From fantasy to reality

Story by Chris Graham

Your fantasy-sports-playing friend used to watch the games like you did – rooting for his favorite team from childhood, living and dying with their wins and losses, their historic triumphs and their painful setbacks.

That was before he saw the light – and that he, too, could be Theo Epstein.

“The archetypal fantasy-sports player feels that winning at fantasy says something about them,” said Don Levy, a West Virginia Wesleyan College sociology professor who has interviewed thousands of fantasy-sports participants in the course of his research into the increasingly popular and lucrative leisure activity.

“Many of the people that I have talked to say, If somebody else wins, they’re lucky, but if I win, it’s because I was smart. And they will describe at length multilevel trades that they made, draft-day decisions – and they feel as though the cumulative effect says something about how smart they are,” Levy told The Augusta Free Press.

An estimated 20 million Americans participate in at least one fantasy-sports league annually – fueling a $3 billion industry that is expected to grow as the concept of playing fantasy sports goes mainstream.

The most popular fantasy sport, by far, is fantasy football, which already has what could be viewed as a near-mainstream appeal – though fantasy sports traces it origins to another, more statistics-intensive sport, baseball, whose enthusiasts began drafting players and assembling their own teams four decades ago.

Their motivation goes beyond simply wanting to win, according to University of Minnesota sociology professor Douglas Hartmann – who said fantasy players are drawn by “the illusion of agency and control in that process of being a spectator or fan, where you get to participate in a little more active and intensive way.”

“The typical fan is sitting back and cheering and watching and getting absorbed into it – but with fantasy sports, you’re competing independently and controlling the outcomes in a little different way,” Hartmann said.

“Being a fan and watching sports is sometimes characterized as a passive and individualized thing, but in fact it’s a lot more social than that. It is a community experience – and fantasy sports is another way to facilitate that kind of community feeling, and one in which you can actually interact and compete with each other in that community,” Hartmann told the AFP.

Playing fantasy changes the way its participants consume sports, Hartmann said.

“One of the real transformations is that it seems to me that for some people it dramatically changes the way that they’re sports fans and the way that they watch games and the way that they interact with their fascination with sports,” Hartmann said.

“My brother, for example, bemoans the fact that now he’s a really bad football fan – because he can’t just watch a game, he’s flipping around, and he’s only concerned with how his players are doing. And he’s rooting against some of the teams that he’s historically rooted for because he’s more concerned about his place in the fantasy standings,” Hartmann said.

“Mixed loyalties,” indeed, are felt by fantasy participants, Levy said – “because you can have the pitcher on Team A and the batter on Team B. So, who do you root for?”

“A lot of fantasy players feel now as though winning in their fantasy league is more important than what they will at times describe as their childlike loyalty to one team,” Levy said.

“I had one man tell me that fantasy had taught him to be a grownup fan rather than a child fan. The St. Louis Cardinals don’t care about me. Why should I care about them? But I do care about whether or not I win my rotisserie league. Because I spend time almost 12 months out of the year researching, planning, managing, negotiating,” Levy said.

University of Mississippi professor Kim Beason has, like Levy, been studying fantasy sports for the past several years – and the demographic data that he has compiled shows just how much time the average fantasy player devotes to the pursuit of victory.

Fantasy-baseball players spend the most time at their sport – logging in 4.3 hours a week directly managing their teams. Football-league participants are not far behind at 3.8 hours per week – and this time doesn’t include the additional four and a half hours per week that both spend “just thinking about their teams,” Beason told the AFP.

“Fantasy sports are a leisure pursuit that is akin to play – and we know really well that play is a very intense, spontaneous, frivolous activity, and that if you can sustain it, you get very dedicated people in it,” said Beason, whose data also shows that fantasy-baseball and fantasy-football players spend an average of $250 a year on magazines, statistics services and other products that they use to get information about their sports.

“If you can keep those concepts of play and competition, the behaviors are somewhat addictive. You can be addicted to fantasy sports just like you can be addicted to on-line betting – and I think there are probably several people out there who are like that,” Beason said.

A threat on the horizon could upset the fantasy-sports apple cart. Major League Baseball is embroiled in legal proceedings with a fantasy-sports company, the St. Louis-based CBC Distribution and Marketing, over the use of player names and statistics for its fee-based services. Jennifer Rothman, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the disposition of the case could have far-reaching impacts in the fantasy-sports world.

“MLB has a very strong case – one, on their right-of-publicity claim, based on the fantasy-sports leagues and their use of players’ names in the games, and two, in this particular lawsuit, CBC had previously licensed the players’ names and even the league statistics, and as part of the contract, they agreed that after the termination of the license, they wouldn’t use them,” Rothman said.

“Major League Baseball is likely to prevail – and the real question in this case that fantasy-sports fans and the fantasy-sports industry should be concerned with is whether the court bases its holding solely on the contract, or makes a broader holding on the right of publicity, which would then affect all the leagues,” Rothman said.

“If the court rules in favor of Major League Baseball on the right-of-publicity claim, then all the commercial leagues, at least, could be shut down,” Rothman told the AFP.

Fantasy Sports Trade Association president Jeff Thomas is among those who hope that things don’t get close to reaching that point.

“Everybody would be better off if we could find a way to work together instead of battle in the courts. It’s a lose-lose situation really to even go through the battle,” said Thomas, the founder and CEO of SportsBuff.com.

“Major League Baseball obviously has the right to the trademarks and the photos and the names of the teams. Nobody disputes that,” Thomas said. “You can’t put a picture of a player on your Web site and say, Hey, Alex Rodriguez loves my game. You can’t do that – and companies aren’t doing that. You can’t put names of the teams out there. You can’t use trademarks and logos of the teams.

“It really comes down to using publicly available statistics for the games – and the names that are attached to those statistics,” Thomas told the AFP.

Whether a compromise is worked out or not, one can assume that fantasy sports – on the Internet or on old-fashioned pencil and paper – is here to stay.

“Fantasy-sports participants are avid in terms of how important they’ve chosen to make this activity in their lives. It was very common for them to tell me that they spend 10 to 15 hours per week involved in fantasy sports. It was common for them to tell me, ‘The first thing I do in the morning is look at the Internet to see how my teams are doing. I may then e-mail a couple of people in my league. And then I’ve got to check the various Web sites that provide information – who’s injured, who is having marital strife, what coaching change could result in more or less playing time for one of my players,’ ” Levy said.

“To a great extent, this is what they think about when they’re in the shower or alone in their car. What trade can I make? What lineup alteration can I get involved in? I would describe it as on one end, obsessive, on another end, it’s just simply the background rhythm of life that this group of people has decided to occupy their physical time and their mental energy with,” Levy said.



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