Fantasy is hardly new in football. Little kids call out players’ names as they tackle. A joystick lets you move like your favorite running back. Trading cards. Jerseys with players’ numbers. All part of imagining ourselves as part of the game. None of it is real. None of it is harmful.
But none of that is quite like fantasy football, a multibillion-dollar industry that is rapidly becoming a pillar that holds up the actual sport, not the other way around.
The first week of the NFL season saw so many commercials for fantasy sites Draft-Kings and FanDuel ($28 million spent on nearly 7,000 ads), you wondered whether the games weren’t paid-for infomercials.
In some ways, they are. These fantasy sites — in which participants put up money, choose real players and use their statistics to create mock games in an attempt to win cash — are injecting hundreds of millions into the media companies that broadcast football.
Some of those companies (including Comcast, Fox and NBC) have, in turn, invested back in these sites. So have several NFL teams. New England’s Robert Kraft and Dallas’ Jerry Jones, arguably the NFL’s highest-profile owners, have stakes in fantasy companies. The football business and the fantasy league business are as entangled as a ball of string.
Fantasies with plenty of zeroes
If all this seems hypocritical for a league that shuns gambling, well, that’s because it is. But wherever you find hypocrisy in business, you usually find lucrative profits.
And, boy, are those out there. If broadcasters can pick up $28 million in advertising on a single week — according to iSpot.tv, which tracks national TV ads — you can’t be surprised that excuses are made.
But at what cost to the game itself? This is not a small thing. Fantasy football went from something friends organized in small pools over the entire season to daily online contests that promise huge payouts. Some sites claim to distribute billions annually. That’s billions. ESPN features regular fantasy league programming. The NFL’s official website has a whole section devoted to it. Stadiums in New England and Jacksonville have special seating zones for fantasy players, where electronic scoreboards and countless TV sets keep them up on every stat. And this is during a real game!
Supporters say it’s not sports gambling — which is illegal in nearly all states under the Bradley Act — and they point to a 2006 law that designated fantasy leagues not as games of chance but as tests of skill and knowledge. (This only fuels the egos of fantasy players who envision themselves smarter than actual NFL general managers.)
But in the end, you are choosing players who may or may not play, or perform well, or be held back by a defense, or a rainstorm, or get injured. There is a huge element of chance. And when you plunk down money on games of chance, and compete against others — or the house — that’s pretty much gambling, isn’t it? You can claim blackjack is a game of skill and knowledge and the best players can count cards. But no one has exempted it from gambling.
Plenty of dirty sports laundry
Now, I hear the critics. “What’s the big deal? It’s not affecting anything.”
Not yet. But when money gets this big, people look for an edge. Is it so farfetched that a player is benched, or a certain play not called, because somebody gets to somebody with a bribe? If you think this is impossible, you haven’t studied your sports history.
The NFL should be wary of its growing dependence on businesses like DraftKings and FanDuel. This is a league that still shuns casinos and limits the association its players can have. Yet these same players are the jacks, kings and aces of daily fantasy games. Like it or not, Peyton Manning made somebody money with his touchdown passes Thursday night.
It also creates the regrettable effect of fans caring less about games than about their players’ performances.
“Hey, did you see the Vikings lost?”
“So? How many yards did Adrian Peterson have?”
Supporters say this keeps people interested in otherwise meaningless games. But if your actual product can’t hold them, maybe it’s not supposed to.
Meanwhile, going too deep in fantasy stats actually takes you OUT of the game experience. Matthew Stafford could throw a brilliant pass to Golden Tate to make the playoffs, and a Lions fan is angry because he had Calvin Johnson on his fantasy team.
Personally, I take note of how many real football players actually play fantasy football. Some do. But many of them despise it. That should tell you something.
No, it’s not hurting anybody. No, it’s not morally wrong. But it is becoming so soaked in money that it sits on the end of a dangerous teeter-totter. Football may be a sport, but the NFL is a business, and business follows money. That’s not a fantasy. That’s as real as it gets.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.