About 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older play fantasy sports, according to the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association. The majority of those players prefer fantasy football (apparently, fantasy field hockey hasn’t really taken off yet). The pastime now boasts 59 million players in the U.S. and Canada, many of whom spend hours each week reviewing stats, setting lineups, and fretting about their draft choices.
To put that another way, fantasy football is a big deal. And when a hobby becomes an obsession for millions of people, it can have some unintended effects. For instance…
1. Fans are watching more games (even if they don’t care who wins).
Let’s start with something obvious: You can’t really play fantasy football without paying attention to NFL games, and if you’re serious about your team, you probably watch quite a bit more football than the average fan. You’ll end up watching games that don’t involve your favorite team—hey, you might hate the Patriots, but if you drafted Tom Brady, you’ll certainly watch him play. You might even root for him, although you’ll never admit it to your Broncos-loving grandmother.
When you hate the patriots but Tom Brady is your fantasy QB :):
— Garrett Garfield (@Garrettgarfield) October 30, 2015
While it’s difficult to accurately estimate the effect fantasy football has on overall football viewing habits, some scientists have tried. A peer-reviewed study of the 2009 NFL season found that, in general, if a primetime NFL game had players who were starting in a large percentage of fantasy leagues, it had higher television viewership.
The researchers note that other factors were at play—the pitted teams’ winning percentages also correlated with higher viewership—but still emphasize the potential handiness of fantasy football projections when the NFL and their TV partners set their schedules prior to the season.
Think of it like this: While it’s difficult to predict what two unproven teams’ records will be in a given week, it’s easier to predict which teams will be fielding fantasy football ballers. While the success of the 2019 Giants is anyone’s guess, Saquon Barkley is likely to put up big individual numbers, and his fantasy owners will tune in to see him.
NFL At 100: Fantasy football has changed the way fans follow the sport.
— AP NFL (@AP_NFL) September 15, 2019
Of course, the NFL has noticed this effect. In 2008, the league launched RedZone, a channel that specifically caters to the interests of fantasy fans with regular fantasy point readouts and statistics.
“Even if your team isn’t playing well … you’re still following your fantasy league or you’re following the RedZone or your mobile device,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2014. “So it has created more interest for a longer period of time.”
The NFL wants you to watch, even when your beloved Lions miss the playoffs (again). Fantasy football offers a perfect way for the league to keep fans tuning in.
2. Fantasy football has probably changed the way NFL teams play the game.
Some football purists hate fantasy football, since, well, they’re loyal to their teams—they don’t want to talk about points, fantasy drafts, or any of the other minutiae that consume fantasy fans’ day-to-day lives.
— MVP Sports 🏁 (@MVPsportsinfo) August 3, 2017
Unfortunately for those folks, fantasy now has an inescapable influence on the game itself.
If you’re a big football fan, you know what we’re talking about. Prior to the 2015 season, the NFL implemented new rules that made it easier for quarterbacks to complete passes. The league has consistently prioritized offense in recent years, and some experts believe this is intertwined with the growth of fantasy football.
“I don’t think that you can sit in the competition committee meeting with Jeff Fisher, Bill Belichick or whoever and tell them to change the rules to enhance fantasy football,” former quarterback and current CBS game-day analyst Boomer Esiason told Rolling Stone in 2015. “But I think it’s an unintended consequence that the rule changes have impacted the advent of fantasy football—no question.”
I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I don’t like seeing this kind of football. I don’t want games where you need 50 to win. The NFL rules changes favor the offense way too much.
— Sir Ted Lasso (@theodorelasso) November 20, 2018
Some experts say the effects are more tangible—that statistics developed for fantasy football now play a role in the way scouts evaluate talent. Fantasy football is ultimately a math game. Fans study statistics, evaluate probabilities, and make educated guesses as to which players will perform on a given week.
“Some of the stats you see—like yards per target and air yards per pass—were developed for fantasy,” Cleveland Browns sideline reporter Nathan Zegura said. “And they’re now being used to help judge prospective free agents.”
3. Some NFL players have their own fantasy teams.
Fantasy football is addictive, competitive, and fun, so it’s no surprise that professional athletes love it. Some of those athletes are actually able to draft themselves—and bench themselves.
A 2009 article from the Associated Press revealed that former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck drafted himself in fantasy football, and he once started Brett Favre in his place. Roy Williams, then a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, often benched himself in favor of fantasy juggernauts like Andre Johnson or Reggie Wayne.
Derrick Henry started himself in fantasy this week. pic.twitter.com/dCeP0QDpmj
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 7, 2018
“You hear players talking about it… ‘I need fantasy points!'” Chicago Bears defensive end Jared Allen told Bleacher Report in 2015. “It’s connected fans to players even more. Now they feel they can truly play Monday Morning Quarterback from the couch. Fantasy football is a huge part of our game.”
Of the 10 players that told Bleacher Report that they played fantasy football—players like Robbie Gould, Charles Tillman, and Mohamed Sanu—eight said that they’d drafted a teammate.
“Why not draft the people you got confidence in?” Sanu asked. “There are other great players in the league, but you got to draft your boys!”
4. Fantasy football has built its own economy.
Sure, some leagues play for fun, but where’s the fun in that?
Most fantasy players invest heavily in their hobby. League fees and side bets quickly add up in traditional leagues, and the daily contests on sites like DraftKings and FanDuel can become expensive hobbies for the most dedicated players. The average annual spending per adult fantasy player is $653, and daily league players can easily spend much more during the NFL season.
