In a Flyover State: Another Reason I Need a Life

I think I first did it when I was about 12 or 13. And I loved it. Once I discovered
its joys, I never wanted to stop. At first I was a little embarrassed, but then
I realized how many of my friends did it too. And now, all these years later,
despite being happily married with two kids, I have started doing it again. I probably spend a little more time doing it than I
should for someone my age. And it’s amazing how
much easier the Internet has made it, how everything
you need is right at your fingertips without ever having
to buy a single magazine.

Yes, that’s right. This fall, for the first time in years, I
began playing fantasy football once again.

It’s true: I hadn’t played in years. In fact, it was not
exactly a point of typical male meathead brashness
that several of my friends knew my wife has played
fantasy football every season for years, while I didn’t.
Or maybe it just means she is a bigger loser than I am.
(Oh, hey: Happy Anniversary on the 12th, honey!)

If you don’t know what fantasy football is, well, that
means you have a life. Since I don’t have one, I can explain:
You basically get together—in person or virtually—
with a bunch of other losers and take turns selecting NFL
players that you think will have good seasons in real
life. Scoring (a verb not often associated with hard-core
fantasy players) is based strictly on stats. So there are
no points for your players, say, dating a hot actress, or
getting a nation to forget about his dog fighting. Every
week, you compare the stats of your players against
the stats of the players from another loser’s team, and
whoever has the most points is the winner. That term
being very relative in this case.

Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds. You are playing
a game based on how some NFL bonehead does at his
job every week. If you stop to think about it, it is like
wagering on how well a plumber does. Actually, that’s
a pretty clutch deal in my house.

But not long before this season began, I got an email
from a friend of mine who is in the fantasy football
business inviting me to play. Way past even trying to
pretend I have a life, I jumped at playing for the first
time in years.

And holy Hank Williams Jr.’s reputation, has the
game changed.

When I first started playing about 100 years ago, you
would go buy one of those thick fantasy football magazines,
grab a six pack of Jolt (it’s a soda, not a beer:
again, no life) and stay up late studying. Then, every
Sunday night after ESPN’s 1987 launch, you would
pray at the altar of Chris Berman and Tom Jackson
on NFL Primetime and try to get a handle on as many
stats as you could.

Then, on Monday mornings, I would eagerly wait
until I heard that thud of the newspaper hitting concrete,
run out, grab the sports section and tabulate
how my team did.

Not anymore; now it’s all about the Internet.
Websites not only tell you whom
to draft, they can actually draft players
for you. And once the season starts, they
offer real-time scoring. You can now literally
leave your computer on while you
watch the New York Jets underachieve,
and your fantasy score will update by itself,
pretty much in real time. The league
I’m in is based on CBS Sportsline, and it
could not be more user-friendly.

A few weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles
for the Emmys. My boss and I started
that Sunday at the place where everyone
should hang out before they slap on a
tux, jump in a limo and head to an affair
of that stature—a sports bar, with
20 TVs tuned to football. When I walked
in to the bar, I could not believe how
many guys were sitting there with their
laptops open. Shockingly, most of them
were sitting alone, and they later left the
bar alone. Imagine that.

OK, I have berated fantasy football
players throughout this column, as most
football fans who don’t play fantasy will
do often with pleasure. But in all seriousness,
fantasy football is a massive reason
why the NFL is the most popular television
property there is. Obviously, gambling
in general is a major reason why
football has become the new national pastime, but
fantasy football is a massive business within that. Fantasy
sports has become a billion-dollar industry, and
tens of millions of people play fantasy football every
fall. Tens of millions. Still wondering where American
productivity and work ethic have gone?

I must admit, fantasy football has made me watch
television differently on Sunday afternoons when there
are multiple games on. And with those millions of people
watching their TV while playing fantasy, the networks
had to, and are continuing to, adjust.

For instance, anybody watching a game on CBS
gets consistently drenched in player stats from other
games—and that’s an example of CBS doing things
right. In this department, Fox Sports needs to step it
up. They show player stats, but don’t do it with the
regularity or organization of CBS. As a fantasy player
who watches the NFC’s Minnesota Vikings lose on Fox
every weekend, I need another screen to stay updated.
Not the case on CBS.

Then again, Fox’s corporate cousin FX has an entire
scripted show (The League) dedicated to fantasy football,
so that pretty much evens things out.

Meanwhile, you may wonder: How is my team doing?
Well, my league is stacked with execs from CBS
Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, SportsNet New York and
Versus, as well as my alma mater and industry mustread
The Sports Business Daily and its weekly offspring,
Sports Business Journal. Basically, these people all have
a Peter King or a Jay Glazer on speed dial, so the deck
is stacked.

But after the first four weeks, and despite battling
some serious injury problems (yes, this is how fantasy
dorks speak), there was only one team in our league
sitting at 4-0. I’m not at liberty to say who that is. I
can only say it may explain why I wrote this column
this week.

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and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman