In Defense of Diving Head-First into Fantasy Sports

Katie Aselton as Jenny in The League

They help kids score higher on tests. They feed the OCD impulse. They're a big bucks industry. What's not to love about Fantasy Sports?

"They look like bookies."

Those were the words of Kimberly Kennedy, a Boston area resident, in October when the Boston Globe's Beth Teitell interviewed her for a story focusing on fantasy football. That description wouldn't be that provocative had the people to which she was referring didn't happen to be her two sons, Nick and Theo, who also happen to be a mere 13 and 11 years old, respectively. But they were. And she wasn't kidding. 

Neither was Dan Flockhart when he used his position as a middle-school math teacher in the '90s to combine mathematics and fantasy football only to see his students increase their test scores because of the implementation of the then-unknown entity. 

“They consistently tested in the 80th percentile and above against other private-school students,” he told Teitell. “I have had fathers tell me that fantasy sports has given them quality time with their adolescent sons and daughters, who previously wanted nothing to do with them.” ("Fantasy football gaining in popularity with kids", by Beth Teitell, Boston Globe, 23 October 2012)

The affect fantasy sports has had on American popular culture is nothing short of extraordinary. With the bulk of football leagues winding down this week as the final regular season games come to a close, it's a good time to look at how the niche contest has become one of the most influential components of American sport over the past decade. 

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 34 million people in the United States and Canada alone play fantasy sports. Of those 34 million, US males between the ages of 18 and 34 hold the highest percentage (21) while females ages 12 and older make up the lowest amount (eight percent). Adults earning more than $50,000 a year come in at 16 percent while males from Canada -- where the Canadian Football League has always been widely regarded as a low-teir league when put up against the NFL, remember -- account for 20 percent of the 34 million. ("Industry demographics", by Staff, Fantasy Sports Trade Association)

Me? I resisted the proposition of joining a league for as long as I could, which happened to be about five years ago when a coworker asked if I'd be interested in joining a football league of his. Before long, I became obsessed on Sundays, constantly checking my team's points and staring at tickers at the bottom of television screens to see how many stats my players were accumulating. From there, it was over. I eventually moved on to throwing my hat into fantasy basketball leagues and then actually wagering American currency each fantasy season. The New York Jets and Atlanta Hawks -- my favorite teams in each sport -- took a back seat to how many yards my running backs could accumulate and which team's defense might be able to squeeze a few more points out of their performance. 

And as it turns out, I wasn't alone.

"We’ve all been there, so don’t deny it," Bleacher Report's Michael Peiris wrote last week. "It’s a dilemma that every fantasy owner inevitably faces throughout the course of a fantasy season. One of your fantasy studs is matched up against your team this weekend, and you have to make a choice: the success of your team or the statistical success of your fantasy team? Your love for your team won’t be able to keep you from smiling when your fantasy wideout catches a long bomb and takes it to the house." ("Fantasy Football: The Good and Bad Aspects", by Michael Peiris, Bleacher Report, 20 November 2012)

He's right. The rising popularity of the fantasy sports industry has utterly changed the concept of being a red-blooded, loyal sports fan. It's brought to the forefront what it is we now pay attention to whenever our favorite squads take the field, court or rink. And while some may consider this consequence damning, others argue how much they have benefited from becoming a fantasy sports junkie. 

As Peiris pointed out, the widespread interest in the practice hasn't just compromised our once-unwavering affection for particular athletic organizations, but it's also made the common fan a more well-rounded analyst. "Even though I only really started following the NFL five years ago," he wrote, "my knowledge of teams and players is much better than that of the casual fan. I wholeheartedly attribute this to fantasy football. Playing mildly serious fantasy football means that you have to learn about other teams and players or suffer the sting of losing. For most people, the fear of losing is a good enough motivator to make sure they do their homework."

Which leads us back to the report from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. According to research conducted in the summer of 2012, players typically spend $95 bucks on average "on league related costs, single player challenge games, and league related materials over a 12 month period." Need some more numbers? Check out how it's all broken down:

League Fees - $36/per player ($1.18 Billion US Market Share)

Transaction Fees - $8/per player ($262 Million US Market Share)

Website Hosting Fees - $9/per player ($290 Million US Market Share)

Website Prize Fees - $7/per player ($230 Million US Market Share)

Information Materials - $20/per player ($656 Million US Market Share)

Challenge Games - $15/per player ($492 Million US Market Share)

Can you believe that?! Over one billion dollars in US Market Share goes simply to league fees? That all but solidifies this industry's place as more than just a passing fad, right? I mean, it's one thing to exist as a simple niche product at which only a selected few actually take the time to achieve minor levels of success, but it's another to become this gigantic money-making machine and be this embedded within some people who probably don't even consider themselves sports fans, anyway. 

Consider the television show The League, for example. The FX series premiered in 2009 to a small faction of people who never thought that such a concentrated show could last more than six episodes. Now, with four seasons in its back pocket, not only has it lasted longer than some of its contemporaries (what's up, Lights Out?), but it's also become one of the more popular shows in FX's already-stellar lineup. 

"Viewers seeking more original and less family-friendly entertainment might want to check out FX, which hosts one of the funniest programs TV has seen in years: The League," The Tufts Daily's Alex Hanno wrote in November 2011. "Whether or not the premise of fantasy football appeals to you, The League is a show worth watching... Focusing more on constant rivalry and well-placed insults than anything else, the sitcom is like a more realistic, all-male, coarser version of Friends." ("FX sitcom is a ‘League’ above the rest", by Alex Hanno, The Tufts Daily, 21 November 2011)

Comparing a television show based solely on fantasy football with one of the most successful sitcoms of all time is... well... it's unprecedented, really. It's a testament to how popular fantasy sports have become. Such gigantic conglomerates as Yahoo, ESPN, CBS, FOX and NBC have all invested in the fantasy sports brand, and the amount of books, websites and television shows dedicated to it has to be -- at the very least -- in quadruple digits. 

The increase in interest in fantasy sports has helped the product of professional athletics grow into a more universal medium while also granting the prototypical passionate fan of competition a more detailed way to approach the consumption of something they already took pride in knowing a great deal about. In short, the success of this stuff has been a win-win for both fans, athletes and entrepreneurs alike. And if nothing else, it's given an extra layer of intrigue to a product that has gained its notoriety by being almost exclusively intriguing for decades now. 

"It's such a part of me," seventh-grader Jeremy Rosenstock Doughty told Teitell for her Boston Globe piece. "This might sound weird, but I seem kind of tense on Sundays." 

You and the rest of us, kid. You and the rest of us.

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