More Than a Game: The Disruptive Force of Fantasy Football
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Posted by: Meg Van Petten
On a Saturday in August 2010, Craig Heller was about to skip out early on his impromptu engagement party, stranding his fiancée with his extended family in the process. But he had a good reason: his fantasy football league draft. This wasn't just any draft, though. This was for the National Fantasy Football Championship — there was $100,000 on the line and he wasn't about to miss it, not even for his soon-to-be wife.
Heller played for a lot of cash, but his intensity is something plenty of people might recognize. Fantasy football was part of a niche culture until the game came to the Internet, and, like the web itself, permeated homes, offices and everywhere in between. Now, 33 million Americans play fantasy sports.
Those games, which now make up a multi-billion dollar industry, have changed the way people think about and relate to team sports by driving the conversation away from teams and toward individual athletes, thereby altering the way sports are marketed and discussed by the media.
The average player spends three hours per week managing his or her team, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, but spends nearly nine hours per week reading or watching something about fantasy sports. A lot of that time comes at work, which is why fantasy football alone costs America an estimated $6.5 billion in productivity per year, according to a study by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. (That number might actually be higher, since the study used time spent numbers that are smaller than what the FSTA reports.)
It begins with the all-important draft, when fantasy football players gather to pick their online dream teams to compete against other players' dream teams.
No matter what’s on the line, picking that squad is the most control fantasy competitors will ever have over it. After the draft, a team owner can trade an athlete or two, pick one up off the scrap heap of undrafted players, or bench one for another, but the team’s core remains the same. Every fantasy team’s creator can only watch through laptop and television screens as their athletes throw, run and catch on the field. The football gods will decide their fate.
Case in point: A year after he ditched his engagement party, and now a newly married man, Heller again found himself at the National Fantasy Football Championship draft with his friend and fantasy team co-owner, Max Lerner. The two would fight over a key running back that year.
Heller wanted the New York Giants’ Brandon Jacobs. Lerner wanted the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch. Both players were coming off mediocre seasons and the two friends each thought their pick was due for a bounceback. Lerner, who knew Heller was a Giants fan and spent a lot of time analyzing their players, eventually relented.
By the end of the season, though, that decision proved costly. Lynch morphed into a superstar that year; he finished with 13 touchdowns and ranked as the fifth best running back for fantasy stats overall, according to Pro-Football-Refence.com. Jacobs ranked 31st. Heller and Lerner still placed 23rd in the tournament, which would be great, except Lerner claims that had they drafted Lynch instead, they would have won it all. He has yet to forgive his co-owner.
But rather than letting the near miss dissuade them, Lerner and Heller continue to come back every year.
The average player spends around $467 per year on fantasy sports, according to the trade association, contributing to a $15.7 billion market. Football is the most popular — same as in the physical world — but plenty of people also play fantasy baseball, basketball, hockey and even golf. Rules vary depending on the sport, but they’re all similar; players choose a team of real-life athletes and get points based on their performance in actual games.
ESPN devotes entire television segments to analyzing players based on how their statistics translate to fantasy performances. There are websites devoted to analyzing major league sports on a player-by-player basis. Dozens of people on ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, Bleacher Report and other websites make their livings by writing about fantasy athletics.
In addition to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, there's also a Fantasy Sports Writers Association, both of which have halls of fame.
Though more and more women are playing fantasy sports, this subsection of the population is still 80% male, according to the trade association.
Fantasy sports writers and players have called the industry the original social network. It gives friends an extra reason to call or text, and just about every league has its own chat room or means of communication. But fantasy sports existed long before the Internet, in a time when the truly devoted would stroll out for the morning paper and tally their leagues' stats by hand each week.
It has disrupted the way people watch sports, and, as a result, has become controversial. Detractors say that no one cares about real teams anymore and that fantasy players value their creations more than their home squads, even rooting for their fantasy players against a team they grew up cheering for.
"My focus is totally different than it used to be,” says Bill Berger, a New Yorker and an old-school player who used to tally stats using newspaper boxscores. "I used to be totally focused on the Giants; now it’s somewhat on the Giants and mostly on my fantasy players. That’s probably sad.”
Others, though, feel that embracing fantasy football has made them a better NFL fan.
"I’m a Giants fan, right?” says Mike Dyer, a New Yorker who now lives in Williamsburg, Va. "Now I can have a full-blown conversation with you about the San Diego offensive line, something I didn’t used to know anything about, something that I didn’t give a shit about. It totally broadens your horizons.”
No matter which side a football devotee chooses, though, it's difficult to argue that fantasy football’s transcendent rise to popularity isn't ongoing.
Even the NFL acknowledges it. NFL Network, the league’s TV station, has a segment called "NFL Fantasy Live” that runs for an hour every weekday of the season. The show has its own Twitter account, from which it tweets about injuries and other important fantasy information.
The league also profits from television packages and channels that are geared toward fantasy gurus. Many players would go stir-crazy without NFL Sunday Ticket, a television bundle created by the league that lets fans watch every game and track their athletes in real time. NFL RedZone, a league-owned channel that toggles between every game based on who is closest to scoring, is another fantasy fan favorite.
The NFL's website has its own stable of fantasy writers, and "Fantasy” is the site’s first tab. It even lets users set up their own leagues there, with a platform much like ESPN’s or Yahoo’s. Major League Baseball’s site allows the same thing, and NBA.com advertises its fantasy partnership with Yahoo.
