In 2015, an estimated 56.8 million people in the United States and Canada played fantasy sports, with easily the most popular of them all being fantasy football. As the NFL kicks off this week, so does the annual craze which has brought us everything from hilarious team names, ruthless smack talk, TV’s The League, and embarrassing tattoos as punishment. Our fantasy football obsession is obvious, and marked by the draft guides we buy, insider columns we read, waiver wires and injury reports we monitor, and pure excitement every time someone on ours teams scores a touchdown. Fantasy football is not without its problems, though. When some fans abandon allegiances, rooting for player stats over the success of their favorite team, and harass players for not performing well enough, the question can be asked: is fantasy football bad for the NFL?
As a long time fantasy manager and current league commissioner, I love the intensity of a close matchup, and the sense of triumph that comes with winning a matchup against a friend turned rival. However, I acknowledge the issues that reflect poorly on the game. As intended, fantasy football is an extremely entertaining companion to the NFL, raising the stakes of everything that happens on Sundays. Fantasy football’s many benefits have a net positive on football. Unfortunately, as with many things, the actions of some individuals reflect poorly on the entire institution.
Fantasy football excels at its main purpose: bringing people together around North America’s most popular sport, using the unpredictable nature of NFL Sundays to create an addicting and competitive game. During the week, fantasy owners engage in smack talk and modify their lineups through waiver pick ups and trades. Then on Sunday, everyone cheers on their assembly of pros towards victory (hopefully). Each league has its own dynamic, with unique stakes, personalities, and histories which enrich the feeling of camaraderie between league members. Perhaps the best part of fantasy is seeing which strategies for choosing who to draft and start each week proves successful. Despite many people including Matthew Berry holding the label of fantasy “analyst” or “expert”, no one really knows how each game will turn out. A number of random chance occurrences- a pick-six, successful hail mary, or unlucky injury, have the opportunity to swing an entire matchup.
Fantasy football encourages the casual sports fan to learn the names of players and research statistics while giving the fantasy guru an unlimited amount of information (from which they decide the minute detail that could alter their whole season). Additionally, instead of just paying attention to your favorite team, having players spread across the league encourages fans to follow all the games, making each week much more eventful. This brings new audiences full of potential fans to every team in the league and once again grows the knowledge of the average fan.
However, people should not root against their own teams just for fantasy gain. I suspect many true fans already use this rule, but I will never start a player going against the Giants- it creates a horrible conflict of interest. Similarly, fantasy owners shouldn’t be okay with their teams losing just because they started the team’s quarterback who threw for three TDs, or become upset because the WR they started didn’t catch any of them. If you really support a team, their success should be foremost on your mind during Sundays.
Some people take fantasy football far more seriously than it was ever intended. You should never root for a player to obtain an injury just because your opponent is starting them- that’s a horrible, immoral mindset, and one I’ve bashed several times, including here. Additionally, do you really need to play in dozens of leagues? When playing in an excessive amount of leagues, you don’t allow yourself to give the appropriate amount of effort and passion into each one. Personally, I’m a one-league guy. I can understand having separate leagues for family, friends, and coworkers, but when we reach the point of joining leagues with strangers online just for the sake of participating in more leagues, I have to draw the line.
Most problems with fantasy football can be attributed to fans going too crazy over the game. However, one big problem I have with fantasy sports, and one which I’m guilty of to a certain extent, is the lopsided focus it places on the offensive side of the ball. In most leagues, people will start many offensive players, including quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, but just one team defense. This leads to fans frequently either changing the channel or paying less attention when their offensive players don’t have the ball. This problem can be solved by more leagues using IDPs, or Individual Defensive Players, in addition to their offensive players. By also starting defensive ends, linebackers, and secondary players, team owners will also root for their defensive players to make tackles, knock down passes, and force turnovers. Strategically, this adds another element to fantasy football. While some leagues already use IDPs, far more leagues should adopt the rule, and it’s one I’ll look to add in my league next season.
While some may see fantasy football’s overreliance on statistics, constant refreshing of point scores, and potential to draw fans away from their own teams as detractions from the game happening on the field, I believe that the explosion of fantasy football has only made the sport more popular and exciting. The social aspect of playing fantasy football and the added drama it causes creates a nerve-wracking experience capable of being both overwhelmingly joyful and crushing. For millions, Sundays just aren’t the same without it. Just don’t be that person rooting against their own team for the sake of fantasy success.