Entire websites, hours of ESPN coverage, and segments of Sports Radio talk shows are devoted to them, many people participate in them, and yet they do not involve real scores or affect standings.
Becoming increasingly popular in the last five years, fantasy sports allow participants pick and manage a virtual team of real athletes. Just as professional managers must be quick thinking and constantly aware of what players might be injury-prone, so too must fantasy players. These players, with 24 hour access to news, develop these same skills.
Prior to the beginning of the professional season, approximately eight to twelve people form a fantasy league. Players often know each other, but websites, such as Rotowire.com, Comissioner.com, and Yahoosports.com, can also organize leagues. Next, players participate in a draft. Each player, managing his own team, is responsible for filling his roster with virtual athletes. Modeled after real-life drafts, participants are subject to a time limit for their picks, and therefore must be as fast-thinking and knowledgable as real managers.
Once the professional season begins, participants select their line-ups for the given week. Again, this is modeled after the way real sports are conducted; fantasy football players choose their rosters on Sunday, while fantasy hockey players chose theirs on Saturday. When the game gets going, the athletes perform according to their statistics and rankings from real games. Unlike in professional leagues, in which roles are split up, fantasy players act as owner, manager, and coach all at once.
As Danny Goldin, a former writer for Rotowire.com, explains, fantasy sports were first played in 1960 in the context of an experimental study in a Harvard University seminar led by the sociologist William Gamson. Participants were instructed to form MLB rosters prior to the start of the season, and their players “value” was then calculated upon conclusion of the real season and based on the players’ statistics.
While Gamson’s model did not permit players to make roster changes during the actual season, participants in fantasy sports now actively manage their team throughout the season, requiring them to pay close attention at all times to the status of their players. With the advent of the internet, fantasy sports experienced large developments. In 1997, Commissioner.com – which is now the fantasy engine of CBS Sports – and Rotowire.com were launched. These are fantasy sports websites that provide the average sports fan with detailed statistics and analysis on players so that they can micro-manage their fantasy teams.
In addition to allowing sports enthusiasts an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of real players through the management of their fantasy team, fantasy players often place bets with the other members of their fantasy league. If they win, they get the money and, perhaps more importantly, bragging rights among friends.
There are a variety of reasons why individuals choose to participate in fantasy sports. Scott Rathwell, a McGill masters student in Sports Psychology, explains that he plays fantasy hockey sports primarily because it offers a means of keeping in contact with friends, many of whom he previously played on actual teams with. Lawrence Greenberg, a Concordia History student who plays both fantasy hockey and football, points to the competitive aspect of the activity, he says it “makes watching the games more intense.” In addition, being able to “show other people that you can pick and manage a better team” is a strong incentive for him. Both Rathwell and Greenberg agree that they now have a heightened level of interest in the actual games. “I definitely watch the games more closely. I constantly have to see who gets injured to try and pick up his replacement before someone else does,” says Greenberg
Fantasy sports have also significantly altered the nature of sports fandom. Before fantasy sports became popular, fans would typically root for their favourite team. Now, fantasy participants root for many different teams based on the athletes they pick for their fantasy teams rather than geography.
Dave Richard, a senior fantasy writer at CBSsports.com, explained this phenomenon to Goldin: “Fantasy sports have reinvented sports fans. Before these games became popular, most people were fans of one or two teams in every sport… Suddenly, a fan watching in Detroit has an interest in a game between Los Angeles and San Diego.”
Fantasy sports, once the niche of Harvard sociologists and a small segment of the most passionate fans, are now a hobby and obsession to millions of people and a major revenue source for sports media. With this trend, fantasy sports are only poised to become more and more popular