Is Fantasy Football the New Reality?

Charlie ScaturroCorrespondent IAugust 20, 2010

SEATTLE - AUGUST 14: Running back Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans rushes against Aaron Curry #59 during the preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field on August 14, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

If you were in a bar 15 years ago and you saw two guys going nuts over a meaningless  touchdown that came with just two minutes left in a blowout, you would’ve thought they were either degenerate gamblers who just covered the spread, or that they had a few too many Miller Lites at happy hour. 

But in today’s world of fantasy football, this happens all the time as fantasy owners try to squeeze every single point they can out of their players like an old tube of toothpaste.

Earlier this week, I heard something I never thought I’d ever hear.  I was standing around on a slow Monday night in the restaurant I work at, when the female bartender asked me if I knew anything about fantasy football. 

Before I answered her question I figured she probably just wanted to know a little bit more about the institution that had recently transformed her boyfriend into a zombie who spent most of his time pouring over mock drafts and had him waking up in a cold sweat at 4 am screaming the name, “Mike Martz!!” at the top of his lungs. 

After I responded that I had been playing the game for the last 10 years, she then asked if I would be willing to help her with a fantasy football draft she had coming up in the next few weeks. 

This question alone made me take a step back but when she told me that the league she was playing in was comprised of nine other girls all within the ages of 22-26 years of age, I nearly fell flat on my face.

This interaction signaled to me that fantasy football is no longer something only die-hard stat junkies and NFL addicts do to make Sunday’s more interesting.

In fact, it’s not even something that only guys do anymore, as evidenced by my co-worker. 

In addition, it showed that not only has fantasy football become an accepted mainstream form of entertainment, it has begun to dominate popular culture and is a huge source of revenue for many companies and individuals alike.

With the NFL regular season starting in less than a month, you can’t turn on any type of sports-related program and not hear commentary about fantasy football.

Look at any major personnel moves that happen in the NFL today, be it trades, injuries, or draft picks, and invariably we are bombarded with analysis about what this means in terms of fantasy football.

We hear about regular NFL news almost as much as fantasy experts talking about the merits of different draft strategies and which players will be fantasy sleepers this upcoming season.

While all of this attention being paid to a made up game might seem like a waste of time, if you’ve ever played fantasy football, it’s fairly easy to see why the game is quickly becoming one of the biggest institutions in this country, much less in the world of sports.

Fantasy football offers guys (and apparently girls as well) a great way to bond, compete, talk trash, and stay in touch like few other things can and because of this, it gives them something unique that simply watching the NFL and cheering on your favorite team never could.

It’s been proven that guys will compete with each other over just about anything and when you combine the fact that this specific competition involves the NFL, it’s a match made in heaven.

In fantasy football, it’s my knowledge (and luck) against yours, and whoever comes out on top holds the bragging rights until the next time, making it an extremely entertaining way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Before fantasy football, the NFL wasn’t really interactive; you generally watched the game, cheered for your team, and occasionally made a comment or got into an argument about what defense you thought suited your team’s personnel better.

But after fantasy football, watching the NFL has become about as interactive as it gets when an owner can set their lineup, add and drop players, and make trades to better their roster. 

In a day and age where technology has continued to advance to the point where almost everything in our daily lives is interactive, it seems that making the NFL more interactive is one of the reasons why it has become the most popular sport in America. 

Not only has fantasy football increased the average fan's interest in virtually every NFL team (instead of simply following their favorite), it also makes pretty much every play of every NFL game important in some way, because while a game might be a blow out in the second quarter, there are still plenty of fantasy points to be had, regardless of the score.

For all of these reasons and more, fantasy football now boasts over 20 million participants and has emerged as a billion dollar industry here in America, and this may be the real reason why fantasy football is becoming so popular—because it generates an enormous amount of money.

Companies like ESPN, CBS, and Yahoo aren’t running immensely popular fantasy football websites because it's fun, they’re doing it because people who play fantasy football are willing to spend money to draft the best team, conquer their league, and hold bragging rights over their friends for the next eight months.

And why wouldn’t these media giants cash in on the average consumer’s willingness to pay for fantasy sports information?  It’s just good business.

In 2009, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (yes, such a thing actually exists) determined that fantasy sports participants are more likely to spend money on technology, media, and sports-related items than non-fantasy sports fans. 

Because of this, corporate America has gotten on the fantasy football bandwagon, as it generates vast amounts of money not only from those who play it, but also from an advertising standpoint as well.

But not everyone is having a love affair with fantasy football. 

NFL purists dislike the game because it devalues the actual football being played on the field and has its participants simply rooting for eight players and a defense to do well, while they couldn’t care less about what else happens. 

To them, fantasy football participants focus on all the wrong things. They generally don’t care who wins the game or stop to appreciate a game-winning drive that was executed to perfection. 

No, all they care about is whether or not the Houston Texans defense was able to record a meaningless sack in the last few seconds of their blowout win over the Seahawks.   

Fantasy football has created a culture of fans that simply root for the players on their fantasy team, regardless of what teams they play for in real life. 

Even diehard fans that play the game can be forced into compromising positions where a Jets fan may be rooting for Tom Brady because he has the quarterback on his fantasy team.

While fantasy football might be the equivalent of someone running their nails over a chalkboard to football purists, because of the money it generates and its popularity among most fans, fantasy isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  

And even though it may be called fantasy football, it becomes real every time we debate whether Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson should be the No. 1 pick in 2010.

There’s no doubt that fantasy football wasn’t what Walter Camp and the other pioneers of the NFL had in mind when they were developing the game and turning it into what we know it as today.

But in these economic times more than ever, money talks, and it’s telling the NFL that fantasy football is here to stay, for better or worse.