Monday, September 12, 2016

The Rise and Obsession of Fantasy Football

It's Week 16 in the National Football League, and there's three minutes left in the game. The kicker you own
on your fantasy football team is about to attempt a 50 yard field goal. His team is up 35-7, and about to add more cushion than needed onto a huge lead. To him, this kick is just another routine snap, hold, and swing of the leg. However, this kick is everything to you. Should that ball split the uprights, your kicker gains an extra five points, putting you on-top of your virtual opponent and sealing your fate as champion of your league.

While the kicker is busy high-fiving teammates as he nonchalantly makes his way to the bench, you're pouring up champagne and sending snapchats to your fellow-but-now inferior league members. All those late night studying trends in players and researching roster moves has finally paid off. Welcome to the club, champ.

"Fantasy Life" is a book written by ESPN's Senior Fantasy Football Analyst Matthew Berry. His book dives into the cultural phenomena that is fantasy football, including many crazy stories revolved around it. Stories of swapping players after a sudden death, a pastor who cheated in his league, and almost anything else fathomable are mentioned in the text.

Point being: This game has infiltrated everybody from every walk of life. Peyton Manning himself said during his career he received more mail about fantasy football than anything else.

Fantasy football has taken the nation by storm, and today is almost as important to fans as the actual games being played. It's long been a tradition of fanatics who follow the sport religiously, yet has only grew into a giant, money-making monster as of late.

To understand the beast, we must first understand it's origins.

What is known as modern day fantasy football originated as an idea in a New York state hotel room by a man the name of  Wilfred Winkenbach, an Oakland, California businessman/minor partner in the Raiders organization. Winkenbach, with the help of a few others, established a rule-book and basis for what is today's standard of fantasy football. The inaugural league, which consisted of journalists and affiliates of the AFL, held it's first draft in 1963. 

A few years down the road, the idea was spread from it's league members onto their friends and social gatherings. The popularity of the game grew slowly but surely, and in 1997 CBS launched their own public fantasy football site. By 2000, every major sports site had created their very own version. The NFL, even the league itself, adopted this game officially in 2010 by creating their own game.

So why is this so popular? What turned this hobby into an obsession? 

It's nature. Whether you realize it or not, we as a human race love competition almost as much as we love our egos and the satisfaction of winning. There's just something extra special about ending your rival's win streak, or staking claim to being the best team in your league. What's more satisfying than winning a prize or bragging rights over people you know, with a team that YOU hand-picked?

Fantasy sports allow ordinary people to play the role of General Manager by assembling a team of hand-picked players and having free reign on them, with the abilities to decide who "starts" and who's on the "bench", releasing or adding free agent players, and trading with other teams as you compete in a league with other Average Joe's such as yourself. 

See, competing in fantasy football allows the player to live out their dream of having total control of a sports team, a dream that many avid sports followers have always had. Who hasn't sat on the couch and played armchair quarterback? How many times have you taken to Facebook or Twitter to comment on a move made by a team? Us as spectators consume so much of this product, we start to convince ourselves that we know what's best. 

The game has seen growth in popularity thanks in part to the relationships it builds between people. Friends, family and co-workers alike are able to unite and do something together, building a bond (or doing the EXACT opposite) by obsessing over statistics, waiver wires and weekly projections. 

It's also created a path for people from all walks of life to get an understanding of the game. Although there may appear to be a lot that goes into a season's worth of work as a fantasy team owner, it can all be broken down into simple goals and objectives. By doing this, almost anybody can pick up on basic positions, terminology and players simply gazing at an app on a weekly basis. 

As much as a fairy tale fantasy football appears to be, the true dominant rise and prominence of the game has nothing to do with your family's league with Uncle Stan, four time reigning champ. No, you see advertisements everywhere showcasing America's new darling for one thing, and one thing only:

"Cash Rules Everything Around Me"- Wu-Tang Clan

In 2015, the average person spent $465 dollars on fantasy sports. Take that number, and multiply it by the 75 million people in North America who played in 2015, and you see just how big this industry is. Draft Kings and Fan Duel, the two heavyweight Daily Fantasy Sports companies in the U.S., combined to make over $5 billion in 2015, a year in which both companies shared a triple digit growth rate in revenue.

