Yahoo, which said its service had mostly been restored Monday, apologized profusely for fumbling at the worst possible moment, when last-minute fantasy trades or lineup changes are made, moves that can determine whether users' fictional teams make the playoffs and who wins end-of-season cash prizes of hundreds of dollars or more.
Services like Yahoo's, which enable users to set up their own leagues with drafts, randomized team games and a process to make trades, are free. But fantasy sports leagues generate massive website traffic and direct and indirect revenue estimated to be $3 billion a year.
"It was like putting up a sign that said, 'Use ESPN instead,' " said Dan Fogarty, editor-in-chief of the Sports Grid blog. The competition among various sports sites for the eyeballs of these passionate football fans is fierce, he noted. Yahoo, which has the nation's leading sports site, is battling against competitors such as ESPN, NFL.com and CBS Sports.
"The servers crashed at noon on the East Coast," Fogarty said "That's a big deal because that's pretty much when people set their lineups. Guys are getting up from the Saturday night hangovers or they just dropped the kids off somewhere. That's when you get the most up-to-date information."
Every Sunday morning, the NFL releases a report listing all the inactive players for the day. If a fantasy football player using Yahoo did not get onto the site the hour before bodies started hurtling across the gridiron, he could not make critical last-minute changes to his team, Fogarty said. For example, if a fantasy football participant had Minnesota Vikings star receiver Percy Harvin on his team, he would get zero points for the player Sunday if he didn't have time to make a player substitution on his fantasy roster because Harvin was out with a sprained left ankle.
The snafu could cause infuriated fans to use another service next season, he said. In fantasy football, there are no replays.
On Sunday, Ken Fuchs, head of Yahoo Sports, issued an apology for the blown coverage.
"I am disappointed that we failed all of our fans today," he said, admitting it was "awful timing."
On Monday, a Yahoo spokeswoman said in an email, "We have since improved the fantasy issues on PC and mobile, and continue to address and monitor to ensure users do not experience additional issues."
Fantasy football fans tweeted their frustrations Sunday. Wrote one who goes by the name of WFANAudio: "Dear Google (GOOG), please develop a fantasy football platform. That will end Yahoo! as we know it. Love, Long Suffering Yahoo Fantasy users."
Another Twitter user, Justin Oh, wrote: "I hope Yahoo's stock tanks the same way its fantasy football servers did this weekend."
The outage, though, occurred on a day there were relatively few last-minute roster changes due to injuries, observed Dan Williams, co-founder of FantasyAlarm.com, a service that issues a constant flow of sports news to fantasy sports fans.
"I don't think it had a huge material effect on a proactive (fantasy) manager," he said. Word of Harvin's injury, for instance, was out the night before.
In all, there are about 36 million fantasy league participants in North America, said Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and LeagueSafe.com, a PayPal type service for fantasy leagues. And the ranks of fantasy sports players are growing by as many as 3 million a year, he said.
The fantasy sports concept dates back to the 1960s in the Bay Area, where some Oakland Raiders executives and others participated in the first fantasy football league, Charchian said. Fantasy leagues exploded in the 1990s with the broad use of the Internet, which makes them much easier to manage.
"Fantasy sports players consume twice as much television football than other football fans," Charchian said. "You are both watching your team and all of our guys on other teams. That is creating significant dollars (in revenue)."
In the end, Williams said, fantasy fans probably won't punish Yahoo for Sunday's blackout.
"Yahoo is a great product," he said. "It's free. People have short memories."
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.
Sports coverage gets lots of website clicks in the United States. A large part of that is driven by fantasy sports fans, who constantly seek out information about their players and manage their team rosters through services offered by companies such as Yahoo. Here is the list of the top 10 sports sites with the most unique visitors in October.
Yahoo Sports: 45.5 million
ESPN: 44.4 million
FOXSports.com on MSN: 37 million
NFL Internet Group: 24.6 million
USA Today Sports Media Group: 23.2 million
CBS Sports: 21.2 million
Turner Sports Digital: 20.5 million
Major League Baseball: 14.5 million
NBC Sports: 11.8 million
Sports Illustrated sites: 10.7 million
Source: comScore Media Metrix