The Rise of Fantasy Sports
September 19, 2014 at 11:33am by Matthew Michels
The Ecstasy and the Agony
In late August 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers were playing the San Diego Padres in an afternoon tilt between two teams that were all but eliminated from post-season contention. I refreshed the box score every thirty seconds in a panic. John Axford, the Brewers’ lanky closer from Simcoe, Ontario, was pitted against Chase Headley, the Padres’ slugging third baseman, who was in the midst of a torrid month at the plate. On a 3-2 count, Axford struck out Headley with a called strike that a replay I saw later showed was clearly off the plate. I spent the next week on a cloud, whereas my friend Nick was cast into a fairly serious bout of depression. To be clear, I couldn’t care less about the Brewers, and Nick is indifferent to the Padres. The reason we were both emotionally invested in this game is because Axford was the closer and Headley the third baseman on our respective fantasy teams.
Despite dominating our twelve-person fantasy league for the entire summer, Nick’s team lost to mine in the finale by a single strikeout—Axford vs. Headley. Fifteen minutes a day of scanning box scores, scouting projections and blog posts had culminated in me getting to display a cheap, plastic trophy in my apartment for the next 365 days, after only my first year in the league. Best day of my life! Also: screw you, Nick. (He won last year.)
A Brief History
In 1963, eight friends founded the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, which was the first fantasy league. It’s generally agreed that fantasy sports as they are currently practiced—with a league commissioner, a draft or player auction, stats tracked in real time throughout the season according to how real-life players perform in their real-life games—was popularized, if not invented, by the Rotisserie league. A bunch of sports writers met at a restaurant called La Rotisserie Française—hence the name. They would eat chicken and manually tabulate the week’s box scores for the players they’d selected to be on their teams, across about a dozen statistical categories. By 1988, half a million people were playing fantasy baseball, with football’s version also beginning to catch on.
There are now 42,000,000 people in North America alone geeking out on this stuff, and it’s become a global phenomenon (soccer in England, cricket in India, etc.). The internet has made it much easier—no more faxing scores to each other, or tabulating a year’s worth of statistical achievements with a clunky Texas Instruments adding machine. Fantasy sports are essentially the gamification of sports fandom, and sports fans can’t get enough.
-In 1995, Molson launched ‘I Am Online’ as part of the ‘I Am Canadian’ campaign, which included a fantasy hockey tool. It won the International Digital Media Award for best website.
-The League, a comedy show about a group of friends who will do anything to sabotage one another at fantasy football, no matter how sociopathic, is in its sixth season. It’s incredibly funny.
-Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers new home in Santa Clara, has a luxury fantasy lounge that accommodates 1,500 fans with a massive array of touchscreens, charging stations and Wi-Fi. It’ll give Mark Zuckerberg something to do while he waits for his $336 wagyu steak. #realfans
-LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ star running back, claimed in 2012 that a replacement ref approached him during a timeout to ask him to step it up because he had him on his fantasy team. (This, among many other far worse things, was Roger Goodell’s fault.)
-Some leaked emails from the Houston Astros’ front office earlier this year revealed how general managers negotiate trades with one another—and the exchanges are indistinguishable from the sort of conversations me and my friends have at midnight when we try to catch one another drunk enough to trade Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw for half their market value. Armchair GMs can now say with mathematical certainty whether they’d be better at running a sports franchise than their friends, and it feels amazing.
Why Marketers Should Pay Attention
The professional leagues historically had no interest in associating with fantasy applications, but research shows that NFL fans that play fantasy football watch 8.4 hours per week of the sport vs. 6.6 hours for those who don’t play. Fantasy sports are one of the primary drivers of two-screen viewing habits among sports fans, the most lucrative TV watching demographic, so leagues are now exploring ways to get a piece of the $ 4-5 billion fantasy sports industry. It’s a massive case study on the impact that #interactivity and #gamification can have on an #audience. If you find sports boring, there are fantasy leagues for politics, celebrity gossip and reality TV programs.