Julie Maloney used to hate football and dreaded autumn Sundays when her husband hunkered down in the TV room to watch his beloved Panthers.
"Before we were married, he made it clear.... he was going to watch the Panthers," said the 31-year-old Fort Mill mother of two. "And I resented it because I'd never see him on Sundays and I'd get so bored I'd head to the mall."
But since marrying in 2004, Maloney has changed her Sunday habits. She's as big a Panthers fan as her husband Ryan. They even named their first born after Jake Delhomme.
The big turnaround was her decision to learn the game, which included joining an online fantasy football league where participants compete on the basis of their players' real, on-field performance. Plus, she got her husband to teach her about the male-dominated sport.
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That went so well that in August, Maloney posted a message on a local mom's Web site to start a fantasy football league for women only. Nine women quickly signed up - eight were moms with young children. It includes women in York and Mecklenburg counties and is one of a few, local, all-female fantasy leagues.
The league is free to join and Maloney, who is the commissioner, is kicking in a $30 gift certificate for the winning team.
Fantasy sports, practiced by more than 18 million U.S. adults, is a $3 to $4 billion business, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The concept is pretty simple: league players either choose players or take part in an automatic draft to field a team. Each week your team is matched with another player's team. Each football player is given a score at the end of the day on how they performed in their actual NFL games. Whichever team has the highest composite score, wins. Computer software supplied by on-line groups such as Yahoo! or ESPN keep track of the individual players' performance and keeps league standings, etc.
"My husband, Mike, has been in a fantasy football league for about 10 years and I just didn't get it," said Michele Duke of Rock Hill, a 30-year mother of two: Alex, 3, and Ella, 1. "On game days, he was always running back and forth between the computer and the game. But now I'm doing the same thing, I'm always checking on my players. The result is my husband and I have a lot more in common, and I'm having fun."
Molly Hicks of Rock Hill said she had learned to tolerate her husband Brad's interest in fantasy football.
"It was just something he was into, and I'd go shopping or just do something else on Sundays," said the 30-year-old mother of Hayden, 10 months. "And I joined Julie's league and it was a lot easier than I thought. Brad and I watch the games together now, at one point I was tied for first in my league."
Ryan Maloney says Julie's new-found interest in football is a win-win situation.
"The Panthers are winning and we have a good time watching the games together," said Maloney, 30, a software engineer and UNC - Charlotte grad.
Maloney says his allegiance to the Panthers began when his family moved to Charlotte about the time of the Panthers inaugural season in 1995. He's hardly missed a game in 14 seasons. The Maloneys are such fans that he's built a viewing theater with a 106-inch flat screen TV for the games. In game days, they TiVo the game and turn off their cell phones so no one will tip them to the score. They skip commercials and half-time to watch the action uninterrupted.
In 2004, Maloney decided the main reason his wife didn't like football was she didn't understand the rudiments of the game - the nickel defense, a blitzing linebacker and the gamble of going long on third and one.
"There was a definite riff in our relationship about Panthers Sundays and it wasn't going away, so I suggested teaching her about football and she picked it up quickly that first season - of course it helped that we went to the Super Bowl," he said. "And now game days are bonding experiences for us."
Julie Maloney said her nirvana moment was when she realized football could be something to bring couples together.
"And I simply wanted to share that with other women," said Maloney, mother of Jacob, 3 and Joshua, 7 months. "I mean, why not join your husband and have fun, instead of complain and sulk?"
Beth Haseley,Öhaseley 29, is a mother of three. Her husband, Jeff, is an experienced fantasy football player and even writes about it for on-line publications.
"I love playing with other women, we learn as we go along. It's competitive but it's more fun with other women," said Haseley, whose team has gone from sixth place to first and back to sixth in the eight weeks since she's given birth to her son, Evan."The automatic draft is a good way to go the first season. But women can be ruthless, we don't hesitate to drop a player who is not performing."