At the end of Monday night’s football game between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots charged down the field in the last minute of play. A fourth-down conversion to Pats’ tight end Rob Gronkoswki and a controversial no-call on a pass interference call in the end zone made for a thrilling finish to a back-and-forth game. As Tom Brady stormed off the field screaming at the referee, coverage cut away to the ESPN sports desk. After the excitement, controversy and drama of the preceding game, John Anderson had one thing to say: “So how did your fantasy team do this week?”
Over the past decade, fantasy football has gained popularity unparalleled in other fantasy sports. It has been popularized in the television show “The League,” makes the cover of Sports Illustrated yearly, receives coverage in national newspapers and has become the preferred topic of conversation by the water cooler on Monday mornings. Fantasy football’s surge in cultural stock over the past decade has seemingly re-energized fan interest in the National Football League. But at what cost to true fandom?
There are many fantasy owners who pick along their own team lines, but more often than not, player rankings and projections win out. This phenomenon itself isn’t a problem. The problem arises when interests are pitted against each other — when a Bears fan has the Baltimore defense, and rooting for the home team suddenly becomes more complicated. It’s in these cases when you hear people rooting for a low scoring offensive performance, with a turnover or two that’s inconsequential, for their team to score only the minimum to win — the list goes on.
These may be extreme examples, but they still reflect a reality of the impact of fantasy sports on fandom. Fans start to root not for teams, but for individual players. This piece-meal style of support admittedly makes it fun to follow several games and track the performance of several individuals. However, the team results begin to fade into the background as individual success becomes the priority. Fantasy managers continually refresh their fantasy homepages instead of tuning into an actual game. People who typically wouldn’t know Eli from Peyton suddenly become the loudest people at the bar on Sunday afternoons.
All of these consequences of fantasy football might not be so bad. Fantasy owners certainly get broader exposure to scores and standings from all across the league. This broadens the field of vision for fans, who start to follow more than just one team.
Fantasy also gives people who might otherwise lack an interest in football a reason to care. In this way, fantasy actually creates more fans, giving the NFL more exposure and fans in America more people to engage in small talk on Monday mornings.
However, the level of commitment of fans to particular teams becomes somehow diminished through this process. I should be clear: There are many fans who play fantasy and still manage to root for their teams with as much (and sometimes too much) vigor and passion as ever before. But there seems to be, on average, a general movement away from this kind of fandom in the fantasy football era.
Fantasy football effectively moves the fan one step further away from the games and the results of those games. Real game points and statistics are converted to fantasy scores, and these are used as a substitute for the actual experience of the games themselves. While emotional responses to fantasy teams prove to be surprisingly salient, divorcing the fan from the game itself weakens the emotionality of fandom in another, more important way.
Fantasy football is, for all intents and purposes, an individualistic effort. Granted, there is undeniably a strong element of camaraderie that comes with fantasy’s live drafts, trade negotiations and trash talk. But when it comes to Sunday, you cheer alone. The more valuable camaraderie that comes from a group of people supporting a team together somehow gets lost in translation in fantasy football.
Again, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy fantasy football for what it’s worth. I also understand that, to a true fan, it shouldn’t change much. True Patriots’ fans still pumped their fists in celebration when Gronk’s fourth-down reception extended the final drive, and they yelled at the TV right along with Brady after the game was over.
But fantasy football strips away these overarching stories, the ones that are cause for camaraderie and true fandom. There is something to be said for investing in these broader narratives, and for doing so with others. Being a fan is ultimately a group effort that involves rooting for a team with others who are equally invested. Fantasy football breeds a different, competitive type of fan. The challenge, then, is to find a balance, to stay true to our teams and to know what’s real and what’s fantasy.