FRONDORF: Fantasy should not overtake reality

“God bless fantasy football. There are many things a man can do with his time. This is better than those things.”

This monologue kicked off the first season of “The League,” an FX series that features a cast of characters joined together by their annual fantasy football league. Going into its fourth season, the show is a testament to the popularity of its already-ficticious subject matter. I enjoy the show for what it is — a lowbrow comedy that relies on its characters and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fantasy football is just the backdrop.

Yet I saw that now-semi-famous dialogue appear last week on my Facebook news feed to welcome in the new NFL season. The decision to mark the occasion by preaching the joys of fantasy football is revealing — because, you know, most people used to be excited about the actual football being played. For some, fantasy football has become more than just a supplement to the season — it has become its own season.

Fantasy football doesn’t have to be all bad. Just like “The League,” I enjoy fantasy leagues for what they are; it is fun to draft my team each fall and see how it shakes out. (Unsurprisingly, I lost last week.) There are other positive externalities; much of the contact I have with friends from home is through our fantasy football, basketball and baseball leagues. To be clear: Fantasy football has definitely enhanced my football-watching experience.

Yet enhancing an experience is far different from overshadowing it, and I am troubled by the increasing takeover of fantasy football. Fantasy is not the same experience as the reality of live NFL action. A game has its own unique atmosphere, storylines, triumphs and failures. I know I am biased as a lover of storytelling, narrative and live action, but fantasy is just not as engaging. When pushed to its extreme, fantasy football is diluting the fun of the sport instead of serving as a nice side dish.

I know I am starting to sound a little like a cantankerous old man unwilling to accept change. But this is not just a gradual shift or tweaking of the rules; it is a total repurposing of the game. Fantasy football takes a team-based sport and transforms it into a bizarre contest where individual performances shine over team wins. The NFL is about cities packing stadiums and coming together. Teams feed off this energy to work together for wins. It is about the Bills miraculously taking down the Patriots; not that Houston’s Arian Foster ran 100 yards and had two TDs to “get me” 20 points.

It’s also unsettling to hear someone’s loyalty for the hometown team diluted in favor of trying to will fantasy scenarios to fruition. As someone told me last weekend (in summary):

“Yeah, I want the Bears to win. But I also hope Andrew Luck has a good debut and keeps things close for the Colts … because he’s my fantasy QB.”

How far are we willing to take this? Instead of sitting down to watch the game with friends and family on Sunday, some of us are staring at spreadsheets and furiously clicking to make last-minute roster moves. We now have columnists entirely devoted to fantasy football analysis and a full block of ESPN fantasy programming on Sunday mornings.

Clearly, the NFL does not think fantasy football is destroying the game (nor do I, as of yet). In fact, NFL officials do not seem to share my anxiety and instead actively promote fantasy as part of the League’s brand. The NFL runs its own league manager product for the fantasy game on its official website and is now broadcasting out-of-town fantasy highlights to spectators in stadiums. If fantasy is attracting new fans or turning casual football watchers into serious fans, I have no problem. But when more and more fans are only fantasy football fans, the NFL is distorting the goals and incentives of its main product, football.

Live team sports inspire conversation and unity. They are a ritual of competition that have brought people together for generations. Thus it’s hard not to see fantasy as an attack on that ritual.

Interestingly, the NFL doesn’t even seem to recognize its own manufactured irony in a 2010 commercial promoting its “improved” fantasy football website that added supplemental video to the statistics. If you want to make this column truly interactive, search “NFL Say Goodbye to Dots” on YouTube and follow along for the full effect. The script:

“Football’s never been a game of dots. So why should your fantasy game be one? Goodbye dots. Hello video. Sign up and play the first fantasy game with video, new at NFL.com. You want the NFL, go to the NFL.”

Fine, that’s all well and good — and a clever advertisement. But brief video clips fail to replicate the full experience — they are only snippets of a game, just like clips of a movie. And they have nothing to do with team success or hometown pride. It’s ironic how video clips are supposed to “improve” the fantasy experience when it should be the other way around — fantasy should improve the existing experience.

Let’s change up the script on that commercial:

“You want the NFL? Watch the NFL. And if you still want more, then sign up and play fantasy. Football’s never been a game of dots. So why should your NFL experience be one?”

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