This past weekend, millions of football fans completed their fantasy football drafts in anticipation of the start of the National Football League (NFL) season this Thursday. Over 57 million people played fantasy sports in 2015, a 60% increase since 2011, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. But this is only a small percentage of the estimated 205 million people who watched an NFL game last season, according to USA Today. As with the NFL’s continual growth over the last 50 years, we can only assume these numbers will increase for the upcoming season.
I started playing fantasy sports in high school. It was initially through simulation baseball games like Diamond Mind and Strat-O-Matic. But as the internet started to emerge in the late 1990s (around the time I was in college), sites like Yahoo and CBS-Sportsline started offering free fantasy leagues. I soon became a fantasy sports aficionado, participating in multiple baseball, football and basketball leagues. At once point, I even dabbled in fantasy hockey and golf, even though I didn’t know much about either sport. My overly-competitive nature and obsession for learning drove my desire to succeed in these contests. Over the years, I’ve collected championships in all sports (except golf, which I soon dropped after a single season).
This time of year used to be my favorite, preparing for the fantasy football drafts: pouring through all the various player projections (both online and in print), reading up on the latest draft strategies, talking with my fellow fantasy football owners, all of us giddy for the upcoming season. We’d get together at a friend’s place, conduct our draft, pick our players, then talk trash about said players. With the draft completed, the trade talks started flying. Emails, text messages, & phone calls would be filled with ridiculous offers, most of them spurned at the outset, but a few would lead to fervent negotiations that would last throughout the season.
Finally, the season would start. Immediately, one team would be struck by the injury bug, with half his starting lineup going down with suffering from one ailment or another. The NFL is a brutal game, so fantasy football often was a war of attrition, trying to outlast the other teams and keep some semblance of a healthy roster. By the end of the season, the team that rose above the rest to win the trophy was often the team that was the luckiest and had the fewest injuries.
From 2001 through 2007, I worked a graveyard shift. While the first 2 hours and the last 2 hours of the job kept me busy the middle 4 hours of the shift were pretty chill. We were left to our own devices as long as the work site was stable (which was 90% of the time). I usually brought my personal laptop to work and studied the current season’s sport. At the height of my fantasy sports heyday, I was playing in 4 baseball leagues, 3 football leagues, and 2 basketball leagues. In essence, I wasn’t “playing” fantasy sports: it was a part-time job.
Some of the leagues were casual, with co-workers or members or the public. But a few of these leagues were played against other dedicated sports fanatics. These were the most fun leagues, as they really challenged me, pushing me to study and learn more. Some of these players even had their own fantasy sports websites and ran their own projection systems! While I did not do as well against these players than against my more casual opponents, the times I finished in the money (or even won a championship) were the sweetest victories.
When fantasy sports started to become popular in the late 1990s, players were derided as “nerds” and “geeks” by the non-fantasy crowd. Why bother trying to play General Manager when the play on the field was exciting enough? What those folks hadn’t yet realized is these contests enrich the sports experience. In order to stay competitive in the harder leagues, I couldn’t just concentrate my knowledge on my local teams. I had to study up and learn the rosters of all 30 teams, and in some cases their minor league systems. It wasn’t enough to be familiar with just the All-Stars on each team; I had to know their backups, because eventually someone was going to get injured. And there are always players that come out of nowhere to contribute some significant time and put up awesome stats, like Kurt Warner in 1999, Albert Pujols in 2001, and Jimmy Butler in 2014-2015. Being the person to identify these emerging stars can be the difference between finishing first or out of the money.
One of the biggest lessons I learned playing fantasy sports is that it’s very difficult to erect a competitive roster, regardless of the sport. Seven to fifteen opponents with the same goal to claim victory creates a demanding challenge, which includes burdens like salary cap restrictions and roster limitations. Changes with real life teams (either through injury or an unexpected boost in player performance) causes ripples in the fantasy community. A key pickup can result in a corresponding boost or decline in the standings. But only the astute can make these moves; everyone wants the new hot rookie, but only one team can have them.
I used to love listening to sports talk radio (both national outlets like ESPN as well as the local stations like KNBR). Nowadays, I can’t listen to these shows when they open up the airwaves to calls from the listeners. While we all have our gripes when our favorite teams are struggling, it pains my ears to hear caller after caller demanding that an injured player be traded for an emerging Hall-of-Famer-to-be. These fans must not understand the rules of a capitalist economy or the realities of professional sports. Commodities of no value cannot be exchanged for commodities of great value, but these spectators argue that their assertions have merit.
I contend that a fan cannot truly understand the sport they love until they play fantasy sports. (This assertion only applies to team sports that have roster considerations, not one-person sports like golf, bowling, or any of the fighting sports). While there are plenty of sites that offer free leagues (Yahoo, ESPN, CBS Sports), many of these don’t replicate the challenges of a real-life professional sports league. If you think you can do as good (or better) job as your favorite team’s general manager in constructing a championship roster, then put your money where you’re mouth his. Find a local league that charges an entry fees (and has a prize pool for the winners). If you can’t find a league, then start your own with your buddies. Put an investment of money and time into your sports knowledge and test it against your competition.
After years and years of fantasy sports gaming, I have a profound respect for the work that professional sports personnel do. Even the bad teams have to do a lot of work just to keep their franchises running, much less make a run at a playoff spot. These professionals work 80+ hour weeks during their seasons, and not much less during their off-seasons. If we, the money-paying fans, think we can do a better job, might as well try to do so through fantasy sports. Trust me: it’s a lot harder than it looks.
Unfortunately, I gave up fantasy sports after the 2012 season. After I was transferred off the graveyard shift, my research ate into my family and social time. Eventually, this became a burden to my marriage, so I did what a good husband would do: I gave up fantasy sports completely, cold turkey. With my obsessive-compulsive personality, I could not ease into a diminished fantasy schedule; I had to dropped the entire endeavor completely. Many of my friends were surprised, knowing how much I love sports. But they understood my explanation, knowing it’s a struggle in many of their lives.
As I reflect on my fantasy sports days, I remember a lot of fun times. I also remember all the work, reading up on the hot new prospects, or a new coach’s strategy, or even some recent drafting techniques. I made a lot of friends through fantasy sports, but as I’ve left those games, I left those friendships behind. I take no offense: they are busy with the new season, and I have time for other ventures. I have no regrets for those years, but I don’t yearn for them either. I’m free to enjoy sports on my own terms, with no outside influences.