On any given Sunday in the United States, millions of fantasy football players fade out of their everyday reality and into a Walter Mitty-esque landscape of top echelon professional sports heroics.
Like musket-toting civil war re-enactors and mead-drinking renaissance festival lords, players in fantasy sports leagues forsake the drudgery of accounting offices, assembly lines, honey-do lists, laundry and lawn work — spending an estimated $800 million annually to play “let’s pretend.”
The costume is no more than a favorite jersey or cap. The stage is set in the comfort of the living room, local pub or best buddy’s basement.
And, unlike real sports where even the gifted and powerful generally assume only a single role, the armchair sports titan gets to be Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys owner), Tom Lewand (Lions team president) and Bill Belichick (New England Patriots coach) all rolled into one.
In fantasy sports, players join a league, “draft” a team of actual athletes, pick a lineup for each game and receive points based on the performance of their players in actual competition. Fantasy football leagues consist of 10-12 teams, and each has a commissioner who organizes the draft, coordinates rule changes (each league sets its own rules), collects and distributes funds, and monitors the league’s trading activity.
“It makes you feel like you’re the coach of a team,” says fantasy football player Dave Dossick, whose day job is assistant director of the JCC Maccabi Games in Philadelphia. “It’s all strategy. You have to know who’s good. You have to know the NFL players. It’s strategy. It’s knowledge.”
Modern fantasy sports have evolved dramatically over the last 30 years from the first “rotisserie” baseball league, named for La Rotisserie Francaise, the New York restaurant where writer/editor Daniel Okrent is credited with holding the first fantasy baseball league in 1980.
A regular baseball season consists of 162 games, while football a mere 16. Baseball’s status as both the national pastime and fantasy sports patriarch notwithstanding, football aficionados now constitute at least 75 percent of fantasy participants.
But for fans of both games, there’s a universal game-changer — the Internet. Fantasy sports was once a baseball-centric hobby that involved laboriously tracking newspaper box scores and combing magazines such as Baseball Weekly, Street and Smith and Sporting News for statistics. Now, it has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry where information is available and managed online in real time.
Stuart Carlin, founder of the online news and event site Local Stew, started playing rotisserie baseball as an eighth-grader in Chicago. “We would wait for the fantasy magazine to come out — you needed those magazines and that’s all changed now — it’s all on the Internet,” says Carlin.
The Minneapolis-based Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), established in 1999, provides organization and support to 120 member businesses, 90 percent of which, says President Paul Charchian, now have an online presence. That doesn’t even include bloggers and what Charchian calls “mom-and-pop shops,” small online services offering, and often profiting from, projections, predictions, advice and analysis.
FSTA members include CBSsports.com, ESPN and Yahoo — all of which offer sponsor- and advertiser-funded free online fantasy sports services, including league administration, contests and games, analytics and tools, and mobile versions.
“This is the first year I didn’t buy a magazine because I’m finding everything online,” says West Bloomfield fantasy footballer Rob Pesick. “It’s totally transformed.”
Fantasy Football Starters.com is one of many sites capitalizing on fantasy sports’ insatiable appetite for predictions and projections. A $24.95 annual fee pays for its premier Championship package, which includes the “Draft Analyzer, Line-up Analyzer, Trade Analyzer, Team, Mobile Tools, Smart Alerts, Russ Bliss ebook and more!”
If the Internet is virtually glutted with sites servicing fantasy football (as well as basketball, hockey, soccer, cricket, NASCAR, golf and just about every other sport, up to and including mixed American martial arts), the airwaves are equally abuzz.
Russ Bliss, Fantasy Football Starters.com’s resident expert, has hosted fantasy football show The Red Zone at KDUS in Phoenix for 15 years. (The term “red zone” refers to the area on a football field between the 20-yard line and the defensive team’s goal.) “It used to be real unique,” says Bliss. “Now everybody has a fantasy sports podcast.”
Cable television also offers a plethora of premium fare for fantasy enthusiasts. The crème de la crème of fantasy sports broadcasting is the NFL Red Zone channel. On NFL Red Zone, the fantasy football fanatic can sit in front of a single screen and see every play that happens in the red zone in every NFL game in real time.
