Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Is football your fantasy?
October 25, 2012
You could say we live in a fantasy world here in Aspen, but then again, some 33 million other Americans do, too. Since its debut over the Internet more than a decade ago, fantasy sports has grown from a living-room pastime to a nationwide obsession, driving a $1.1 billion-a-year revenue machine funded by sports fanatics from here to Canada. A brooding mix of office drones, housewives, industry execs, actors, politicians and college kids – not to exclude the occasional hedge-fund giant competing for a $1 million cash prize – spends an estimated $800 million per year on all fantasy-sports media products and services, according to the market-research firm Ipsos.
Surprising to none, when it comes to the hoarders of most of the fantasy action, the NFL takes the stand at 36 percent, leaving the big winners to be not the players but the media companies themselves. Top platforms such as ESPN, Yahoo, CBS Sports and Fox Sports, according to industry analyst IBISWorld, showed a 12 percent annual growth from 2007 to 2012 as they recruited an average of 2 million new fantasy players each year.
Indeed, fantasy sports hasn’t been called the original social network for nothing, especially when the rise of the Internet has provided players pencil-free sites for staffing and maintaining a competitive roster with access to live scoring, updates, injury reports and projections. And while the average entry fee to a league is only around $70, which divides into about $4 per NFL game, the door to expert advice, insider magazines, mobile apps and specialized tools such as draft analyzers can only be opened with fees ranging from $30 to almost $100 per year.
And the popularity is only growing. Based on a prediction by IBISWorld, the explosion of mobile apps that make joining and following fantasy leagues easier, growth in nontraditional fantasy sports such as auto racing, soccer and golf and the increased profits from female players, who currently comprise 25 percent of the market but only 10 percent of the associated spending, will make fantasy a $1.7 billion business by 2017.
But the NFL and media companies aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association found that $1.18 billion changes hands between players through pools each year, perhaps the reason why so many were up in arms over the bad referee call during the last play of the Packers/Seahawks game at the start of the season (according to data collected by ESPN, 67,000 fantasy-football outcomes were decided because of the final play).
For those who missed the boat, fantasy football is a game of strategy, luck and star players. Participants join leagues of friends, relatives, coworkers, etc., for a minimal fee. While exact rules vary, the premise is that each person drafts position players as well as a defense unit and a place-kicker. Points are generated by the stats displayed each week by the selected NFL players, and the teams that end the regular season with the most points advance to the postseason. The winner’s outcome: money in the bank and a year’s worth of bragging rights. The loser’s outcome: dust in a jar and a year’s worth of high blood pressure.
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“But we have too many other things to do here in Aspen than spend three to four hours a week polishing a fantasy lineup!” False. Walk into Zane’s or Finbarr’s on a Sunday afternoon, and see that it’s no different from walking into the New York Stock Exchange; everyone is simultaneously watching a screen, studying a phone and yelling with their fists in the air.
“The thing is, fantasy football is a lot more serious and competitive than people let on,” said Dan Beach, a local resident with six years in the sport. “It’s not unusual to miss an anniversary dinner on a Thursday night because you have a running back from the Eagles playing.”
Losing in the championship matchup the first year he entered, Beach has only grown fonder of the sport each year he plays, particularly because of the social bonding experience it offers. Each year, the 12 people in his league (consisting mostly of friends and a few he only sees once a year) get together for a live draft during preseason to pick players, eat and drink. And while some might argue that a $200 entry fee is a little steep, Beach claims it to be well worth it.
“I don’t consider myself a gambler,” he said, “but I will save up money just for fantasy because it is fun and highly addictive.”
Recalling his creative team name, “TheDumpsterPig,” Beach says fantasy football should not be mistaken for just a bunch of burly guys sitting in front of a TV drinking beer and throwing high fives. In fact, there is a girl in his league who has been participating for years.
Currently in her fifth season, Raychl Powers claims fantasy football is not only fun but also informative and highly interactive.
“When I got into it, the Lions weren’t doing too well, so out of curiosity I started participating. Before I knew it, I was hooked. … Fantasy is a great way to not only learn about football but also connect with people. It’s not like Facebook, where you are sitting in front of a computer completely numb. It makes you emotionally engaged to the point where you are happy, mad and anxious all at the same time.”
On the other hand, there are those who believe fantasy sports to be just another diversion from real life.
Working as a bartender at Finbarr’s Irish Pub, Mark Eisele sees firsthand the direct relationship between the bar and football, particularly through the display of large TVs (each with an assigned game schedule) and food and drink specials, and he says he doesn’t understand the hype of it.
“I remember watching my dad yelling in front of the TV as a kid and asking him why he was yelling at something that wasn’t real,” he said. “It actually might have been better back then, when everyone just watched one game a week. Now everyone spends hours watching every game, and I don’t think our civilization needs another reason to stay inside.”
But when money is on the line, people will succumb to outrageous things, even if it means cheering against a favorite team because a fantasy player is playing on the competing team. For Dan Beach, if his Packers lose but his fantasy team wins, it’s a “good week.”
“Bottom line, it’s a social thing. People want to win so they can make some money and have the bragging rights,” he said. “Yes, it can be obsessive, and people do get beat up over it, but that’s just the mentality of football fans as a whole. On the upside, it’s a huge driving force for our economy, and it connects people to a sport we have been cheering on since we were born, so what’s wrong with that?”