While recent laws against gambling and other controversies have cast a shadow in fantasy sports' latest fad, there's no question that 2016 will again prove to be another profitable year. Even in the standard fantasy realm, giants such as ESPN, Yahoo! and continue to bring in millions each season.

Fantasy football isn't real, but the revenue generated by it sure is.

That's why from August 2015 to January 2016, over a quarter-billion dollars ($264.1 million) was spent on advertisements solely on NFL broadcasts for Draft Kings/Fan Duel, advertisements that ran over 62,000 times during that stretch. That's why so many pour their last pennies into their hopes on Antonio Brown having a big game, or their gut feeling about Allen Robinson.

Essentially, fantasy sports has become part of America's pop culture obsession, almost synonymous with the Kardashians. Guys, don't kid yourselves. The same way teenage girls idolize Justin Bieber, is the same way you idolize a 53 man roster every Sunday.

To call the sport of football in this country a cult is almost an insult. No, it's much more impressive than that.

We're talking about a sport that dominates the attention of television viewers from Thursday through Monday. We're talking about a five day stretch of all levels of football claiming the top spot on your priority list. We're talking clothing, video games, magazines, books, decor, even cable television shows and edible food themed for the team of your choosing.

We're talking about a game and an organization that stole Sundays away from the church. You want honesty? Should the United States ever adopted an official religion, it'd be: you guessed it. If football is the church, fantasy football is Sunday School.

Corporations such as ESPN and NFL Network understand this. That's why an abundance of fantasy podcasts, shows and articles are uploaded/shown on a daily basis. Fantasy football is a whole new sub-genre of the sport, allowing for a whole new media and presentation to be shown. Writers such as Matthew Berry and Michael Fabiano have claimed their stake in this industry as fantasy experts, proving just how far the market, and importance, have come.

This can also be seen in how football is watched by us, the consumer.

The game, and how we watch it, has changed. Gone are the days of our eyes solely fixated on that television for hours upon hours. Sure, it's on all day, but you bet your ass that our fantasy apps are open to a scoreboard that updates the action in real time (the laptop is charged and ready, just in-case). Even though your hometown team is on and you'd love to watch, one of your fantasy running backs are on the one yard line, ready to score. Our favorite teams now don't all wear the same jersey, but you picked them on the same team. You could care less if the Falcons are up 56-0, you just need Julio Jones to get one more catch. We cheer for individuals now Grandpa, sorry you didn't get the memo.

In a virtual sense, football has gone from alphabet to numbers. It's not about X's and O's anymore, it's about points per reception and yards after catch. After a 50 yard bomb to a player you have, what's your first thought? "That's another six points! 1 for the catch, 5 for the yards!". When a player is injured, compassion isn't our first reaction. Our first reaction is a mind full of expletives and to grab our phone to see how we're going to replace him on our team. When a player performs well, he's a hot commodity on the waiver wire. When he doesn't score enough points, we view him as garbage, trash, like he's nothing. Nobody studies zone coverage or blocking schemes anymore, we study bye-weeks and mock draft positions, because that's the expectation. To fantasy players, the Super Bowl is played even before the real playoffs begin.

So what does the future of fantasy football hold?

The duration of life for fantasy football is almost a certainty, nearly up there with death and taxes, for multiple reasons. It's fun, it's competitive, and as long as the game of football is around, there will be a market for it. The advancements of modern day technology benefit fantasy sports by the day, allowing the player to feel closer and more involved with his team full of players. I'm sure by 2050 there will be 4k resolution holograms of life-sized players that we're able to control and watch, but for now, fantasy football apps should do (as long as they don't crash, and I'm looking dead into your eyes, ESPN).

Despite the cold hard cash brought in and spent, it's meant to be leisure for guys and girls who just love the game. It's something to take our stresses and minds out of our lives for short periods of time. So enjoy every touchdown, every 100 yard bonus and every start/sit article on your quest for championship honors this season. Yet don't forget to enjoy the action on the gridiron as well, checking in on a game winning field goal is just as important.

But only if he makes it, because the champagne is ready and so are some over-due snapchats to celebrate a fantasy football championship. 

Donnie Druin is an award-winning sports writer from the Arizona Newspaper Association, and mediocre fantasy football player. Follow him on Twitter @DonnieDruin for updates and hot takes on everything football related, or just to ask how much he lost by this week. 

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