Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When in Rome Part Three...

Ever tried explaining fantasy sports to someone? It’s downright embarrassing. When I was in college, my roommate and I joined a fantasy baseball league with some of our friends. On the day of our draft, we declared a corner in the computer lab on campus and obnoxiously (and pathetically) trash talked each others picks. The girl I liked at the time asked me what we were doing, and suddenly reality set in. I was arguing with my friends over a team of grown men (who didn’t know I existed) I had assembled. I had created a fantasy world where I was the mastermind behind the team. I was pretending to be Frank Wren or Theo Epstein.

The football version of fantasy sports is by far the most glaring example of our obsession with the NFL. Using players as giant, muscular avatars, the experience of living out our inner Tyler Durdens has skyrocketed to new heights. In the 2010 season alone, an estimated 18 million people played fantasy football across the country. (Some reports estimate a number much greater.)

Fantasy football is so popular even established and respected news networks who don’t specialize in sports regularly feature reports on which sleeper free agents can help you win your office league. Articles with titles like “Fantasy Football could help you get a raise” pop up across the internet, promising corporate networking possibilities for our online addiction. Even the business world is forced to create fantasy football policies due to the hundreds of millions in lost revenue caused by employees playing fantasy football at work.

Opponents to fantasy football believe the activity is ruining the experience of supporting a team, but those puritan cries are muffled by the mountains of revenue brought in by this billion dollar industry. Therefore the NFL created a channel catered specifically to fantasy leagues. The Red Zone Network is the watered down, instant gratification version of Sunday games. By showing only scoring opportunities from every team, fantasy players can watch their teams win or lose as if they were watching an actual game. If this were in Sports Illustrated, it would appear in the “Sign of the Apocalypse” section.

But of course the NFL loves fantasy leagues. In what other context would a meaningless touchdown in a blowout game keep fans glued to the screen? Only if they’re trailing by five points against the guy from accounting in the office league.

Again, try explaining this to someone who doesn’t care.

The appeal of fantasy football is not in the activity itself (albeit fun), but rather in the intimate connection it gives fans who otherwise wouldn’t have access to actual NFL players. Men who are faster, stronger, and more powerful become pawns in the hands of men who’ve seen the bottom of a milkshake more than they’ve seen the end of a mile run.

I don’t mean to paint fantasy players as pathetic slobs (I’ve played several times), but it does bring the average person closer to a world that is otherwise unattainable.

In my previous posts, I compared the NFL to the gladiators of ancient Rome. Applying this same logic to fantasy sports, could you imagine fantasy gladiators? Or maybe war conquests? Fantasy Crusades could be a huge hit.

Indulging in these games is no more absurd than enjoying the game itself. We should, however, be honest about what drives the intensity behind this activity. In the ESPN 30 for 30 film, Silly Little Game, fantasy sports creators said owning their original fantasy baseball team made them feel like gods. Their passion was in the palm of their hands, regardless if it was a fantasy.

With the proper perspective, fantasy sports can be more fun than simply watching the games. The story about my friends meeting in the computer lab is one of the best memories I have from my years at East Tennessee State (regardless of my embarrassment). However, it can also morph into a vehicle for an NFL junkie’s desperate attempts at glory without ever risking a concussion, torn ACL, or separated shoulder. Like a man visiting a strip to club to experience a woman, this endeavor will be ultimately unfulfilling.

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