aspects of it," says Matt Batt, 30, national media relations manager for Buffalo Grove, Illinois-based Tech Image Ltd., which does public relations for technology firms. He plays in a league at another company. "We like having guys who enjoy playing and enjoy the camaraderie."
He recalls a co-worker at a previous job whose team was doing so poorly that, out of spite, he willingly gave up a good player in a trade that benefited another co-worker with a winning team. The rest of the league verbally assaulted the owner of the poorly performing team because his move eliminated any chance they had to beat the front-runner.
"We all jumped on the guy who was losing," Batt says. "We went to his cube and said, ‘You’re costing us a lot of money!’ " The co-worker didn’t drop out, but it was a tense time in the office, Batt admits.
Katie Rokosz, 24, is an actuary at Allstate Corp. in Northbrook, Illinois, who enjoys baseball and college sports but doesn’t know much about fantasy football. As a result, she says, she has been left out of conversations that pop up among league owners.
"It doesn’t interrupt the office, and it’s always friendly. But it’s a talking point only for people who play," she says. "If you’re sitting in an office waiting for a meeting to start, that’s where the conversation goes. You hear about it every Monday, and especially at the end of the season. That’s when it’s the main talking point."
Team owners say the heckling is meant to be fun—"it’s called ‘fantasy’ for a reason," says Norman Hays, 39, who works for a development company in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and is in a work league with a $1,000 entry fee.
"There are guys who can’t take the trash talk. So you learn their hang-ups" and turn up the hazing, he says. "The guys who get uptight about playing are always the ones who are tight with their money," he adds.
Gina Camiola, 31, a diversity strategist with U.S. Cellular Corp. and a fantasy football player, recalls a colleague at a previous job who would fume when his team didn’t do well.
"People would ride him," she says. "He hated it. You’d see it in his body language; it was like he was pouting."
Rob Kozub is commissioner of a league at A.T. Kearney Inc. in Chicago. He says his league runs smoothly because rules are clear, and colleagues enjoy the banter while keeping their emotions in check.
Still, he says, it can be stressful hounding co-workers to pay up at the end of the season. He just finished a friendly shakedown of a former colleague for money owed for fantasy baseball losses.
"The winner wants his money, and if you can’t collect from everyone, it’s uncomfortable," says Kozub, 29, a tax manager for the management consulting firm. "It’s worse in leagues outside of the office. At least at work there’s a professional attitude."
One of his league members, expense auditor Bill Clegg, 24, is on four fantasy teams this year.
"The work one is the first one I check," Clegg says. "It’s with the people I see every day, so I want to win."
Chris Gonzalez, 25, an accounts receivable accountant at A.T. Kearney and a member of Kozub’s league, says the shared activity is a great icebreaker for colleagues.
"We see each other in the elevator or pass each other in the hall and say something about how their player blew it for them; most of the time you laugh it off. [Or] people give you crap about a player on your team you think highly of, and then you realize you’ve made a mistake," says Gonzalez, who like many fantasy team owners gets together with others on the league to watch Sunday games for real-time banter.
Gonzalez recalls being on a league at another company when a co-worker complained about how people were getting paid. Some leagues offer an end-of-season pot, while others make weekly payouts.
"He didn’t understand the rules, and it came back to haunt him," he says. "He ranted about it [on the league’s Web page]. It didn’t affect work directly, but everyone knew he wasn’t happy about it. There was some tension."
Players put in money at the beginning of the season or throughout it, depending on how the league is set up. Many offices have a buy-in of $50 per player, with the possibility of winning as much as $600. CME traders put in anywhere from $100 to $500, and some leagues go even higher.
Consider it a networking expense, says Jason Dorfman, 30, a territorial sales manager with Lake Forest, Illinois-based packaging company Pactiv Corp., where he bought into the league for $100.
"It’s been worth every penny," he says. "I’m new here, and I would have been too intimidated to talk to directors I didn’t know. Now I’ve gotten to know them through the league, and we e-mail or talk in the hallway.
"It’s the new game of golf."