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NFL's Web site primed to promote free fantasy leagues

Don't look for much in the way of radical changes at NFL.com in the wake of the five-year deal announced last week that joins the league's official site with AOL, CBS and Sportsline.com.

If you blinked, you missed a seamless transition, with the link to ESPN.com being replaced with one to Sportsline. But if there was a hint this week of something you'll see more of this fall, it would be the large ad on the site's front page, promoting the NFL's free fantasy football game.

When Sportsline started with fantasy football in 1995, the leagues were an emerging but still somewhat fringe complement to the game. Fantasy leagues had quietly become a part of Sunday afternoons for an estimated 6-million to 8-million football fans. This year, industry projections have the numbers closer to 30-million participants _ that's more than a quarter of the NFL's TV audience, and more than 10 percent of the country's total population.

"It's going to be a monster," said Andrew Sturner, Sportsline's president of corporate and business development, who helped craft the NFL.com deal. "Last year was the first season the league had its own fantasy football, and it was as if they were putting their big toe into the water to test things. This year, they're going to blow it out."

Gone is much of the taboo associated with fantasy football, which in its infancy was seen more often as a form of gambling. Widespread acceptance of fantasy leagues allowed the NFL to offer its own service last year, produced by Sportsline, which expects the league to promote its product even more in the upcoming season.

"For a long time, the NFL was not approving any fantasy product, but nobody was sure if it was a gambling thing, so they never really promoted it," Sportsline CEO Michael Levy said Thursday. "Now, they're very comfortable with it. Everybody does it, and it's been accepted by all the leagues. Almost every office in the country has a fantasy football league now."

Fans can register for leagues with up to 12 teams now at NFL.com, either choosing a live draft online or just plugging in rosters and having the site serve as commissioner during the season. Sportsline and NFL.com will share a more advanced live scoring and statistics application during games this fall, one whose play-by-play reports will be ahead of competitors, they say.

An interesting asterisk to the deal: It might not reach all five years, or close to its reported $110-million total, because the NFL has the option of ending the contract after two years. That would coincide with a clause in the league's current eight-year TV contracts, which could allow the NFL to package TV and Internet rights in one huge deal in 2003. Levy said Sportsline is committed to the length of the deal, and if CBS remains a TV partner with the NFL, he expects the Web contract to run to its completion.

NOW WE'VE SEEN IT ALL: A female squash player from England leapt to No. 3 on Lycos.com's list of most searched-for athletes last week after she asked to compete in the British Open (no, not the golf tournament) wearing a thong. Yes, she's pictured in, er, uniform at vickybotwright.com, and now, she's auctioning off the thong, with proceeds going to a fellow squash player battling brain cancer. The auction, bidding at 250 pounds (about $350) Thursday, asked for only serious bids, but a "Rasheed Wallace" was listed a recent bidder.

TID-BYTES: Of the top 150 players in baseball's All-Star balloting, only five drew more than half of their votes online: Boston's Manny Ramirez, Atlanta's Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones, Florida's Charles Johnson and Arizona's Luis Gonzalez. The lowest online rate, among players listed, was Anaheim catcher Bengie Molina, who had 8.6 percent of his votes online. NFL Under the Helmet (nfluth.com), the league's site for teens, has a profile on Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, who recently took a group of 27 children to the West Coast, a trip that included stops at the Grand Canyon, Alcatraz and Keyshawn Johnson's restaurant in Los Angeles.

_ If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, e-mail staff writer Greg Auman at aumanac1aol.com.

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