The Waning Delight of Fantasy Football

A hobby-turned-obsession has somehow lost its inimitable sway

Illustration by Rick Quemado

Illustration by Rick Quemado

Since the mid-1990s, fantasy football has engaged, entranced, befuddled, annoyed, and finally—exasperated me. In those first years it was a lark among co-workers who had to explain the concept to me—draft your own team of players before the season, choose a starting lineup each week and keep score using your players’ individual stats.

Back then the commissioner of our eight-team league would pore over box scores in the Monday newspaper to tabulate our league’s scores, follow up on Tuesday morning with Monday Night Football results and then release updated standings. We played with a cumulative scoring system, and the guy with the most points at the end of the season won a good sum of money and bragger’s rights; second place was satisfying; and third place meant the return of your entry fee.

The charm was palpable, starting with the draft. We’d sit around a conference room table (or later at a bar or over barbecue and beer) and have fun pretending we’re NFL GMs. The insults would fly when someone was taking too long, or when a guy picked someone who was past his prime, injured, or worse, in prison. Spend a fifth-round pick on a placekicker, and you were called an idiot … or worse.

Mulling trades, free-agent acquisitions and injuries served as a nice distraction at work. The hobby kept me out of sports books: The one-time entry fee created pulse-pounding entertainment for the first 16 weeks of the NFL regular season. You walk a little prouder down the hallway knowing you’re in command of the office league. Not doing well? You slink in despair whenever the subject pops up.

Pretty soon of course leagues shifted to weekly head-to-head matchups, so instead of cumulative scoring totals, you just had to be better than your fantasy opponent that week and get to the playoffs and the league championship. Magazines and websites proliferated, the Internet made research easier and scoring systems grew more complex. With bonus points, game scores became more like NBA scores than the NFL. The curiosity had turned into addiction.

Starting August 1, I would browse magazines and create a template for draft day. I would look at each team’s strength of schedule, intra-division opponents, offensive-line strength ratings and even bye weeks. During the season I watched the statistics roll in on my smartphone while strolling in the mall with the family. If I was home, I had to be connected to a computer to “watch” the play by play of multiple games. DirecTV’s RedZone became the way to watch football, and weekly online draft leagues upped the ante. Today, more than 33 million Americans participate in fantasy football leagues, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Together they spent an estimated $11 billion on the activity in 2013.

But, for me, the fun of managing teams in multiple leagues eventually became work. Drafts became sterile obligations spent in front of a computer instead of a bar or barbecue. Waiver-wire rules became more arcane. Frustration mounted as I would accumulate a good point total throughout the season, but frequently run up against a hot opponent. My win-loss record would not reflect the points I scored. Luck, injuries and the matchup trumped whatever homework I did, whatever skill I acquired, whatever strategy I implemented. The guy I believed was an idiot for drafting the placekicker in the fifth round ended up winning. Fantasy football was beginning to lose its hold on me and others.

“I thought it would never happen,” says Henderson marketing executive Brian Rouff, who like myself was an early adopter and played for about 15 years. “It’s like falling out of love. Sometimes it doesn’t happen slowly—you just wake up one day and go, ‘Uh, this blows. I’m done.’ … I just woke up one day and realized I was no longer having fun.” Rouff noted other factors that diminished the appeal—friends dropping out; family and career obligations; and the unintended consequence of participating in multiple leagues meant your own players were competing against each other.

Fantasy football used to be something more illicit, something I’d have to explain to others. When the masses of casual fans caught on, when it was monetized and milked, when the TV screens started showing constant stream of stats, I had to back off.

George F. Will once wrote, “Football combines two of the worst things in American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” And fantasy football mirrors other disheartening  trends of American culture—the instant gratification of the Information Age, the promotion of individual over the team and the constant escape from reality.

I’m stepping back, but not completely. Instead of three leagues this year, maybe I’ll participate in just one.

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