Most fantasies are designed to be an escape from reality. But in professional football, there’s no escape from fantasy. Even if you’re not among the more than 25 million Americans who select players and compare statistics for love or money, fantasy football is affecting the way you watch the sport.
“Fantasy football is an intrinsic part of how all of us consume the NFL, from the in-stadium experience to the TV experience to the web experience,” says Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch. “If you’re not a fantasy player by now, it’s something you’re either accustomed to or will be accustomed to.”
If you’re not a fantasy player by now, it’s something you’re either accustomed to or will be accustomed to.
Fueled by new technology, fantasy football has crept from offices and college dorms to TV corporation boardrooms and stadiums. The result: The game on your TV screen or live before your eyes is just one part of the torrents of information hurled at the NFL audience.
Watching one game at a time? That’s so 2002.
Fantasy players themselves are a diverse bunch. For starters, 20 percent are women. Fans range from casual players who compete in simple free leagues to people who risk considerable sums of money in paid leagues. The most serious players can even get insurance against injuries to the players they’ve selected for their fantasy roster.
Fantasy players themselves are a diverse bunch. For starters, 20 percent are women.
Fantasy baseball (also called rotisserie baseball) may be the better known pastime — it certainly has a greater folklore than fantasy football. A few journalists and creative folks in New York got baseball, already a statistics-obsessive sport, into the fantasy realm in 1980. The “fantasy” concept has spread to every other sport imaginable — beyond team sports to golf, auto racing, mixed martial arts and even gymnastics. Go beyond sports, and you’ll find fantasy leagues for TV shows such as American Idol.
But fantasy football is older, with documented play dating back to 1962. And it’s the most popular fantasy activity. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) counts 33,559,990 fantasy players in the United States. Of those, 77% play fantasy football, and 69.4% of those say football is their favorite fantasy sport.
Football is especially well-suited to fantasy life. Each NFL team plays only 16 games, giving fans a manageable amount of information to process. And the action is condensed into the weekends. Fantasy players can easily set up friendly head-to-head competition each week, preparing for the matchup over the weekdays, following over the weekend, and either celebrating or moaning by Tuesday.
The NFL realizes fantasy games can give fans another reason to care. That’s especially important when they have a matchup like Thursday night’s not exactly thrilling game between the Houston Texans (record: 2-10) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-9). Viewers may not care about the Texans or the Jaguars, but they’ll care about their fantasy players.
“Over the last five-plus years, the NFL has truly embraced fantasy football,” says Howard Kamen, an FSTA board member who works for Gannett Digital Ventures. “They’ve understood that so many people that are watching also have a fantasy team, so they cater their broadcasts, their website and their media to the fantasy player.”
The NFL realizes fantasy games can give fans another reason to care. That’s especially important when they have a matchup that’s not exactly thrilling.
And the game’s effects are reaching beyond those tens of millions. Here’s how:
Pregame shows: Deitsch says every TV executive with whom he speaks wants to add fantasy content. The ESPN conglomerate, with its plethora of available channels, has a two-hour Sunday show, ESPN2’s Fantasy Football Now, that was named by Deitsch as his Midseason NFL Show of the Year.
In-game info: Sports broadcasters, like cable news outlets, now keep a constant ticker of information at the bottom of the screen. Scores of ongoing games get top priority, but the tickers also provide rundowns on who’s having the best days, statistically speaking.
NFL RedZone: For the past few years, cable and satellite viewers willing to pay a bit extra (as little as $5 to $10 per month) have been able to watch every touchdown and tons of big plays on one channel that flips around between games in progress. The NFL is so enamored with the concept that it’s happy to run this channel without the expensive ads that make its broadcast rights so lucrative. Viewership numbers aren’t available, but more and more cable systems are adding the channel.
“[Fantasy football] is not the only driver, but it’s far and away the biggest driver,” Deitsch says. “The main reason most people watch RedZone, in addition to the fact that it’s exciting to watch offensive football, is fantasy.”
In-stadium stats, video and Wi-Fi: The NFL isn’t going to leave fantasy players in the dark while they attend actual football games. Bring along that tablet and use the Wi-Fi that more stadiums are installing. Watch the video screens and scoreboards for statistics from other games and even the RedZone channel. Those Texas-size screens in Dallas and Houston can accommodate any fan’s interest during the plentiful downtime in an NFL game.
Not enough? The Jacksonville Jaguars have installed a fantasy lounge, where fans can sit, eat and absorb information from banks of TVs and statistics on display. And stadiums new and old are boosting their Wi-Fi capacity and offering apps to keep fans and their smartphones happy. Wi-Fi pioneer the New England Patriots offer alternative camera angles for streaming their games, while the San Francisco 49ers are figuring out how to integrate updates and maybe RedZone into an app that will also let fans monitor bathroom lines at the stadium.
So if you think you’re attending a football game with that ticket to your local megastadium, think again. You’re attending several games. Even if you’re not a fantasy player, that’s the reality.
Why you should care
Fantasy football is changing the way you watch the sport, whether or not you’re a fan of the popular pastime.