As the NFL’s regular season kicks off with a full slate of games this weekend, I did something that reflects the state of American sports fandom.
I picked a daily fantasy football team.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, there are a lot of others like me. The trade group says that, as of August, 56.8 million people in the United States and Canada had played fantasy sports in 2015. That’s already more than twice the number of players there were in 2009 and a significant jump from the 41 million who played last year.
The average player spends US$465 a year on all sports, according to the FSTA, while football is the overwhelming favorite (73%). (I don’t spend that much, by the way; thus far, I’m just a little shy of $10 in my first season playing daily fantasy.)
So when I think about what’s new in pro football, it’s not that Commissioner Roger Goodell lost to Tom Brady in the Deflategate case. It’s not that my favorite team, the Buffalo Bills, changed coaches, picking up Rex Ryan from the rival New York Jets. Or that Ryan is gambling on unproven Tyrod Taylor at quarterback.
What stands out is the explosive growth in fantasy football – particularly daily fantasy.
In 2006, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIEGA) banned online poker, but left out fantasy sports, even though people routinely risk money when they play. Wagering money on fantasy sports, however, was deemed a game of skill – requiring knowledge of players' likely performances – and not a game of chance.
Three years later, one of the top daily fantasy sites, FanDuel (the one I used), was founded. A major rival, DraftKings, has been around since 2012.
For the uninitiated, daily fantasy differs from the traditional, season-long format in a number of ways. Competitors pay a fee for each game they play – as little as $2 of real money – and then get a faux “budget,” not terribly unlike a salary cap in real life. Players then select a team from a menu based on how they think real players will perform in just one game. If your team outperforms most of the others, you win money. The better your team does relative to the other competitors, the greater your winnings.
Daily fantasy has an advantage over a season-long format in that, if your team performs poorly, you can start all over again next week with no consequences except the bet you lost.
So this week, I’ll be rooting for, among others, running back Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate and the Atlanta Falcons veteran kicker Matt Bryant.
If I play next week, I’ll select a new roster, taking into account player performances from this upcoming weekend (who flopped and who starred), along with favorable match-ups.
It’s a game that’s perfectly attuned to our short attention spans. And it’s taking off.
Thanks to a marketing deal with ESPN, DraftKings is all over the network. Ahead of the season opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, promotions for a DraftKings contest appeared three times over a 15-minute span of SportsCenter on Thursday morning.
This season, Yahoo – one of the most popular season-long fantasy football platforms – is offering a daily fantasy contest for the first time. At a recent one-day conference on the future of digital sports media, fantasy sports had its own panel.
During the conference, Michael Beller, who writes about fantasy sports for Sports Illustrated, noted, “That is really where it’s changed – just how many people are playing [fantasy]. Even 10 years ago it was diehard sports fans [who played], and now the one friend you grew up with who wasn’t into sports is playing fantasy football.”
Daily fantasy is boosting, even driving, that growth. The same panel was asked, at one point, to speculate on the ceiling for fantasy.
The general consensus? “Nowhere close.”
What’s particularly interesting about this tipping point moment in fantasy’s popularity is that it’s forcing changes in our collective perception of sports.
Sometimes these changes mean a new opportunity for a small set of companies; other times they’re a little worrisome on a grander scale.
Partly based on my own experience, I’ve witnessed a number of notable developments.
First, as soon as I saw the list of names available for this week’s games, I realized how little I actually knew about the roughly 1,700 players who will make opening weekend NFL rosters this season.
With money on the line, this dramatically increased my desire to see as many players in action as possible. And this meant suddenly flirting with the idea of ordering a big television package of NFL games, or at least making sure my cable service includes NFL RedZone, an offering from the NFL Network that shows, in real time, all the plays inside the defending team’s 20-yard line, where scoring is much more likely.
Second, fantasy sports (and daily fantasy in particular) demands a rethinking of whether sports betting should be more widely legalized in the United States, or, conversely, whether fantasy sports should be made illegal.
What doesn’t make sense is the current state of affairs. Using the FSTA’s numbers, 57 million North Americans are betting $465 a year on fantasy sports. That’s a $27 billion business built on wagers made regarding sports performances by individuals, all legal thanks to the UIEGA of 2006.
However, because of a previous federal law, betting on the results of those performances – the final score of games – is illegal in all but four states due to fears of game fixing.
Finally, fantasy sports change how you cheer for teams. While you still may well have hometown loyalty, you also may develop a new love for a club outside your time zone because several players on it regularly are on your fantasy team or you discover the team through a fantasy game. Or, you may simply pull for the individuals on your team – who change week to week (or day to day, if you play daily fantasy baseball).
It all leaves fans such as myself in an awkward position as we look ahead to the first weekend of the NFL season. Instead of just shouting, in my case, the old “Go! Go! Buf-fa-lo!” cheer, a more accurate way to capture how I feel about my team’s season opener would go like this: “Go Bills! Beat the Colts! Just so long as Tyrod Taylor doesn’t outperform Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill!”
Welcome to football, 2015.