Professional teams aren’t blind to the transformation either. The Jacksonville Jaguars have set up a "fantasy football lounge,” in their stadium, complete with a host of TVs set to other NFL games, improved Wi-Fi and several iPads for fan use, and the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers have similar plans. The Denver Broncos’ website has provided weekly fantasy updates since 2004. The Philadelphia Eagles have even hosted content on their official team website that speculated whether their starting quarterback, Michael Vick, is good enough to start for fantasy teams.
Perhaps these NFL franchises have realized what many fantasy players already know: Cheering for the home team is fun, but sometimes it’s more fun to root for a team of your own making. A sideline or a TV screen has always separated real teams from their fans, and a fan's only attachment to them was yelling from the bleachers or the couch. But those same fans are continually connected to their fantasy teams. Tuesdays bring trades to consider. Thursdays are for poring over stats. Sunday morning is the time to finalize lineups. And a win or loss on Monday is personal.
In a way, many players say, fantasy football has become more real to them than the game itself.
Fantasy football is so real to Lerner, Heller’s partner, that he once tried to rewrite a tiny piece of NFL history for the sake of their digital team.
"We were jumping all over the place on Monday — we won by half a point,” Lerner says. "And then it came out the next day that there was a stat change.”
The Cleveland Browns, the fantasy defense of their opponent, had picked up another sack during the night. The team the Browns were playing had recovered their own fumble, but lost yards on the play. Initially, it was nothing more. Now the play had been ruled a sack, which was enough to flip the result of their fantasy match up to a loss.
Lerner disagreed with that assessment, so he called Elias Sports Bureau, the official stat provider of the NFL, to make his case that the ruling should be changed back.
"I tried to get them to discredit that sack for the Browns, kind of making the argument that it wasn’t really a sack, it was just a fumble that was recovered by the quarterback,” Lerner says. "If the running back had recovered it, it would have been a three-yard loss.”
"He was totally on my side,” Lerner continues. "But I guess he didn’t have the authority.”
Lerner was so obsessed with making his fantasy team a winner that he tried to alter a team’s actual stats.
Mike Dyer’s 2008 fantasy season ended in 23 minutes. He and his team’s co-owner were so mad, shocked and dumbfounded that they named their 2009 squad in honor of the previous year: "23 Minutes.”
They had drafted the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and barely a quarter into the year, a Chiefs defender barreled into their star’s left knee. Brady didn’t play the rest of the season, and, with their starting quarterback out, Dyer and his friend might as well not have either.
This is what sometimes happens on Sundays, after lineups are set, and a fantasy owner’s team is offered up to the whims of fate.
"There’s a lot of luck involved, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Dyer says.
To attract as much of that luck as possible, some players, like actual athletes, turn to superstition.
Ramón Valentin wakes up every game-day Sunday in Puerto Rico and goes to church. He comes home, walks into his "war room,” and flips on the four TVs that are all on one side of the room — big screen LCDs stacked in two short columns of two. Then, 10 minutes before the 1 p.m. games start, he hops in the shower, dries off, makes sure to wear something blue, grabs a beer and plops in front of the four flashing screens, where he will remain for the rest of the day. He’s been doing this for 17 years.
Whatever they do to get ready, many fantasy players say they disappear around noon on Sundays. They crafted a dream team that they believe is better than all the other teams built by their friends, co-workers or opponents, and nothing can pull them away from watching that dream play out Sunday after Sunday.
"My wife hates football, just because of how much time I spend watching it and doing fantasy football stuff,” Heller says.
So he came up with a way to make sure Sundays were marked as football time: Every Saturday during the season, his wife has sole discretion over the day’s activities. Sundays, though, belong to Heller, which means he’s sitting in front of a TV.
The fantasy football regular season generally ends a few weeks before NFL teams play the final games of their own 17-week-long season. By that time, just about every playoff spot has been claimed, and for anyone still struggling at the bottom of the pile, Monday night magic has long been irrelevant.
But everyone in Bud Dietrich’s league of friends keeps battling, even those with no shot at the title. They’ll keep trading players, making waiver wire pickups and adjusting their lineups — anything to avoid the Toilet Bowl, a sort of championship of awful in which the two teams with the worst records face off. The worst of the worst then gets to sign and date a toilet seat that says "Toilet Bowl Loser,” and hold onto it until the next season begins. They’ve passed it around for over 20 years.Not having had to etch his name on the loser’s trophy is a point of pride for Dietrich. Like plenty of others who play fantasy sports, he has turned the game from a hobby into part of his character. Just as some people define themselves as "runners” or "gamers,” Dietrich is a fantasy footballer, and what would it say about him if he spent hours analyzing stats and starting lineups only to lose to all his friends?
For fantasy players, the game is an escape from work or whatever else they don’t want to do. It gives them a reason to pay closer attention to sports that most of them already watch, and a reason to debate the merits of one athlete over another. It’s a way to show that they are more than the sum of what they do at home and for a living. Fantasy sports give them a chance to be a part of a world that, before, they could only watch. It gives them something to focus on, something to look forward to and something to strive for.
Unlike watching TV or listening to music, there is an element of active participation in fantasy sports that comes from analyzing stats, picking a team and managing it week in, week out for an entire season. Those teams are an extension of fantasy players' sports knowledge, which, for many, is an extension of themselves.
Lose, and you a spend a year wallowing in your failure. Win, and you capture the glory and the bragging rights that come with victory. At least until next season.
More Than a Game: The Disruptive Force of Fantasy Football
September 29, 2013