It’s fantasy season in the United States.
Now, of course, one can fantasize about being a princess or drift into reverie about winning the lottery, any time of year.
I’m talking about a specialized kind of fantasy. An ongoing, all-consuming, often dead-serious one that’s geared to different seasons. An obsession, shared by an estimated 35 million Americans. That’s more people than live in any U.S. state except California.
They are the ever-growing number of participants in fantasy sports leagues. And if it’s a football league, they’re all a-flutter right now, two months before the professional National Football League begins playing real American-style football games. Owners of fantasy sports teams are about to assemble their own “dream” teams that will compete in lock step with the actual NFL schedule, all the way to the Super Bowl championship game next February.
Obviously a plumber or shoe clerk in a fantasy league isn’t assembling a flesh-and-blood team. The guy has probably never met an actual pro-football player. I say “guy,” because the lion’s share of fantasy players are men. Lots of American women love sports and follow games avidly, too. But more men are “hard-core,” digging deep into player statistics, hanging on to every rant of sports-talk radio hosts, and devouring published analyses from other sports wonks.
There are fantasy leagues for basketball, ice hockey, and college football, too — and baseball, which has passed the mid-point of its season. Baseball’s season stretches over 162 games, and the pace of play — on the field and among its fantasy followers — is unhurried.
But the National Football League’s regular season is compacted into just 16 games. For fantasy-team owners, each week is its own, intense pressure cooker. Unlike owners of the real NFL teams, they can — and do — jettison poor performers, pick up new players, and trade with other league owners just about every week, trying to improve their teams.
When I say “teams,” I don’t mean that a fantasy player simply picks the Pittsburgh Steelers or Oakland Raiders and follows their fortunes all season long, as fans do, often from childhood. Fantasy owners select their teams from the league’s entire roster of players. So the starting running back could be from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the quarterback next to him from the Seattle Seahawks.
Who wins the real NFL games on Sunday or Monday is irrelevant. For fantasy teams, winning is determined solely by the statistical achievements of the players on the team in categories such as passing yards and “sacks,” or tackles, of the opposing quarterback. These stats come from real players playing the real games each week.
Just “skill position” players among the 11 offensive and 11 defensive players, plus a few who are on the field when kicks for points are being attempted, are on a fantasy team. There’s little use of the few statistics produced by those at blocking positions such as center and guard.
As you read this, fantasy owners are assembling their teams using a “draft,” in which they take turns picking players. Very often this draft takes place in person as a quasi-social occasion in one owner’s “man cave.” Other times, it’s strictly an online exercise.
One by one, in an order everyone agrees to, the owners pick players for their team, from any eligible position they chose. If I’m first, I might pick a quarterback, the player who runs real teams’ offenses. You might be next and also pick a quarterback, or you might prefer to choose a star wide receiver, the player who catches the lion’s share of a quarterback’s passes. And so it goes until each team’s roster is complete.
Sometimes, in what are called “keeper leagues,” team owners may carry over a few players from the previous season if they like. More often, fantasy teams are built from scratch. The owner of an assortment of players one season may have a completely different squad the next.
I’m a fan of the New Orleans Saints’ NFL team. But that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily pick my favorite Saints players for my fantasy team. It’s possible, but only if I thought a Saint was the best “on the board” when it was my turn to select. As B.J. Rudell, my guide to the world of fantasy sports, reminds me, loyalty goes out the window when you’re drafting your fantasy team. You pick whom you think is the best available player, even if it’s someone from a team you dislike and root against.
The hard work comes in evaluating players, based on an array of statistical measures, lightly sprinkled with one’s own “gut feelings” about which players will shine. If you want to win, though, B.J. says, you’d best keep hunches to a minimum.
Most fantasy leagues are small-time affairs: 10 to 15 friends or office colleagues who throw $20 or $30 in a pot, winner-take-all to the owner of the team with the best record at season’s end. That’s after post-season playoffs to determine the champion, just as in the real NFL teams’ playoff runs toward the Super Bowl.
Let’s let B.J., who has written a new book called Fantasy Football for Winners, carry the load from now on, explaining the highs, lows, and nuances of fantasy sports.
A bit more about him:
B.J. Rudell is an eclectic fellow. He’s 39, married, with a first child on the way. He has worked as a Congressional aide, a civics teacher, a writer and editor, and a comic performer at “improvs,” or extemporaneous comic performances — the last as an outlet for an offbeat sense of humor not necessarily suited for strait-laced business settings. He’s now a “senior consultant for a program-management firm.” It would take me some time to explain what that is, exactly. B.J. and his wife, Carey, spent the past two years in India, where B.J. telecommuted to that job.
They now live in the Washington, D.C., area, where — at least until the baby arrives — B.J. spends a good deal of his free time immersed in fantasy sports.
What’s the attraction, I asked him, about crunching statistics, trying to come up with a mishmash of players who you think will perform well?
It combines people’s love of following sports with their own competitive spirit. The teams they follow may have had bad luck or bad fortune. But suddenly I can create my own team and have control over it.
