Full disclosure: I am the commissioner of the CCTV Newsroom Fantasy Football League.
What is fantasy football?
Fantasy football is a statistics game in which players become managers of fictional football teams by assembling a roster of real life professional football players to compete against one another. The first modern fantasy football website was launched in 1997 by CBS.
Fantasy football has since grown into a multi-billion dollar industry with over 27 million people currently playing, and one of the most important marketing tools for the NFL. Standard fantasy football leagues consist of between 8-12 teams which compete over the course of a full NFL season, often with prizes for the most successful teams at the end.
Players are most commonly chosen by “snake” draft where owners take turns picking players in a serpentine method, so the player who picks first in odd rounds picks last in even rounds.
Each week, managers or “owners”, of teams, set a lineup of real life players at a number of positions. The standard format is one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flexible position, one place kicker, and one defense.
Points are scored based on each player’s performance and vary based on position. For example, a team earns one point for every 25 passing yards their quarterback accumulates and one point for every 10 yards a running back accumulates.
In head-to-head leagues, teams play against one another in a one on one matchup lasting one week. At the end of the week, the team with the greater point total earns a win. The team at the end of the season with the highest win total is crowned the champion.
Why has fantasy football become so popular?
The increase in popularity in fantasy football is difficult to deny as spending has more than doubled between 2008-2012 and some of the biggest names in sports have striked deals to get in on the action. ESPN, Yahoo, and CBS all run their own fantasy football websites in addition to league-owned games.
The reason for its growth can be explained by both its social engagement, and its gambling fix.
One of the major attractions of fantasy sports in general, but fantasy football in particular is the social aspect. Quite often leagues are composed of old friends, coworkers, or family members and can be a means for lighthearted discussion to continue even across long distances.
Locally, leagues will often get together in a bar, restaurant, or living room to hold a live draft and will often get together to watch “key” games with close matchups that could decide the winners and losers of a particular week.
Most online platforms provide matchup and league chat rooms along with discussion forums and encourage light hearted smack talk among league members over player performance, lineup decisions, or anything else related or unrelated.
Owners also have the option to trade players among teams if they are unhappy with performance or expect a players regression in the future. Overall, fantasy football is a great way to encourage discussion between friends.
As one fantasy player puts it: “I have leagues with my family. We are scattered all over the states, and we are super competitive, so it keeps us close and have a fun rivalry.”
Fantasy football can also be an avenue to meet new people and discuss mutual interests. A team owner can be a fan of the St Louis Rams but may have drafted quarterback Andy Dalton who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. This owner now has incentive to watch Bengals games, keep up with the team, and will have more in common with a Bengals fan than they otherwise would have.
Most leagues play for small amounts of money or other prizes such as a small trophy or a championship ring.
In the same way that owners of real teams must purchase a franchise to participate in the NFL, owners for fantasy teams buy their way into leagues. At the end of the season, the entry fees are given to the league champion.
There are often joke prizes and awards given out at the end of the regular season as well. For example, our own Newsroom League holds an annual kicker derby in week 17 of the NFL where the team with the highest performing kicker receives a small prize.
What is this I hear about insider trading?
As the popularity of fantasy football grows so too has the rise of so-called Daily Fantasy Sports or DFS.
Daily Fantasy Sports are daily or weekly leagues that are a hybrid of fantasy football and traditional sports betting. In DFS, players pay an entry fee ranging from a few dollars to thousands to participate in leagues with dozens of opponents.
Sometimes, on the more popular daily fantasy sites such as DraftKings or FanDuel, opponents can number in the thousands. Payout is distributed to the top 1 percent of winners the next day, and is almost immediate.
Sports Business Daily reports that over one 3-month stretch, 91 percent of profits at DraftKings and FanDuel were won by just 1.3 percent of players. This has led critics of daily leagues to argue that the format is similar to the Las Vegas style of sports betting which is largely banned in professional sports.
Legally, daily fantasy leagues are considered games of skill, not chance, and thus are protected from taxes and regulations levied against standard sports betting.
The New York Times recently reported that a DraftKings employee had admitted to “inadvertently releasing data before the start of the third week of NFL games.”
That same week, he won $350,000 on DraftKing’s competitor site FanDuel. After the story broke, DraftKings released a statement claiming “this employee could not have used the information in question to make decisions about his FanDuel lineup.” Regardless, the incident has led some to question the ability of a multibillion dollar industry to regulate itself.
According to a FanDuel representative, DraftKings employees account for 0.3 percent of all winnings on FanDuel, ESPN reported.
FanDuel has given out $2 billion which would mean DraftKings employees have earned more than $6 million playing on their competitor’s site. Since the Times’ report of the data release, DraftKings has received an inquiry from the New York attorney general.
Fantasy football overall has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the past decade and a half that will no doubt continue into the future. Regardless of the drama surrounding daily fantasy leagues, the standard season-long leagues will continue to thrive and provide an exciting means for interacting with other fans.
In the words of one fan: “It finally gets my friends interested in all of the games instead of just their team. So I actually have people to watch games with all Sunday. It’s nice.”