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Fantasy football splits loyalties
I know exactly how I hope Wednesday’s NFL regular-season opener at MetLife Stadium will go. I want the New York Giants to start by pounding the ball on the ground, getting at least one rushing touchdown, hopefully by Ahmad Bradshaw. I want the Giants to be up by, say, 14 points at half so the Dallas Cowboys are forced to pass the ball in the second half. I want Tony Romo to throw at least three touchdown passes in the game, preferably to Miles Austin, so my fantasy team can get double the points.
One thing I do not care about: who wins.
I am not a sports gambler. I do not care about the point spread. I am neither a Giants fan nor a Cowboys fan; in fact, I rather dislike both franchises, the Cowboys for its decade of domination and the Giants for being New Yorkers. And I do not even particularly care about the game’s implications in the NFC East division race.
I am your stereotypical NFL fantasy team owner. This is the type of fandom that has overtaken the NFL in the past decade, forever changing how we root for America’s favorite sport. We root for the individual over the team. We get angry at head coaches playing mind games with their injury reports. We conflate our reality-team loyalties with our fantasy-team loyalties, making for some mighty conflicted feelings on Sunday afternoons.
My unfortunate fantasy draft last week netted me a big stake in tonight’s opener: an unreliable quarterback (Romo) and two offensive producers coming off injuries (Austin and Bradshaw). I will watch every play, follow every stat, fret about any injury. If Eli Manning had torn an ACL in the opening game last year, I would have mourned, as he was my starting quarterback. But that was last year. My loyalties have changed. This year I would cheer an Eli injury, as a hampered Giants passing game would only help my running back’s stats.
This is the weird, disorienting way we root for sports today. Sure, we all have our favorite teams, which we root for each and every week. But sometimes our favorite team is playing a team we have a fantasy stake in, so instead of just being satisfied with a win, we want a specific type of win. We might be a Green Bay Packers diehard, but we happen to have the San Francisco 49ers defense on our fantasy team – so this weekend we want Aaron Rodgers to throw three interceptions, one of which is returned for a touchdown, while our Packers pull out a 9-7 squeaker of a victory.
This must be the most annoying part of being a professional athlete in 2012, especially when fans are able to speak to you directly through social media. I remember a few tweets by Houston Texans running back Arian Foster just before last season, when he was dealing with a hamstring injury. Foster, one of the more philosophical players in the NFL, was clearly frustrated by fans treating him as a piece of meat, as an interchangeable part in this fantasy-obsessed league. “4 those sincerely concerned, I'm doing ok & plan 2 B back by opening day. 4 those worried abt your fantasy team, u ppl are sick.” And then: “My quarrel is with people who value a digital game over a humans health.”
Foster’s point is as insightful as it is both naïve and hypocritical. It is sick that we value a digital game over a human’s health. But when you think about it in real football terms instead of fantasy terms, it’s nearly as sick that we value the record of our favorite team over that same human’s health. There’s a reason we talk about the NFL as the Next Man Up league; injuries happen, and moments after our team’s star running back is carted off the field, we’re cheering when his replacement runs for a first down. It’s the same in fantasy. My reaction if Eli Manning tore an ACL would be just as strong if I were a diehard Cowboys fan as if I were in a 12-team keeper league where my main rival had Eli as his quarterback. The compensation for putting up with being treated as a commodity is the millions a year we pay our professional athletes.
The difference (and the genius in the NFL promoting fantasy leagues more heavily than any other sport) is that instead of our loyalties sticking with one franchise, our loyalties are to the entire league. The NFL is spreading out its risk. Two decades ago I would have looked at the opening weekend slate of games and only cared about the ones that affected my hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now my loyalties are spread throughout all of the games on opening weekend, meaning weekends are consumed by keeping track of every single game, even that Jaguars-Vikings stinker.
The NFL knows what it’s doing here. Its embrace of fantasy football (note the omnipresent stat ticker) gives fans a sense of control over this sport where many of us are priced out of attending more than a game or two a year. It means Browns fans will still follow the NFL when the Browns are 2-12 in December. It means that Trent Richardson scoring two touchdowns for his 2-12 Browns will still matter in December. It means the estimated 25 million Americans who play fantasy football will spend their Sundays checking on their fantasy teams on the ticker on the television, the fantasy apps and fantasy web sites and the screens at NFL stadiums that Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered two years ago must show fantasy stats.
And it means the NFL has opened up to whole new audiences — say, women who had never been interested in football before — through a fantasy industry that’s estimated to be worth $1 billion a year, according to a recent report on FOX Business.
“Once you were able to create a competition within a competition, you brought those niche audiences to your television to watch your product,” said Ryan Fowler, the FOXSports.com fantasy editor. “That’s where it changed, where you were able to get women to see what the guys liked about it.”
Even the philosophical Arian Foster knows the value of these fantasy leagues to the National Football League. Sure, he was peeved last year when fantasy football owners harassed him on social media about that hamstring injury. But guess who showed up on a television promotional spot for an ESPN fantasy football league before this season? You guessed it: Arian Foster.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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