Last week, ESPN embarrassed itself with an on-air fantasy football auction that was jokily staged with an audience of mostly white men bidding on various NFL players, some of whom were black. This cringe-worthy evocation of chattel slavery—which the network half-apologized for, limply noting that its “optics could be portrayed as offensive”—made it on the air at least in part because ESPN needed to fill airtime during a 28-hour-long “Fantasy Football Marathon.” Despite a recent, major round of layoffs, ESPN has doubled down on fantasy, extending the contract of its leading fantasy guru through 2021 and giving him both a daily and a weekly show. All of this is meant to serve a population of consumers that’s been growing at an astounding rate: According to the latest survey run by Ipsos for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, the player pool now comprises 59 million people in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., its reach extends to 21 percent of the population (excluding children).
While ESPN tries to reckon with—and cater to—a continental drift within its base, last week’s blunder and its offensive “optics” shed light on what these changes signify. As the on-air auction awkwardly depicted, fantasy-football players don’t root in the manner of traditional sports fans, as a member of the crowd that backs a specific team. Now their fandom is more personal: They own specific athletes—they make a choice to draft or purchase them—and then, in the context of their fantasy leagues, the athletes’ success redounds to them and them alone. In other words, fantasy transforms the relationship between football fans and football in a fundamental way, and as the industry grows ever larger, no one knows exactly how this transformation will play out.
“I think the NFL, in the long run, is going to have a brand-consistency issue,” says Brendan Dwyer, an associate professor of sport leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, “because people are not going to be interested in who wins games anymore.” Dwyer first began to study fantasy football as a graduate student in 2007. “I saw how people behaved during the games at sports bars,” he says. “I saw how torn they were, and I saw the cognitive dissonance they felt in watching both their favorite team and their fantasy team.” It was a pain he recognized: Dwyer is both a fantasy-team owner and a hardcore Packers fan, and he’s never drafted Green Bay’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers in any of his leagues. “I know that at least once a year, sometimes twice, Rodgers will be played against me—and I’m going to feel bad if he does well.”
That conflict raised a research question: Might the growth of fantasy eat away at the classic forms of fandom, and all the pleasures they provide?
For a time, the NFL was wary, too. Like gambling, fantasy football appeared to be a fragmentary force: Instead of rooting for one specific team, fantasy gamers had divided loyalties. That meant the value of the home-team brand could be under threat. Indeed, game attendance had started going down in 2007, around the time that fantasy was taking off, and the drop-off never stopped. It was also around 2007 that networks started to broadcast more games in high definition, which likely contributed to depressing in-stadium attendance. But it seemed plausible, at least, that the growth of fantasy might have exacerbated the effect.
Dwyer was not the only academic who saw the sudden need to understand this market shift. Andrew Billings, director of the University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication, got involved a few years later. “The basic premise of sports media research is that people watch or seek out sports to see who wins,” he says, “and fantasy sports seemed to put that in question.” Billings joined up with a young sports-management scholar and fantasy enthusiast named Brody Ruihley, and they began to look at the psychology of different types of fans. (They’ve since co-authored a textbook on the fantasy sports industry.) For one study, Billings and Ruihley asked 1,261 sports consumers, both traditional and fantasy types, to describe their motivations. How much would they agree with statements such as: “I get pumped up when I am watching my team”; “Seeing my favorite non-fantasy team win is important to me”; “Winning at fantasy sport improves my self-esteem”; or “I like helping people by providing them with information about fantasy sport”?
To their surprise, Billings and Ruihley found fantasy fans showed pretty much the same motivations as traditional fans, but at much higher levels. Those who played fantasy reported feeling more personally invested in their home team’s success, more enjoyment from their fandom, and more intense enthusiasm for the sport overall. In other words, they did not appear to be the tortured souls that Dwyer observed in sports bars. Rather, they were more like regular sports fans whose fanship had been dialed up. “The dichotomy is not ‘traditional versus fantasy,’ ” Billings and Ruihley concluded, “but, more aptly, one of ‘fan versus superfan.’ ” Another of their studies, headed up by Jeremy Lee, found that a fan’s level of involvement in fantasy football is in fact positively associated with her declared loyalty to, and identification with, her favorite team.
Data on media consumption habits would confirm the notion that fantasy players are a special breed of superfans. In 2010, ESPN’s Department of Integrated Media Research reported that fantasy fans were spending almost 23 hours on the network’s content every week compared with just seven hours for traditional consumers. This makes sense: A fantasy football fan has rooting interests on lots of different NFL teams, so he might be watching games from Thursday evening through Monday night. He’ll want to check in on the pregame shows to see if there’s any late-breaking news that might necessitate a lineup adjustment, and he’ll keep watching even when his local team is floundering. Ruihley, a Cincinnati sports fan, says fantasy keeps him engaged even when the Bengals have been eliminated from Super Bowl contention.
