As I shared a couple months ago, I’m what you would call a very casual fantasy football player. I don’t read fantasy football magazines (although I’ve written for one.), I don’t follow player injuries on ESPN, and if I forget to change my lineup like I did last weekend because a player’s team is on a bye, then so be it. I've witnessed how fantasy sports can change people’s attitudes and behaviors (See the Sept. blog entry), but I honestly never knew how much fantasy football impacted fans’ Sunday viewing habits until a few weeks ago when I was invited to a party to watch the Chicago Bears play the Washington Redskins.
Prior to this, the last time I sat and watched a full NFL football game was last year’s Super Bowl. But that party was more about snacking and analyzing the halftime show and commercials than player and team performance, so as I walked into this get-together a couple weeks ago, I was unsure what to expect. The big screen TV was locked on FOX and all the Sunday football viewing essentials (wings, chips and guacamole) were within reach just as I anticipated, but what grabbed my attention was that everyone brought their laptop or was checking their phones to keep tabs on their fantasy team’s points. Apparently live updates on these devices was insufficient fantasy football interaction for the partygoers, because the host set up another laptop on a bar stool next to the TV so we could watch highlights from the other games around the league when our game went to commercial.
One minute we were listening to the play-by-play announcers on our game call Matt Forte’s second touchdown. The next minute we’d flip to the computer’s audio to hear about another Calvin Johnson TD reception. This felt like a miniature Vegas sportsbook.
With each big play and highlight, I looked to my left and right, and everyone was feverishly scanning their electronics for their team’s up-to-the-second score. How each team was doing at that very moment determined the level of complaining or boasting:
“RGIII isn’t getting my team enough points.” “Forte is carrying my team this week.” “I’m so glad I didn’t trade for Jay Cutler.”
Your team? So glad you didn’t trade for Jay Cutler? Did I mistakenly walk into an NFL executive’s office instead of a football party? Letting the Average Joe run the show is a major lure of fantasy football, but it almost sounded at times like these guys actually believed that fantasy was reality.
But in a way, I guess it was. Before fantasy football, fans could only dream about getting closer to the action and having a say in how their favorite team functioned. Sure, they could yell at their TVs on Sundays, pay for game tickets and voice their displeasure in person or dial up a sports radio station and complain about team management and player ineptitude, but that’s where it ended for the fan. Now with fantasy football, the fans are the owner and GM of their own team, holding all the control when it comes to making personnel decisions that before they could only talk about.
The NFL will never give fans this kind of control over one of its franchises, but there have been examples of teams giving fans a direct say in how it functions, such as the UK-based MyFootballClub, which gave members voting rights when it came to ticket prices, player transfers, etc.
The “world’s first web community owned club” sold its majority share in Ebbsfleet United F.C. earlier this year and admitted that it was “not capable of running any football club remotely in an online environment,” but the club did provide soccer fans with a sense of community and a sense of control that, in a way, gave the game back to the people.
“While many soccer fans are happy to make Faustian pacts with private capital to ensure that their teams are successful, there is a considerable and general unease that the game has been taken over by distant, elite, faceless financiers and bureaucrats. The predominantly localist, masculinist, working-class character of soccer prior to late modernity has been challenged by a more spatially diffuse, media driven, individualized, unisex and middle-class form of leisure consumption. This shift has created a longing—especially among men, many of whom are no longer (or never were) members of the urban proletariat—to reconstruct a kind of communitas around their participation in the ownership and running of their team. Spatialized arrangements in terms of physical competition and spectatorship still persist, but new communications platforms have enabled a despatialization of networked communities mirroring that of sport associations, boards, media owners, and shareholder registers. Such postmodernized proto-communities select elements of pre/early/mid/late/postmodernity seeking to reconcile the contradictions of sporting capitalism by retaining communitarian attachments while also indulging in technologically mediated egoistic fantasies of control” (Hutchins, Rowe, & Ruddock, 2009).
Now it makes sense. Everyone recognizes that fantasy football isn’t real, but the friendships that it builds are. As are the feelings of control it gives the average fan. I guess it's not bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.