That seems awfully impersonal — more work than fun.
It’s true. We don’t have time to fall in love with the players on our team. That’s because you’re always picking new players. Suddenly all the players that helped you win the league last year are worthless to you. You’re focusing on the here and now.
Whether they’re upstanding citizens or first-class “knuckleheads,” in currently popular sports parlance?
Yup. It’s cold and heartless. But we have seeming control over our destiny. We’re not relying on a team’s actual general manager [to pick players] or on players we’ll never get to know.
B.J.’s humor peeks through in his book when he frequently refers to fantasy players as “losers.”
And we ARE. Even if you make it to the championship game and lose, you have failed to win. Being in second place in fantasy sports, as in real sports, hurts. And maybe we’re losers in another sense, because we’re watching football on a Sunday for nine hours rather than getting out and “having a life.”
So fantasy players are geeks. Boring nerds.
There are many very good fantasy competitors who have a statistical skill set, who know how to crunch numbers. There’s some value to looking at statistics and projections and make sense of them. But I’ve also competed against people who are very good at spotting things or reading things that other people don’t pick up on.
B.J. gives the example of fantasy players who last season picked up a New York Giants player, wide receiver Victor Cruz, even though Cruz had barely made the Giants’ team. He ended up making spectacular catches and piling up impressive statistics as the Giants rolled to the Super Bowl and won.
Isn’t there a deeper connection, more of a thrill, following a real team than living and dying by the accomplishments of make-believe mercenaries on your fantasy team?
It’s true that that “something,” that romance, is missing from fantasy sports. But increasingly it’s missing from professional sports as well, compared to 25 or 50 years ago. There aren’t as many players who show loyalty to a team, or teams that show loyalty to a player. Everybody today says it’s a business. We take that to a fantastical level and say fantasy sports is just a business. We really don’t care if this player or that player is taken, as long as we win.
B.J.’s a Miami Dolphins’ fan. Suppose Miami is playing the San Diego Chargers. In his heart, he’d like to see the Dolphins win, but a Charger is the quarterback is on his fantasy team. Which team does he root for?
This is where fantasy sports and real sports collide. You have to choose. As a fantasy sports professional that I aspire to be [some people make a living at this!], my goal is to put fantasy sports above real sports. And it doesn’t mean I don’t love watching real sports for the game, the poetry of competition. But I’d root for the team whose player was on my fantasy team.
So you almost can’t lose. If the real team that you root for wins, you’re happy. And if the other team with one of your fantasy players does well, you’re happy, too.
Ah, but I know people who say that means you could LOSE both ways. Your favorite real team could lose the game AND your fantasy player on the other team could have a miserable game.
B.J. Rudell’s Fantasy Football for Winners points out that fantasy sports has become a multimillion-dollar — some say multibillion-dollar — phenomenon. How’s that possible, if only a few hundred dollars change hands in a typical league? He says lots of “experts” and companies supply statistical services to fantasy players — for a fee. There are fantasy programs on cable-TV and satellite-radio sports stations, paid Web sites for fantasy players, and millions of dollars spent on advertising fantasy-sports products. And there are some high-stakes leagues, including secret ones they don’t want tax collectors to know about.
Rudell himself has entered a few nationwide fantasy-sports competitions with thousands of players. He’s even won two of them, and pocketed a couple of thousand dollars in each. “But I feel that winning is more important than winning money,” he says. “So I compete in things that are essentially free. Winning takes care of basically every competitive need I have.”
B.J. Rudell’s rule of thumb in balancing real life and fantasy life is simple: relationships come first. It helps, of course, that Carey indulges his obsession. She knows it’s an outlet for his competitiveness, and that it makes him happy.
Come on, I said to him. Surely your fantasy absorption gets between you and her on occasion.
“Well, once,” he replied. “I was playing in a worldwide baseball competition, and I was doing well. I told Carey that if I won [the $3,000 first prize], we’d use it for a nice vacation.”
“I won . . . and I forgot the promise.”
As I said, fantasy sports can be all-consuming.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Jettison. To discard or abandon something. Pilots of airplanes that are in trouble, for instance, often jettison fuel to reduce the danger of an explosion upon impact. The word, from the French, is also the origin of the word “jetsam,” as in “flotsam and jetsam.” Jetsam is discarded material floating on the water. Flotsam is the floating remnants of a crash or ship’s sinking.
Parlance. A particular way of speaking in a certain job or profession. Sports “lingo,” for instance, is one kind of parlance.
Strait-laced. Rigid, formal, prim and proper — even “up tight” in the current vernacular. You may know that a strait is a narrow body of water, a passage, and strait-laced as an adjective also comes from the concept of narrowing or tightening. Specifically, it traces to the excessive tightening of a corset in the days when it was fashionable for women to wear one.
Wonk. A person who is exceptionally, perhaps obsessively, studious. Some government officials — even a recent president or two — have been called “policy wonks.”