Football may be almost exclusively a male domain, but Liz Vagianos and a bunch of her female friends think there’s room around the gridiron for some stylin’ $1,000 shoes. In the fast-growing world of fantasy football, nothing quite says league trophy like a pair of red-bottomed Christian Louboutins.
A 1995 Mount Holyoke graduate, Vagianos is among an increasing number of women who have gone head over heels for the booming craze that has men and women alike stocking make-believe rosters with the names of real-life National Football League players. According to one industry source, some 30 million people throughout the United States and Canada participated in fantasy football in 2012, and an estimated 20 percent, or nearly 6 million, were female.
Vagianos participates in a women-only league with nine other players, all of whom convened at her sister’s home in Greenwich, Conn., Saturday night for the annual draft. Each of the women ponied up $100 as a buy-in fee for the season — the winner ultimately to pocket the entire $1,000.
“It’s not a rule that if you win you have to buy the Louboutins,’’ explained Vagianos, who grew up in Melrose. “But that’s kind of what our league’s all about. Most of us want to buy the shoes, and then you come back to the draft next year wearing what you’ve won.’’
Many, if not most, of the women interviewed were drawn to fantasy football because of their sheer competitive nature, the opportunity to hand-pick a team of All-Pros or rookie sleepers, and then live and die with the results week to week.
A few of the women also said they play because of the chance to win money (the Vagianos group notwithstanding, typical buy-in price ranged from $10 to $35). While many women noted the allure of competition, they also said they enjoy the social aspect, the opportunity to connect with other women about football.
“It’s such a male-dominated sport — the coaches, the players, the trainers, most of the analysts are all men,’’ said Jessika DuBay, 33, who lives in Belmont, where she owns and operates a pet-sitting business. “I wouldn’t be opposed to playing in a mixed league with guys, but I do like the aspect that I play in a league with all women and we’re having fun in a male-dominated sport.’’
In 2007, Joyce Keeman, a 1977 graduate of Lincoln-Sudbury High School, founded the online Women’s Fantasy Football League. According to Keeman, the eight players who participated that first year made up the first all-women’s team to be posted on Yahoo, the website considered a giant in the fantasy industry, along with other host sites such as ESPN, CBS, and more recently the NFL itself.
This year, said Keeman, her WWFL has 65 women playing in a total of 15 leagues, and she notes that the approximate eightfold increase in players reflects the “exponential growth’’ she has witnessed in the women’s market the last 5-7 years.
Keeman, a 56-year-old retired financial analyst, said it was her longtime love of numbers and analytics that drew her to fantasy football. She follows football avidly on TV, scours the Internet for fantasy-related blogs and data, then makes her draft calculations on reasoned analysis.
“It’s the research that I really like,’’ said Keeman. “In the end, I’m able to look at the results and say, ‘Oh, I did this well,’ or, ‘Oh, my God, what was I thinking?!’ ’’
Britney King, a 26-year-old mother of two toddlers living in suburban Cincinnati, is a full-immersion fantasy leaguer entering her third year as commissioner of an all-women league. She first began playing in a mixed league about five years ago and has noticed a significant difference between how the genders go about their fantasy business.
“The girls are way more laidback; they don’t nitpick about things, like point totals, the way the guys do,’’ said King. “The girls like competition, but the guys take it much more to heart.
“Like, let’s say a guy’s running back is injured, and you make a move to grab the guy he wants as his replacement? I don’t know if it’s ego or pride, or what, but it’s like he is ready to kill your family.’’
King is a devoted watcher of NFL games on TV, especially Thursday and Monday nights after her toddlers are tucked in bed. To stay in constant contact with all things NFL and fantasy, she added the NFL’s RedZone to her mobile phone last year and listens faithfully to the podcasts of Matthew Berry, the ESPN senior fantasy analyst.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an expert,’’ said King, who drafted Philadelphia’s Nick Foles as her top quarterback this year and dubbed her team, “I’m a Fole for You.” “But I would say I definitely know what I am doing.’’
Cindy Walker, from Medway, is one of three women, all mothers in their 50s, who first met during their college years in Minnesota and last year formed a fantasy league made up of men and women in their three families.
“We started it,’’ explained Walker, “because one of my girlfriend’s daughters married a Brit, and he thought it would be the best way for him to learn more about American football.’’
Walker’s league is getting more serious this year, following an inaugural season in which the buy-in was $20 but the winning pot was never distributed.
“Last year was sort of our beta test,’’ mused Walker, whose husband, son, and daughter all play in her league. “Some of the college kids were too cheap to put in. We’re doing $20 again. Everyone pays and we’ll actually award the winners.’’
Former WBZ-TV sports reporter Alice Cook, founder of a sports website tailored to women, “She’s Game Sports,’’ has keen interest in the increasing number of female NFL fans, especially those playing fantasy football.
“I remember talking to [Patriots owner] Robert Kraft in 2007 about starting the website,” recalled Cook. “He said then that the female audience for the NFL was 34 percent. I thought that was big. That number today has grown to right around 48 percent. What we’re seeing here is a tsunami.’’
Catherine Sims, a 30-year-old environmental consultant in Washington, D.C., became an NFL fan after she graduated from Florida State in 2006. Now hooked on the fantasy game, this year she assumed the role of commissioner in a league made up solely of women in their 20s and 30s.
Sims’s league requires a $10 buy-in, and each player drafts 15 players, with only nine activated each week. Her league stocked heavily with New England fans, Sims was happy her draft haul last week included Patriots Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, and Tim Wright.
Vagianos, her eye fixed on those Louboutins, picked off Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson with her first selection and drafted Brady as her No. 1 quarterback. Those are two of what she calls fantasy football’s Big Four, along with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
“Last year, I didn’t pick one of them,’’ said Vagianos, also founder of a women’s sports-oriented website, herasport.com. “Hence why I didn’t get a new pair of shoes.’’