Still, most fantasy players don’t understand the sheer size of the market. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that Americans spend $7.22 billion per year on all fantasy sports. The majority of that money goes to fantasy football. For comparison, the entire NFL brought in roughly $16 billion in revenue in 2018. The Dallas Cowboys, which earned more than any other NFL team, posted a revenue figure of $864 million in 2018.
We’re just scratching the surface of fantasy’s economic impact. Advertisers spend big money on fantasy football websites, apps, and print publications. When ESPN The Magazine scrapped its annual fantasy football guide, they may have lost as much as $4 million in ad revenue.
Again, the NFL recognizes the potential, which is why they’re pushing fantasy play at every possible opportunity.
“We just want the fantasy industry, as a whole, to grow as big as possible,” NFL executive Cory Mummery told CNBC. “We want to grow the game as much as possible.”
5. It has improved (or hurt) workplaces.
If you’re an employer, you’ve probably got some mixed feelings about fantasy sports.
In one survey, 96.6 percent of fantasy football players said they spent time at their job working on their fantasy teams. On average, respondents spent 6.9 work hours on their hobby weekly. That’s a lot of lost productivity.
A report from Chicago-based employment research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimated that fantasy football costs American employers $17 billion per year in lost productivity. The firm acknowledges that the true costs of fantasy sports are difficult to measure—after all, few employees will readily admit to wasting time at work. There’s also a bright side for businesses: Fantasy sports may improve office morale.
“These types of distractions can keep our creative juices flowing,” said John Challenger, the firm’s chief executive officer. “For these reasons, employers may not only want to avoid clamping down on fantasy football, but may want to encourage it within the office.”
“An across-the-board ban on all fantasy football or sports websites could backfire in the form of reduced morale and loyalty,” Challenger continued. “The result could be far worse than the loss of productivity caused by 10 to 20 minutes of team management each day.”
This whole having ESPN blocked at work during fantasy football is gonna drive me insane.
— THA Vibes (@WeOutHereRN) September 18, 2019
Uh…yeah. 10-20 minutes. That’s exactly how much time we’re spending on Team Pop, Drop, and Lockett.
For employers, fighting the rise of fantasy is probably a losing battle. Besides, these days, everyone plays—and a friendly league can help an office build personal connections that could be invaluable in day-to-day work.
“There’s this prevailing notion that fantasy is played by a bunch of sports wonks crunching the numbers on their Excel sheets, but we’re increasingly seeing that football is becoming part of the zeitgeist,” Yahoo Fantasy Sports’ David Geller told AdWeek. “It’s a bit like during March Madness when everyone in the office joins the NCAA pool. Technology democratizes the fun.”
6. Computers are starting to play…and win.
Given that most fantasy leagues offer sizable payouts to winners, players look for any possible advantage—and artificial intelligence provides some huge advantages. In 2017, IBM programmed the supercomputer Watson to put together a fantasy team.
Watson generated a list of recommendations for each week, which ESPN published. An IBM data scientist used the recommendations and went 13-0 in his league.
“Using deep neural networks with more than 90 layers, the system was trained to determine if a player would boom, bust or play with an injury,” an IBM website for the project reads.
Of course, some fantasy players believe that Watson’s mastery is overstated.
“Fantasy football players are vocal,” said Noah Syken, vice president of sports and entertainment partnerships at IBM. “They’re inherently skeptical of technology. You give them a tool and they still want to rely on their own human knowledge and intuition.”
If you’re worried about AI players overrunning your favorite league, don’t worry: That probably won’t happen anytime soon. While Watson’s team won handily, a recent MIT study indicates that human players still have an edge over their computerized counterparts.
When I say my rankings are handcrafted, I mean I manually develop projections for every fantasy relevant player. Just me, my laptop and good a ol' spreadsheet. Why this much effort? Fantasy football is a game of skill and dedication. To win, research matters, analysis matters!
— If He's Healthy Fantasy (@IHHFantasy) September 6, 2019
“We ran hundreds of thousands of games, and looked at the scores of actual fantasy players, versus scores of computer-generated fantasy players,” Anette Hosoi, associate dean of engineering at MIT, said of the study. “And you see again that the fantasy players beat the computer-generated ones, indicating that there must be some skill involved.”
7. It has completely changed the way that fans watch the game.
As seasoned fantasy veterans know, fantasy players interact with the game in entirely different ways than non-players. A 2011 study published in the journal Sports Management Review found that fantasy fans are more likely to have significant interest in every game, rather than the games of a specific team. They’re also more likely to consume other media related to the NFL (for instance, internet news).
I used to watch so much more college football than NFL. Fantasy football changed my habits.
— Live Tweeter (@leftcoastbias1) August 31, 2014
“People in their mid-20’s don’t even really remember pro football without a fantasy football component,” journalist Chuck Klosterman told GQ in 2016. “Like [running back] LaDainian Tomlinson, when he goes into the Hall of Fame, I think the main thing that a lot of people will remember him as is the greatest fantasy player ever.”
“He had the single best fantasy year anyone has ever had. He didn’t win a Super Bowl. There was only a couple of years when I think you would argue he was the best back. But from a fantasy perspective, he’s real memorable. So I do think it will have some impact on players’ legacies.”
Congratulations to LaDanian Tomlinson for making the HOF, still grateful he single handedly won me that Fantasy Championship in '06
— Stanley Goodspeed (@TwoSC00P5) February 5, 2017
As more fans focus on daily fantasy leagues, knowledge of the NFL will probably improve in some ways. Lesser known players will continue to garner more attention than they (arguably) deserve, and fans will be more emotional about individual performances than team performances.
Is that a good thing? It’s difficult to say, but fantasy football clearly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Like it or not, it’s one of the most important components of modern sports—and it’ll continue to change our world in ways we can neither expect nor anticipate.