By Ross Kerber
BOSTON (Reuters) - Fantasy sports leagues are fighting back after a report that Fidelity Investments recently fired four workers for playing fantasy football on the job.
Paul Charchian, president of The Fantasy Sports Trade Association said on Wednesday that it was worried that the case, reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper, marks the start of a backlash by employers against the growing field of online sports gaming.
Fantasy sports games are built around statistics generated by real professional athletes and have become a source of revenue for online companies. Many offices tolerate the games as harmless, or even morale-builders.
But a simmering issue is whether these games amount to gambling, upon which many companies frown.
The Star-Telegram reported that Cameron Pettigrew, a manager at Fidelity's Westlake office in Texas, told the newspaper that he and three other employees had been fired by Fidelity for participating in the fantasy sports.
A Fidelity spokeswoman said Pettigrew had worked for the company from 2007 until October 21 this year, but she declined to comment on the newspaper report. "We have policies in place that address a variety of professional conduct standards for our employees," she said.
The games have champions like the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), whose members include Yahoo Inc and Walt Disney Co's ESPN sports unit, both of which operate large online fantasy leagues.
Charchian told Reuters the leagues do not meet the technical definition of gambling because they typically do not earn a profit for their operators in the way a casino collects a percentage of the money wagered.
In most fantasy sports, players assemble virtual sports teams from the rosters of real players in professional leagues, and convert their real-world performance statistics into on-line point systems.
Participation has soared. Charchian cited a June survey that found 29 million people played fantasy sports in the United States and Canada in the past year, up from 20 million people in 2007.
Players often pay to enter a league and at the end of a season the pooled money is distributed to the player whose team has posted the best record.
The newspaper report gave few details of how Pettigrew's league worked or why Fidelity may have objected to it.
Lost productivity is a growing concern.
Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc has estimated that during the National Football League's 2008 season, workers playing fantasy football cost U.S. employers some $615 million per week in lost productivity.
John Challenger said the Fidelity case was the first he had heard of involving workers disciplined over the game. "Maybe it is the start of a backlash, but it's like trying to beat back the tide," Challenger said.
(Reporting by Ross Kerber)