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Leonard Asper places big bet on fantasy sports

Leonard Asper’s next big project is getting a fantasy sports television station on the air.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

For Leonard Asper, the future is fantasy.

The former boss of Canada's largest metropolitan newspaper chain and current head of The Fight Network plans to launch a new channel dedicated exclusively to fantasy sports – the time-sucking obsession that sees men across the country hunched over computer screens as they manage imaginary rosters of real-life professional athletes in the pursuit of bragging rights and cash payouts.

Traditional television viewing habits are changing as viewers move online and many cut their cable and satellite subscriptions. Sports programming is increasingly seen as one of the best ways to keep viewers paying their bills each month.

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Given the rapid growth trajectory of fantasy sports, a television channel dedicated to the hobby is an attractive prospect, says Mr. Asper.

"The one thing that convinced me to do this is watching my staff and never being sure if they are working when they have their computers on or if they checking fantasy sites, because they are all doing it," says Mr. Asper, the former chief executive officer of CanWest Global Communications, whose new goal is to build a network of specialty channels for men.

With Fantasy TV, Mr. Asper is eyeing a $4-billion market that is a television operator's dream because of its ability to attract advertisers chasing an affluent demographic. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates there are 35 million fantasy sports players in North America, including 3 million in Canada. They are predominantly middle-aged, married men with a household income above $90,000.

And while there are countless websites dedicated to fantasy sports, a study published in the January, 2013, issue of Mass Communication and Society suggests those who participate in fantasy leagues spend more time in front of their televisions than sports fans who do not.

"Fantasy leagues have completely changed the way I watch sports," said Don Millman, a Toronto IT professional who plays in several leagues a year. "If I'm at home my laptop is on, along with the big screen. If I'm in the pub, I bring a tablet. And I watch games I never would have cared about otherwise because I want to see how my players are doing – I'll even watch an NFL game between Jacksonville and Tennessee."

Like Mr. Millman, the average player spends about $500 a year on fantasy leagues. That includes the fees needed to join at the start of a real-life sports season and other costs associated with making trades once the season begins. Players manage their roster of real players as if it were a real team, making substitutions and trades as they try to compile as many points as possible against other teams in their make-believe league.

While television networks and radio stations across the country typically dedicate some time to fantasy sports on their broadcast schedule in an attempt to cash in on the demographic, Fantasy Sports TV would be the only channel in North America dedicated to the hobby full-time. Its programming would consist largely of studio call-in shows, hosted by anchors anxious to tell viewers how to handle their picks and drafts.

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It may be a sports channel, but Mr. Asper won't have to worry about spending millions of dollars a year to acquire live sports content. His network – which he hopes to launch by mid-summer – would provide "multiscreen, real-time fantasy statistics and fantasy pool standings and rankings" as well as pre- and post-game shows built around the professional sports schedule. It will also be launched with a heavy digital component.

The fantasy market is growing by 2 million players a year in North America, says Paul Charchian, the president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, and has finally caught on in Europe despite a slow start.

"In North America this really started pre-Internet almost against the will of the big media portals and the leagues," he said. "But it flourished despite that – now that the rest of the world sees it working you see it being rolled out elsewhere. And even though it's been popular, fantasy sports have been under-served for a long time. But people are starting to realize how much money they are leaving on the table."

Fantasy TV was awarded a licence earlier this month by Canada's broadcast regulators, but Mr. Asper's work has only just begun. Before he can proceed, he needs to convince one of the country's cable or satellite providers to pick up the channel and offer it to its customers. Hundreds of specialty channels are approved for broadcast in Canada, but only a fraction of them ever get picked up by the cable and satellite companies who must ultimately sell them to customers.

But with his Fight Network is already available across the country, Mr. Asper said he's got a direct line to the country's broadcast executives.

"We're not going to rush this," he said. "We don't want to come out with this and find out the fantasy community thinks it isn't done right. This is a bit like a restaurant opening – it can be hard to win people back."

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