February 25, 2014

DUBNOV | Fantasy Football & Fandom

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Despite being an avid sports fan my whole life, my first introduction to fantasy sports came during the 2008 NFL season. My neighbor invited me to be a part of the football league he started with his buddies and, just like many first-time fantasy sports players, I accepted the challenge with little knowledge of how the game worked. I grew up being a fan of basketball and baseball. In terms of football, I only knew about the Giants and the Jets because those are my local teams. The fantasy season began with a league draft that I found to be totally confusing, an opinion I held for a couple of weeks.

However, the season progressed and I developed a fascination with a sport I had never found interesting before. My attraction to football only grew with time, culminating in ritualistic viewings of most NFL matchups on any given Sunday. By the playoffs, I knew more about the NFL than I would have ever imagined. It was all thanks to that initial offer to fill a spot in a fantasy sports league. While fantasy sports may succeed in making fans more attentive, it should not be mistaken for a foolproof educational resource.

A year had passed and the NFL was getting back in the swing of things. I, however, decided not to engage in fantasy that year. As the actual NFL teams began their search for success in the 2009-10 season, I noticed that my interest in the sport was not the same without my ceremonial changes to the roster every week.

If somebody were to argue that I am not a true fan of football, I would not disagree. I realized that I found interest in the sport while watching the players on my fantasy team rack up points in my weekly matchups. As long as my running back rushed for a ton of yardage or my kicker hit every field goal attempt, I did not care whether the team that the player actually played for won or lost in real life.

This mindset brings to question the true value and effectiveness of fantasy sports in creating loyal fans of a sport.

Engaging in fantasy sports is certainly a great way to explore a professional sport outside of your favorite team. Putting together a roster of players from the entire league generally causes added awareness of what is happening amongst the various teams in a sport. However, while fantasy sports may succeed in making fans more attentive, it should not be mistaken for a foolproof educational resource.

There is one major flaw in using the game as a method to fully understand a sport and the athletes that engage in it. The issue with fantasy sports is that there is a lack of consideration for the true defining characteristics of an athlete or team: teamwork, leadership and success. It is easy to like style over substance. It is easy to like a player that can hit three home runs a game. It is easy to like a team that will put on a show by hitting a ton of three-pointers. However, it is harder to follow a team that wins by doing all the little things right.

To draw some examples from this year’s NBA season, we can compare DeMarcus Cousins and Tim Duncan. If you offer a fantasy owner a choice between the two big men, the choice would be easy. Cousins is having a career year with per game averages of 22.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks. Those numbers are incredible. Duncan, on the other hand, is scoring 15.6 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.

From a fantasy perspective, the two players cannot compare. If you want to win in your league, Cousins will take you to the fantasy championship. However, in reality, DeMarcus Cousins has shown immaturity in his play. He has topped the NBA charts in technical fouls every year since his ascent professional play, following one year at the University of Kentucky. Despite his physical prowess in the paint and dominance from all ends of the floor, Cousins’ tantrums have given the big man a reputation for being irresponsible.

Conversely, Tim Duncan has had one of the most illustrious careers in NBA history and is certainly on the path to the Hall of Fame. Duncan is a symbol of professionalism and dominance. His four NBA titles and 14 All-Star game appearances are just material examples. Duncan has been the backbone of the San Antonio Spurs organization for almost two decades. Off the court, the aging star is known for being introverted and composed, but always doing the right things to support his team’s success.

Duncan is the type of player that any professional sports franchise hopes to keep on the roster for years. Cousins, on the other hand, has yet to demonstrate his leadership and ability to perform in the clutch in his young career. The Sacremento Kings’ big man has the opportunity to turn his career around and lead the franchise to championship success in the future, but for now he is simply a wild card.

That is the problem with fantasy sports. There is weight given to statistical athletes, rather than true leaders that know how to succeed.

Playing fantasy sports can certainly be a great way to explore a new sport. It can help you learn about who can perform individually. However, fantasy sports will not teach you the intrinsic elements that make up a true star athlete. The things that are done to get the team to the next level, including performing in the clutch, doing the right things off the court and maintaining a sense of professionalism, are important factors in judging the difference between the good and the great. These central judgments cannot simply be made through using fantasy sports to facilitate a person’s fandom for a sport.