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While the other big sports have quickly made their broadcasts fantasy friendly, baseball has been a little more gun-shy when it comes to catering to the fantasy player. Even geriatric CBS’ NFL coverage has done a better job of nodding to fantasy than most regional broadcasts do for those who simply must know how Miguel Montero hit in this evening’s game.

To their credit, the NBA and NFL have realized that it doesn’t matter why someone’s watching your product, as long as you keep giving them a reason–any reason–to do so. NBA TV and the NFL Network already feature fantasy programming, and if MLB is smart, they’ll do the same when they launch their proposed cable venture. Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) will get a better grip on serving this fantasy crowd in the seasons to come. They’ll have to: you don’t need to look at market research to know that the folks who play fantasy are young and affluent, with disposable income.

Knowing what’s at stake, the online competition for your fantasy dollar has also ramped up. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the big fantasy providers.


ESPN.com

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What they offer: The Worldwide Leader keyed into the fantasy crowd long before Will Carroll‘s goatee debuted on The Fantasy Show. Live drafts started on March 5, and you can play for pride or prizes in a variety of formats.

Strengths: Unlike most services, ESPN offers an unlimited number of teams. If you’re into practice drafting a lot, this helps. (Then again, in any given public league you join, you could be the only person to look at his team all season because of this policy.) Their draft application–near identical to the NFL version–is also among the best in the business, with audible alerts, a user-friendly interface, and ease of use. Live stats don’t cost extra.

Weaknesses: The team interface hasn’t been upgraded from the football iteration, which suffered from clunky lineup changes and a poor system for trades. Their range of league types won’t blow your mind, either.


The Verdict: You may not necessarily want to house your longtime league here, but for a newbie, it’s perfect.

Yahoo! Sports


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What they offer: Although you may loathe to admit that you play fantasy golf, Yahoo! has it and virtually every other sport you can think of. Like ESPN, they feature paid (under the Pro designation) and free leagues. Unlike ESPN, they limit the number of teams on one account to four.

Strengths: This year’s version features a much-needed upgrade that is soon to become the industry standard: drag and drop lineup changes. For the casual player, the appeal is intuitive and visual. For the more intense fantasy guru, this could amount to hours of saved time. Their sortable statistics also distinguish them from the competition.


Weaknesses: The Yahoo! draft application hasn’t changed much from last year. It isn’t demanding from a graphical point of view, which helps those still clinging to their Altair 8800, but compared to what else is out there, it’s somewhat bare-bones. The live stats service they provide, Stat Tracker, is mighty useful, but it also costs $10. Lastly, draft slots are going fast.


The Verdict: Yahoo’s WXRL is around 2.4679, which…I joke. They’re the industry standard until someone knocks them off their perch.

MLB.com


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What they offer: Not much. They’ve focused their fantasy offerings into one competition titled the MLB Open, in which players compete in a head-to-head league featuring 12 teams.

Strengths: The MLB Open may have rather rigid parameters, but their Machiavellian instincts to take away the advantage of a deep pitching crop and replace it with team pitching staffs is different, if nothing else. Despite pain in your shoulder, we had some great times, didn’t we Anibal? Homer Bailey, near, far, wherever you are. Hong-Chih Kuo: it was real, mine petite southpaw.


Weaknesses: While their draft application is visually impressive, perhaps more so than any other, it’s also a massive RAM-eating behemoth. Make sure you test it before draft time. It may be nitpicking to bag on player rankings, but said rankings influence draft patterns more than you’d think, and putting Jose Reyes and Ryan Howard behind Bobby Abreu doesn’t just give me serious pause, I may have to see a doctor about heart palpitations. Their postseason also starts in July, and the whole thing wraps up by mid-August. Oh, and spelling isn’t a strong point.

The Verdict: Only a madman would try to win a $10,000 grand prize or a $100 gift certificate. I am that madman.

Fox Sports

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What they offer: A variety of leagues and settings, free live scoring. In a tough market, they appear willing to work to make their content more user-friendly.

Strengths: They do a good job updating player pages with fantasy info. Shorter drafts are a nice option for those without time for a 20+ round marathon. Making the selection of those not present for draft day instapicks is also a timesaver. A neat feature allows you to write your league’s story on the homepage.


Weaknesses: Not the most intuitive interface, and inconsistent fantasy coverage. You won’t need the latter with BP on your side, but the former, plus a weirdly conceived Trade Center, are enough to relegate them to the second tier.

The Verdict: With the improvements they’ve made, the entire package is worth keeping an eye on, and the trend towards free live stats should be cause for celebration.

The Sporting News

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What they offer: They have a few different competitions, all of which cost money and use the concept of a salary cap. Hosting your own league is a minimum of $89, and it’s not clear what they do that Yahoo doesn’t, except $87,175 in prizes.


Strengths: Featuring the integration of a fantasy salary cap, it’s a unique take on fantasy. It’s not 100 percent clear to me how this works, but the NFL iteration had players able to buy or sell any player. If you can’t find a paid league and want Powerball-type odds…you got ’em.

Weaknesses: Their early bird sale ends tonight at midnight (Wednesday, March 14). It’s more like a contest format than any fantasy baseball you’re probably used to.

The Verdict: The money hypothetically keeps people more interested. As contest offerings go, there are better risk/reward options.


I may never get the 5×5 Fantasy Rounders that I sometimes dream about, but come April, we’ll all have enough on our plate.


In an interesting league, or have an experience with a service you would like to share? E-mail me through the link below.

Alex Carnevale is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Alex by clicking here. You can also find his Football Outsiders work here.