IT’S JUST A FANTASY And it’s big business for millions of die-hard sports fans, myself included.

by Julie Gauthier

The author, left, and fellow fantasy football fanatic Natasha Bingham of New Orleans

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (which is a thing that exists) around 33 million Americans played fantasy football last year. With direct revenues of about $11 billion, the fantasy business is booming. Once the exclusive province of only the most hard-core sports obsessives, fantasy has become something anyone can play for fun (and money).

Fantasy leagues exist for all major sports and quite a few minor ones. Football and baseball are the most popular, but you can also play fantasy MMA, golf, rugby, auto racing or even surfing. The principle is always the same: build your own fictional team of real-life athletes and compete head-to-head against other teams each week over the course of a season. In all but five states (Louisiana is one of them) you can also play in daily fantasy leagues to win money. A recent attempt to legalize daily fantasy here failed in the Legislature thanks to opposition from entrenched gaming interests and the Louisiana Family Forum. (Stick to the riverboat casinos, you degenerate gamblers!) There are benefits to playing fantasy football beyond the lure of prize money. Sure, winning a championship is the goal, but so is lording your victory over your friends for a whole year (see FX’s The League). Fantasy can also help you keep in touch with old friends or give you common ground with people you don’t know well (co-workers, extended family, weirdo neighbors). It’s also a good distraction when your real-life team isn’t doing so well (see Saints, 2014 season). “At least my fantasy team won,” is the Monday morning comfort of millions each week.

I’ve been playing fantasy for about five years now, and it’s something I’ve become progressively more obsessed with. It gives you a rooting interest in players and games you wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s an excuse to waste hours of productive time consulting injury reports, reading tea leaves and second-guessing yourself. “Should I start my star running back with a banged-up knee or the solid but unremarkable veteran who’s guaranteed to play? Can I trust Peyton Manning’s giant head not to fall off if he gets hit?” As “general manager” the decisions are yours and so is the crippling self-doubt.

The good and bad news is that in spite of all your preparation and weekly agonizing, the difference between fantasy glory and total disaster is often just dumb luck. And I do mean dumb — blowing off fingers playing with firecrackers, crashing a car while trying to keep a pizza from sliding off the seat, Plaxico Burress.

But luck has a way of working the other way, too. For every fantasy heartbreak (2014 Adrian Peterson) there’s a lucky win you didn’t see coming (2012 Doug Martin). It’s enough to make you crazy, trying to figure out who to play each week.

Here are a few factors to consider when setting those rosters:

• HEALTH: The most important information for owners to have each week is which players are hurt. Unfortunately, coaches tend to be pretty withholding about injury details, revealing not an inch more than required by the league. It’s a running joke that if Sean Payton says a guy has a minor knee issue, the player is probably already in surgery. My rule of thumb is don’t start anyone listed as “questionable” or “doubtful” on the final pregame injury report.

MATCHUP: The second most important factor to consider is which opposing team a player is facing that week. Even great offensive players can look ordinary when facing a stout defense, especially on the road. There are some players who are virtually “matchup-proof,” but most will put up lower numbers against a team like the Seahawks.

ROLE: “Running-back-by-committee” is a four-letter word among fantasy fans for good reason. With some teams it’s impossible to guess which guy will get the most touches in a given week or which 4th-stringer will “vulture” the touchdowns. If your guy is trending downward or in a bad situation, (or is a Patriots running back) it’s time to move on.

INTANGIBLES: There are other non-football factors to be aware of as well. Is a player going up against his previous team? (Is he Steve Smith Sr.?) Revenge is a great motivator that can help boost fantasy numbers, especially if the player’s current team gives him extra opportunity to run up the score.

WEATHER: Weather is usually overstated as a factor. Most teams can handle a little rain or cold without any trouble. Extreme weather can affect scoring, though not always predictably. High winds usually hurt kickers, unless winds are consistent in one direction. Heavy snow tends to favor the offense by making the defense slower to react, while heavy rains can slow down pass-happy offenses that have to be more careful with ball security. Unless the weather’s looking biblical out there, don’t sweat it too much.

TEAM: Don’t forget to look at a player’s overall team. Bad defenses mean offenses are on the field more, passing a ton and playing catch-up, all of which is good for fantasy value. Good defenses tend to favor running stats, as teams try to run out the clock and maintain the lead. A struggling offense can make an otherwise good player worthless. Always consider the broader context and how it might affect your player’s performance.

TRACK RECORD: Every year there are relatively unknown players who explode onto the scene and set fantasy hearts alight with multiple-touchdown performances (see Larry Donnell, Jonas Gray). Unless the guy is a major talent who’s been buried on the depth chart or sidelined by injuries, the odds are he didn’t suddenly become a Pro-Bowler overnight. Trust the guys with a record of success and let someone else chase the one- or twogame wonders.

And a final word of advice about defense. Last year, the top-scoring defense was whoever was playing the Jacksonville Jaguars. This year, you might want to add the Titans and Buccaneers to that list, because rookie quarterbacks playing for bad teams are the gift that keeps on giving.