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Feel free to enter fantasy leagues, but there's no pay

After last week's column about play-for-pay fantasy football leagues online, reader Ron Belanger of Hernando sent an e-mail pointing out an important asterisk for the topic: Florida residents are ineligible to win prizes from most fantasy football contests.

Belanger entered a pay league at Sportsline.com last year and won, but instead of his $150 first-place earnings, he got a notice explaining that he was ineligible for prizes.

"It would have been nice to get the money, but I enjoyed the heck out of it," said Belanger, 53, who will play in a free league this fall and already is reading fantasy magazines to prepare for his draft. "I would pay to be in a league even without the prizes, because it's that much fun."

Fun never has been an issue, but the legality of what's becoming a rite of fall for millions varies from state to state and site to site. Few states are more specific than Florida in identifying fantasy sports leagues as a form of gambling, and thus illegal.

Sportsline's legal restrictions show 10 states whose residents are ineligible for prizes; Yahoo.com lists nine, ESPN.com six. Each site's lawyers are left to decide which state's laws to test and which to leave alone.

As a result, the who-can't-win lists overlap awkwardly: In Arizona, you can win money from Sportsline but not Yahoo, while the opposite is true in Minnesota. Only five states show up on all three site's lists, and Florida is one of them.

Florida's legal stance actually predates the Internet era, in January 1991, when fantasy leagues were just starting to boom. The issue is whether a fantasy league is a game of chance _ wagering, however indirectly, on an event's outcomes _ or a contest of skill, as its proponents argue.

Truthfully, it's somewhere in between, and the state attorney's four-page advisory legal opinion concedes that "it might well be argued that skill is involved in the selection of a successful fantasy team by requiring knowledge of the varying abilities and skills."

State statutes, however, prohibit "stakes, bets or wagers on the results of any contests of skill," and sites take that line seriously enough to count Floridians ineligible for winnings.

And if the NFL is sensitive about being linked to something deemed by some as gambling, the NCAA is even more careful to avoid such associations. Sportingnews.com has launched a fantasy college football product this fall. The free product allows fans to "draft" a lineup of college teams and get points based on their scoring, rushing and passing totals for offense and defense. The top 300 entrants win cash prizes, and while the contest seems harmless, it's a dangerously gray area. If a college player participates in the game, is he gambling? If a dozen states think so, the NCAA might as well.

By the time the season's over, the key to winning a fantasy league might not be a dominant quarterback or good depth at receiver, but rather a good team of lawyers.

SURVEY SAYS: ESPN.com has completed its survey of 40,000 fans for its new "ESPN Nation" section, with some interesting observations gleaned from the results.

According to the study, Tampa Bay area fans spend 12.6 hours per week watching sports on TV and 6.7 hours checking out sports online. Asked which sports they regularly watch, bay area fans preferred the NFL (93 percent) over baseball (68 percent), the NBA (52) and NHL (46).

Among favorite pro teams, Florida fans preferred the Dolphins (33 percent) to the Buccaneers (30), with considerably less for the state's other seven pro teams.

Thirty-two percent of Florida fans own a bobblehead doll, which is 3 percent less than the national average, and for the record, the fine people of Wyoming lead the nation in sports-related tattoos per capita.

TID-BYTES: CNNSI.com has preseason NFL rankings from Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman, who has the Bucs 12th and the Patriots and Rams where they left off in the Super Bowl at Nos. 1 and 2. . . . A 2002 Gator Bowl championship ring, said to be from a Florida State football player, is on eBay.com with bidding starting at $799.

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

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