Over 30 million fans play fantasy football each week, that’s triple the number that played around a decade ago. It’s now an over-$1 billion industry. The numbers are staggering, considering it was just 16 years ago that CBS launched the first free online fantasy football league.
What’s less understood is the impact this has on the game and how we as fans follow the sport we love. One study by Jeremy Lee of Louisiana State University showed some interesting trends. Team loyalty is diminishing and player loyalty is on the increase. For example, Lee’s study showed that 41 percent of fantasy football players prefer a win by their fantasy team instead of their favorite team. More than ever, players are seen as commodities instead of part of a team.
In this age of narcissism and all-access everything, it’s not about us, it’s about me. This can be seen in how football is covered by the media. Watch ESPN any Sunday morning during the football season and you’ll get an almost exclusive buffet of individualized player drama stories and very little game analysis. They have turned football into a reality show.
I recently watched a Bill Belichick’s and Rex Ryan’s press conferences turned into an auto-tune production against each other. Is this how we cover football now? Big games are portrayed as one quarterback against another, mano-a-mano. Eventually they have to talk about the actual game, and they want to analyze how one team will attack the “cover-2” defense they will face today. They get four hosts to take off their jackets and mimic a play on a cheesy green wooden “field” in the studio. This gimmick has always seemed weird to me. With today’s computerized graphics, and camera angles from all directions, they could produce a great piece to graphically convey this analysis. But it’s 2013, and it’s all about personalities, not the game. Why do we need eight panelists to preview a football game anyway?
In fantasy football, defense is marginalized. You pick your offensive players, but on defense you just pick a team. The game has followed this trend, and it seems all that matters is who has the ball. There are all sorts of defensive stats that could be used: passes defended, forced fumbles, tackles for losses, interceptions, sacks, tackles, blocked passes, etc. Now there are many fans who could name all 32 starting quarterbacks in pro football, but they couldn’t tell you which defensive scheme their favorite team employs.
Rule changes that have altered everything from the way offensive lineman can block to flagging defensive backs for breathing on a receiver have fueled this offense-is-everything model of football. I’m not talking about the rule changes made for player safety. These are good for the game, for any game. I mean the modification in rules designed to favor offenses. They have dumbed down a chess match into a game of checkers for the sake of growth.
Now, it would be hard to argue that these changes have been bad for the business of football. On the contrary, it has been a boon to business, bringing in the less sophisticated football fan who only follows the ball and doesn’t even realize there are different blocking schemes for the offensive lines. But I’m a fan of the game, not the business. Quick, name a defensive star in football. See what I mean?
Steroid era aside, I admire baseball in that they don’t tinker with the game too much. One can actually compare players and teams from era to era, at least a little bit. Football stats today bear little resemblance to those of even 10 to 15 years ago, and this dismisses the contributions to the game from the great players in years gone past. If baseball was like football, the pitcher’s mound would be at 120 feet and the fences moved in 100 feet.
Like most fans, I was in love the first time I saw “The RedZone Channel.” It soon occurred to me that it’s really for fantasy fans, and I lost the context of a game as I watched. I lost the nuances of the game, the team dynamics, coaches’ adjustments at halftime, clock management, what’s happening on the team benches, the momentum shifts, things like that. The great finishes the game is known for are much more compelling when you’ve watched the entire game leading up to the finish. I still love RedZone TV, but it’s more like dessert than the main course for me.
Today we have a whole new generation of football fans that have never known the game without a computer screen right next to the TV, getting real-time updates on skill-position players only. Did you know that there used to be a fullback position in football?
Don’t despair fellow football purists. Defenses will adjust. Great football minds are already working on the no-huddle defense, which will close this competitive loophole for the offenses. Players are becoming more multi-position players. Football is a read-and-react game. Buddy Ryan came up with the 46 defense in the early ’80s to counter the pass-happy West Coast offensive trend. You can’t take defense out of the game of football, no matter how vivid your fantasy. One truism of football that will not fade is that offenses win games, but defenses win championships. Well, that and turnovers.