Now it began to seem as though fantasy sports were adding, not subtracting, from the NFL’s success. Not only were fantasy players spending more time on football programming, they were also drawing friends and family members into their leagues. If fans were turning into superfans, then maybe nonfans were also turning into fans. Pro teams now do everything they can to court the turbo-charged fantasy consumer. That means constructing in-stadium fantasy-friendly lounges and pavilions, with walls of televisions and open Wi-Fi, on the theory that a fantasy fan’s loyalties are not so divided as to be an obstacle to ticket sales.
That’s a questionable assumption, though. When Dwyer surveyed 325 fans in 2009, he found that the more people were invested in fantasy football, the more loyalty they claimed to have to their favorite nonfantasy sports teams. Then he asked them what they’d do if their favorite team were on television at the same time as the team with their highest-scoring fantasy player. In that case, the most invested fantasy players said they’d be less likely to watch their favorite team. “In the end they will try to watch their fantasy players, even though they’re saying ‘I’m a Packers fan, first and foremost,’ ” says Dwyer.
Anyone who’s played fantasy football has seen the various ways this tension gets resolved in practice. Some owners try to mitigate any potential conflict by drafting players from their favorite team, or by avoiding players from division rivals. In April, a group of business researchers in Massachusetts published an attempt to categorize the range of these behaviors, in the context of “consumer coping mechanisms.” Some fantasy players resort to something called “balanced interest rooting” while others may engage in “benefit-seeking interest shifts” to maximize enjoyment. Another common practice is “divergent roster selection,” wherein the owner leans into his divided loyalties: If he’s a Packers fan like Dwyer, he deliberately avoids picking Aaron Rodgers; that way he knows that he’ll have reason to be happy however Rodgers performs. (If Rodgers plays well, it’s good for the Packers. If he plays poorly, it’s bad for one of his fantasy rivals.)
Many of these strategies, which hedge against the risk of disappointment, strike me as a little sad. Don’t they hedge just as well against the thrill of victory? We know playing fantasy football makes fans more obsessive and capacious in their sports-media consumption. But what happens to the joy of fandom when we shift our rooting interest from specific teams to a batch of players spread throughout the league? Might our pleasure get divided, too?
Classic research in the field asserts that sports fans tend to “bask in reflected glory,” or “BIRG,” following a home-team victory. By identifying with their favorite team—“We won,” they say—fans share in the success. A very widely cited study from 1992 found that this reflected glory increases fans’ self-esteem: It leads them to rate themselves as better at playing darts, solving anagrams, and even getting dates with attractive members of the opposite sex. (Given that this paper was published during an age of freewheeling, p-hacking social psychology, the usual skepticism should be applied.) Meanwhile, when the home team loses, fans will try to dissociate themselves from the loss, by “cutting off reflected failure,” or “CORFing.” Now, in describing the outcome of game, the fan might say, “They lost.”
These bedrock concepts—BIRGing and CORFing—don’t map cleanly onto fantasy sports. When a fantasy owner wins, her glory isn’t merely “reflected”; it’s also earned, in a way, by the drafting and roster management decisions she’s made. And if she loses, she can’t so easily cut off from the failure of her players, because she’s the one who chose to start those players.
That’s why Dwyer told me he believes the highs and lows of fantasy fandom might be more extreme and more intense, on average, than the highs and lows of traditional fandom. When you control your roster—when you’re personally connected to a set of players that only you possess—then winning and losing take on more significance. And since fantasy games are a social activity, whatever success or failure you might have could well be amplified by its visibility to your fellow players, who are often friends or family.
I’m not so sure I buy that. I’ve played fantasy sports, off and on, for years, and when I think of the most exciting victories and the most crushing losses I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, exactly zero of them have involved my fantasy team. For me, the reflected glories of the Giants and the poorly deflected failures of the Jets—yes, I am a sports bigamist—have always been far more gripping than any outcome for my erstwhile FF squad (RIP, Huevos Rancheros). For me, the personal nature of fantasy football makes the feelings less intense, because there are no other fans with whom to share them. Yes, fantasy football is a social activity, but the emotions one feels at any given time are necessarily at odds with those of the other owners. If I celebrate, that means you’re dejected, and vice versa. No one ever has a reason to high-five.
The traditional fan may not have the fantasy player’s sense of ownership—he may not have bought his players at an auction—but he’s part of a community. He may only bask in reflected glory, but at least he doesn’t have to bask alone. If you’re a Giants fan, I can talk to you about the helmet-catch in Super Bowl XLII, and together we can sidle up once more and share in that amazing win. But no one else will ever want to hear about your fantasy team no matter what you say or do, never in a million years.
Fantasy sports may be good for football in a business sense: They may increase consumption and boost reported levels of enthusiasm and excitement. They may provide an outlet for the fans of lowly teams that never win. But in the long run, I think fantasy could be changing how we feel about our fandom. When we divert greater portions of our time to custom leagues, we’re diversifying our portfolio of passions. We’re trading stock in one highly volatile investment—rooting for our favorite team—for an index fund of rooting interests from around the league. That means we’re investing in the NFL at large: a safer play, to be sure, with lower stakes and many more ways to stay engaged. But when it comes to sports, if you’re playing it safe, then what’s the point of playing at all?