It’s week sixteen of the NFL regular season. With the number of available spots dwindling, teams in their respective conferences are scrapping and clawing to punch their ticket into the playoffs. Bars, living rooms, basements, and man caves across the nation are filled with nervous, sweat-dripping individuals wearing the jersey of their favorite player. It’s a nail biter -the last drive, the last seconds of a sixty-minute slug fest. The ball is snapped and the quarterback Cam Newton prepares for one last heave towards the ever-elusive end zone. He lets the ball go and as if trained by the best of conductors, the orchestras of noise in rooms across the country are brought to an abrupt silence. Kelvin Benjamin goes up… and snags it over three defenders for six points and a few fans in each of the rooms explode with roars of delight!!! Unfortunately the Saints still win in a 34-14 blowout. Huh??? So why are these fans cheering? Well, these fans cared nothing about the actual game, but way more about their week sixteen fantasy football championship matchup. And if you haven’t guessed it by now, those few cheering fans just witnessed Kelvin Benjamin clinch the championship for their fantasy team. This Panthers game is just a made-up scenario I created to illustrate the phenomenon that is fantasy sports leagues and, in particular, fantasy football.
We all do it. Come on, be honest. Wait, let me take that back. At least the majority of my friends and I do, and it’s far from just a mere guilty pleasure. Fantasy sports (and especially fantasy football) is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the United States. The television station FX even created an extremely popular show, “The League,” centered around a group of friends and the insane lengths to which they go, despite their real life jobs and family commitments, in order to win the fantasy football league championship. So how does fantasy football work? Well, it begins with a group of people setting up a draft in which they select various players from different positions on different teams who they believe will have the best statistical seasons in the upcoming year. The leagues are totally driven by statistics such as the number of yards gained and touchdowns scored by a player. These statistics determine the amount of points a player will earn for that week’s performance.
In 2013, more than 30 million people in the United States were participants in a fantasy football league. While there are fantasy leagues for other sports like baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and even NASCAR, fantasy football is responsible for most of the fantasy craze. In 2013, the industry generated around $15 billion from the 30 million plus people in fantasy football leagues. This is an astonishing number. To put it into perspective, it is $5 billion more than the NFL’s reported total annual revenue of $10 billion in the same year.
The indications are that this new industry will only continue to grow. One survey asked fantasy sports players when they expected to quit. The resounding response was “Never”(Bloomberg). According to the market research firm IBISWorld, “[f]antasy sports services revenue is expected to grow 7.3% annually … within the next five years”(mainstreet). In 2015, the daily fantasy sports industry “will collect more in entry fees than all the sports books at Vegas casinos combined” (Bloomberg). If you, like me, have never had to pay a league fee to fantasy websites that you utilize, then how is this vast revenue stream generated? Most of the revenue is coming from the rise of new daily fantasy sports leagues/websites like FanDuel and DraftKings. In these leagues, participants “pay a small fee to enter public leagues that last for only one week, so there is no ongoing commitment. Instead of playing with friends, participants are competing against people they typically don’t know, for a much bigger pool of money”(Quartz). FanDuel’s biggest public league, Sunday Millions, guarantees a payout of around $2 million each weekend with first place taking home $250,000 and smaller prizes allocated to nearly 21,000 participants. While the financial aspects of these fantasy leagues are clearly astounding, they are also affecting the ways in which we consume sports. Assistant professor of sports administration at the University of Cincinnati, Brody Ruihley, suggests that fantasy sports make these fans (who he calls “Sports Fans 2.0”) even more addicted to sports. Even Sal La Rocca, president of global operations and merchandising for the NBA, says he believes that this consumption is in line with the way people consume media currently. He notes that “[w]e’re on our phones looking at our Twitter feeds, looking at headlines, and we consume things in very short periods of time” (Bloomberg). Some people are even so enthralled with this new way of online betting that it has attracted them away from poker and other online gambling sites that have since been shut down. There are even people who are making daily fantasy sports betting into a full-time occupation!
In the wake of this newly blooming industry it is important to determine whether or not we should include daily fantasy sports leagues under the banner of gambling or under the category of the season-long fantasy leagues operated by the likes of ESPN, yahoo, etc. with which many are more familiar. The question of why we should care about all this comes up as well. While clearly not as pressing as issues of poverty, healthcare, war, or other issues of national importance, it is important to determine how to classify and regulate this industry in order to guard against it becoming part of the black market in sports betting that already exists and dwarfs the legal market. Regardless, fantasy sports appear to be here to stay and it will be interesting to watch the progression of this industry in the coming years.