Last weekend, I gathered with friends for a fantasy football draft.
Judging by the data, you or someone you know did too.
Fifty-seven million people across North America played fantasy sports in 2014, and some estimates are forecasting that fantasy participation will jump to a staggering 75 million Americans this year.
That’s nearly one-in-four Americans plunking down money to test their team-building acuity — to see if they have the brains to divine the value of Miami running back Lamar Miller now that “former Chip Kelly disciple” Bill Lazor is calling plays.
And many people are willing to use much more than their wits to bolster their chances at winning their league: true fantasy football die-hards can now plunk down a minimum of $895 to attend a Fantasy Sports Combine at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, as they are treated to big-screen analysis from former coaches like Mike Shanahan and “fantasy insiders” like Adam Schecter and Matthew Berry.
For an extra fee, a combine attendee can even smoke a cigar with Shanahan.
The Fantasy Sports Combine is laughably lavish and self-important, and could be easily dismissed as a glorified ComicCon for football dweebs.
But its mere presence — and high price tag — indicate just how big a business fantasy sports has become: Forbes estimates that the fantasy football industry is valued as high as $70 billion.
A fantasy a day
Much of this growth can be attributed to daily fantasy sports (or DFS), which in its rather brief existence has ballooned into a massive industry.
The two biggest daily-fantasy sites — FanDuel and Draft Kings, which are nearly impossible to miss with their ubiquitous advertising — were started in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and have come to dominate the industry. They are both valued near $1 billion by investors.
Daily fantasy essentially compresses the entire fantasy season into one day, giving players the two most exciting parts — the draft and the final score — as quickly as possible without all those messy games in the middle.
DFS sites are springing up left and right — even old-media giants like USA Today and Sports Illustrated are getting into the act, hosting and sponsoring their own DFS leagues on their sites.
It’s easy to see why they are: according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (yes, there’s a Fantasy Sports Trade Association), the average DFS player was spending $5 on daily fantasy over a 12-month period in 2012; in 2015, that number will hit $257 per fantasy player, a 5,000 percent increase.
Sites like FanDuel and Draft Kings give sports nuts the opportunity to throw down daily sports bets with prices and odds that reflect recent on-field performance.
If that sounds like gambling, it is. Or at least it was, until the NFL and other pro sports leagues successfully lobbied to get a “fantasy carve-out” in an anti-gambling bill in 2006 that reclassified DFS sites as games of skill, not chance.
The NFL’s motivation is clear: the league’s internal research showed that fantasy football participation correlated to higher viewership numbers — which, of course, would lead to more advertising revenue.
The DFS boom has led to the NFL’s full-on embrace of an activity that, until 2006, was legally considered gambling: this season, Draft Kings will now have “branded fantasy sports lounges” at three NFL stadiums, joining Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center.
No accounting for taste
As daily-fantasy has exploded in popularity, with it have come the requisite websites and TV segments featuring experts spouting off advice for that day.
There are even DFS professionals, like Jeremy Munter, who live in Vegas and devote themselves full-time to daily fantasy sports, offering their own daily picks to consumers for $400 a week.
There are also skeptics like me out there who wonder what effect this has had on how we watch sports.
Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, the co-creator of the first-ever fantasy baseball league, quit playing fantasy after realizing that he was losing his “attachment … to the physical thing that’s taking place on the field,” as he told the New Yorker.
Okrent continued: “When people say, ‘How do you feel, having invented this?’ I say, ‘I feel the way that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt having invented the atomic bomb.’ I really do. I mean, pretty terrible!”
On an aesthetic level I do think fantasy sports — and daily-fantasy sports, in particular — have damaged the sports-viewing experience, especially in more team-oriented games like football and basketball.
Sure, more people are watching sports than ever before.
But what are they watching?
Certainly not the lightning-quick defensive rotations of the Golden State Warriors, or a pulling-guard opening up a perfect hole just as a streaking halfback accelerates through it.
They’re watching to see if Steph Curry got his 25 points or if Jamaal Charles scored a touchdown — often in the closing minutes of meaningless games.
Watching sports for fantasy takes the poetry out of it, reducing the subtleties and nuance of sports to simple accounting in a ledger.
It turns an epic novel into a spreadsheet.
But that didn’t stop me from drafting a fantasy football team this year. Although, for me, it’s much more about the “fantasy” than the “football.”
With my final pick, I drafted Daunte Culpepper.