Here in the US, football season is upon us. For some, the welcome arrival of this time of year is heralded by the cooling advance of fall weather. While for others, the smell of cut grass, or sideline chalk, or even Ben Gay ointment ushers in the sport’s arrival. For an increasing number of fans, however, the real start of the season is announced not by some idyllic sense memory, but rather by an online, digitized, fantasy football league draft.
For the uninitiated, fantasy football, like all fantasy sports, is a kind of organized role playing game. No, it doesn’t involve any dragons, goblins, or wizards (though some might suggest that fantasy sports players are just as geeky as their D&D counterparts). Instead, a player in a fantasy sports league pretends to own his or her very own sports franchise. They name their team (some even pick out team colors, mascots, and designs), draft online versions of real-life players, and then compete with others in an online league. (The team that “owns” the most successful athletes—measured by a system that awards points for running yards, home runs, completed passes, and other positives—wins the weekly match up.) It all sounds like a harmless enough way to pass a Sunday afternoon. Yet since its invention by a group of sportswriters in the ‘60s, fantasy football has grown into a multi-million dollar industry.
With leagues sponsored by the likes of Yahoo, ESPN, CBS, and Fox Sports, fantasy sports as a whole are currently estimated to involve between 15 to 18 million players—all competing with one another to be the ultimate franchise owner. This steady groundswell of members has attracted an equally expansive cottage industry of magazines, websites, radio shows, and other businesses aimed at providing players with inside information and key strategies that will help them outscore other teams in their league. With many leagues requiring a membership fee that gets redistributed to the winners at the end of the season, fantasy players see buying this information as a way to better secure their investment and, if they win, take home the cash (and bragging rights).
Given the increasing amount of revenue generated and memberships obtained, fantasy sports should no longer be considered just a way for sports fans to pass the time. They now require substantial amounts of research, attention, and money from their participants, turning casual sports fans into intense obsessives. How many sacks did the Eagles record last night? What’s Alex Rodriguez’s on base percentage in this series? Such questions take on a new immediacy with dollars on the line and a head-to-head fantasy sports match in the works.
With so many other outlets vying for sports fans’ attention, though, what’s to explain the development of this phenomenon? The marketers among us might reply (with the all the manufactured enthusiasm that only marketers can possess), “Synergy!”. And, although it’s an overused corporate buzzword, that answer isn’t half wrong. It’s not hard to see that technological advances have increased the visibility of sports while, at the same time, increasing fans’ access to information. The increased use of the Internet to deliver box scores, stream live video, and, most recently, allow fans to interactively comment on games and players, has unquestionably spurred the growth of fantasy sports, streamlining the previously complicated process of tracking down game stats and then calculating them into team points. What’s more, new players can now receive an invitation by email and, in just a few clicks, be registered to join a league. As the world-wide web extends, so does the reach of fantasy sports’ appeal.
Yet, there’s something more fundamental about the appeal of fantasy sports, something that speaks to the “fantasy” inherent in all of this activity. What draws players to join these leagues is part and parcel of the same attraction that draws them to sports in the first place: the need to embody the players on the field. When fans cheer the success of athletes, it’s because they in a visceral but very real way are appropriating that success for themselves. Why else wear a player’s jersey? Why take it so personally when an athlete slips up, either on or off the field? Gatorade nailed it exactly with its marketing campaign “Be Like Mike”. It wasn’t that fans (and Gatorade drinkers) were expected to want to emulate Michael Jordan’s personality (beyond what we saw of him on the basketball court); it was his abilities on the court that made us want to be like him. It’s this kind of intense attachment that fuels the memorabilia, video game, and, ultimately, fantasy sports industries. Fans (literally, oftentimes) put on their sports heroes’ costumes in order to, in some way, enjoy the same fame and accomplishments as that athlete.
When it comes to fantasy sports, though, there is an important distinction to be made. Rather than pretend players, participants are pretend owners. The shift in a fantasy sports fans’ relationship to the athletes differs significantly from that of a traditional fan. No longer are athletes people to be admired and envied for their abilities. Instead, fantasy players are asked to adopt a hypercritical, utilitarian viewpoint of the real life players. The athletes are now so many tools to be used in the struggle for league dominance. Instead of role models to look up to, they become so many pseudo-employees, to be hired, fired, or traded as it suits the fantasy owner. Players are no longer evaluated for their ability to help the real-life team for which they play, but are seen by fantasy players as a collection of statistics to be used for their own make-believe purposes.
In short, the attitude shifts from one of appreciation to one of control. Though many see the rise of fantasy sports as the sincerest form of flattery in celebrating players’ accomplishments, it’s not quite that simple. Fantasy sports instead indirectly serve to reinforce the increasingly prevalent viewpoint that professional athletes exist solely for the benefit of the fans. And often accompanying that idea is a sense of entitlement that fans can place demands on athletes with regard to performance, behavior, or even financial decisions since the fans’ financial patronage is responsible for their salaries. Given this line of thinking, fantasy sports ownership only exaggerates an underlying current of fan entitlement: athletes are there for us, so we should be able to treat them as we see fit.
Of course, things get difficult when this fantasy encounters the reality that athletes are, themselves, independent people with their own respective lives to lead. This disconnect is often couched in the “role model” argument that basketballer Charles Barkley and others have infamously lambasted. In a 1993 Nike ad, Barkley made the controversial suggestion that parents, not athletes, should be responsible for guiding the moral compass of today’s youth. However, athletes are public figures, the thinking goes, so they should necessarily be upstanding members of the community. Again, the term “fantasy” is helpful in understanding such a mindset. In reality, athletes are entertainers, in the way that rock stars, comedians, heck, even members of the Blue Man group are. But none of these entertainers are disposed to the same censure as athletes. And part of the reason for this disconnect is that persistent and pervasive fan entitlement that fantasy sports reinforce.
And there are other reasons to decry fantasy sports, as many have done in the past. They undermine team loyalties, goes one argument, by putting the focus on individual player performances rather than the outcome of an actual game. And with the relentless attention to stats, they take all the visceral enjoyment out of the game. Shouldn’t the Cincinnati Bengals’ wideout Chad Johnson get more points per catch, we might ask, since he also dons a hilarious blonde Mohawk? Instead, fantasy sports are just numbers games. What fantasy defenders call a “purist” approach is really just the studied practice of denying all the extracurricular entertainment that sports can provide.
Another, more serious criticism we might level at the online activity is that fantasy sports are guilty of committing a redundancy. In truth, allsports involve fantasy, as we seek to escape the workaday surroundings of our daily life to indulge in physical spectacle. But fantasy sports redouble the remove. To operate in a realm where professional athletes play for us, or care if we win our bets, or our leagues, is naturally ridiculous. Well, that’s not so notable sports fans traffic in the ridiculous on a regular basis. What is worth nothing, though, is that such a mindset can begin to place demands on real-life players, with the expectation that they are, somehow, directly responsible to the fans’ like so many employees. And that kind of thinking is to indulge in something beyond the ridiculous, and gives way to a dangerously misguided “fantasy” in the truest sense of the word.