Carlin describes it thus: “The greatest channel of all time, the greatest channel ever invented, the greatest invention since the iPhone. It’s that good! And it’s got no commercials.”
The most significant non-technological development in fantasy sports’ history was passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The act, which made transactions between financial institutions and Internet gambling sites illegal, specifically excluded fantasy sports based on the assertion that they are games of skill and, therefore, legally, not gambling.
Prior to this act — as well as a legal resolution to the dispute over the proprietary nature of player profiles and statistics — fantasy sports had not been embraced by the professional sports establishment.
“They’re probably the most politically correct organization anywhere,” says Mark Mayer, managing editor of GamingToday.com, about the NFL. “They don’t want to have anything to do with gambling.”
Since 2006, however, fantasy football has enjoyed long-lost child treatment from the NFL. “An enormous part of their business has come from fantasy,” says Charchian.
“As a sports fan, you pay more attention to the league as a whole than just your team,” says Dossick. “I want to go to a place and watch a [Buffalo] Bills game because my player might be playing that day.”
“I got involved in fantasy football for one reason and one reason only,” echoes Grant Kravitz, a vice president at Troy’s MartinJAY Digital. “As a Detroit Lions fan, it made football more fun to watch. It allowed me to enjoy the game in an era when the Lions didn’t do well. There’s more than just the Lions. I care what happens in the Seattle-Arizona game.”
According to Charchian, 40 percent of leagues play with no financial stake, and 90 percent of the remainder play for $250 or less per team. “There’s just not enough money at stake to call it gambling.” Though, he says, “there are stories out there of crazy numbers.”
Carlin says that he was in “an extremely high-end” league, and the entry fee was a whopping $800. “People that do fantasy — it’s not usually for the money — it’s the camaraderie and the competitiveness.”
“It’s about fun,” says Mayer. “And people will pay for their entertainment.”
In addition to love of the sport and the fun of having a little skin in the game, much of the allure is the same simple enticement that has drawn little boys and men to sandlots, baseball diamonds, the gridiron and fields of all shapes and sizes from time immemorial. It’s a chance to hang out with the guys.
“Draft day is like the best day,” said Carlin. “It’s like a four-to-six hour event that is the most fun of anything.”
“Fantasy football is what I wait for. It’s my one enjoyment during the NFL season,” says Kravitz. “There’s nothing you can do to control the outcome of the game. But it’s fun to talk a little smack, talk some trash. That’s the fun part.”
The smack, the trash talk, the hot virtual contest, all estimated to have drawn 27 million American adults into fantasy sports, has penetrated pop culture to the extent that it can now count a television sitcom as an achievement. FX’s comedy, The League, which follows a goofy group of friends through the fantasy football season, “is a little extreme,” says Pesick. “It’s a lot extreme, but it’s pretty funny.”
And the fun is not limited to grownups. Ean Otis is a seventh-grader at Walnut Creek Middle School in West Bloomfield, a Lions fan and a two-year veteran of his neighborhood fantasy football league. He estimates that 25 percent of his friends participate in fantasy sports. The secret, according to the budding entrepreneur, is good management: “If your player gets injured, get rid of him,” Otis says.
Websites, mobile apps, television shows. What’s next? In a pastime where lousy draft choices or injured players might lead to mid-season doldrums, the obvious offshoot is the weekly or even daily game.
FanSaloon.com is one of the most recent websites to pop into this niche. Justin Becker of Fan Saloon said that two months after its launch, marketing only to the 400,000 users of its sister site GamerSaloon.com (an online video game tournament site), Fan Saloon was seeing 1,000 hits a day. “In fantasy sports, the most exciting day is draft day,” says Becker. “Here, you get to have that day every day.”
Russ Bliss recently paused in his player injury and performance prognostications to make a prediction about the future of the industry.
“The technology has made it incredible,” he says. Sometime in the next decade, players will be able to go to their TV/computer, select their players and “you’ll be able to see your fantasy team against your friend’s fantasy team in real time.”