Bartlett: Fantasy's Harsh Reality

Fantasy football is to blame for some of the NFL's recent woes. ​

by Nicholas Bartlett | 11/9/17 12:20am

The National Football League is struggling. Ratings are dropping and public opinion of the sport has fallen. Why this is happening is not clear. Some, like John Schnatter, the chief executive officer of Papa John’s, point to recent protests during the national anthem in which football players have kneeled to express dissatisfaction with police violence. Schnatter believes these athletes’ actions are “polarizing the customer.” Others are quick to blame recent discussion of concussions and the health risks associated with the sport that have driven a rapid decline in youth football participation. While both factors have contributed to the dilapidation of the once-pristine cultural monolith that is the NFL, one of the most injurious culprits behind football’s declining viewership is not so much political or health-related as recreational. I am talking, of course, about fantasy football.

At first glance, such a claim seems preposterous. How could fantasy football, a tool designed to further the NFL’s popularity by placing the focus upon its biggest stars, be damaging to the very game upon which it is based? The answer is simple: The same emphasis on individual players degrades the value of the teams to which they belong. In putting the emphasis upon individual players, the NFL has deteriorated the fabric of the sport: team loyalty.

Loyalty has long been a staple of the league. This derives as much from scheduling as anything else. Each team plays just one game a week for 17 weeks, with the exception of a “bye week” for each. The relative scarcity of contests — a weekly occurrence may seem significant until it is juxtaposed with the five-to-six game per week schedule of Major League Baseball — permits fans to be more devoted to each of a particular team’s 16 contests. The NFL does not require fans to find time in a busy schedule for five three-hour commitments per week, requiring instead only one. In effect, this makes it easier for football aficionados to watch every single one of their favorite team’s games and constructs fan bases that watch a higher proportion of a team’s games than those of baseball.

If viewership on a per game basis is taken to be the most reflective measurement of a fanbase’s loyalty and dedication to a sports franchise, then NFL fans are the most dedicated to their teams. The NFL far outpaces the MLB by this metric, averaging 16.5 million viewers per game during the 2016 reguar season. The 2016 National League Championship Series, one of the key playoff events for the MLB, averaged just seven million viewers per game. Even the 2016 World Series’ 23.4 million average pales in comparison to the Super Bowl’s 111.3. The greater dedication to the sport of football — to a team — is not merely incidental. Instead, football’s shorter season and greater accessibility produced a commoditization of the professional realm which precipitated greater fervor amongst its fanbase. Since the opportunity to watch “their” team play occurs just 16 times a year, it is more likely that fans will watch each game.

Convincing fans to avidly support a team by offering fewer games was a simple yet astonishingly effective formula. However, fantasy football has eschewed identity by team in favor of identity by specific player. Fans care less for the success of the Pittsbrgh Steelers, but they root for Antonio Brown to dominate the contest and grace them with “fantasy points,” the determinant in weekly success. While some fantasy-league participants are willing to watch every single football game aired each week, that is not always the case. Fantasy football has taken that which popularized football in the first place — its scarcity — and replaced it with a system that is far more demanding of its customer base. Now fans must concern themselves not only with their team of choice but also with the numerous games played by each member of their fantasy teams.

In theory, more games to watch would equate to higher ratings. In practice, more games to watch equates to less passion for the sport. Fans are burnt out. With too many distinct games to focus on at once, members of fantasy football leagues across the nation are more inclined to look at a stat sheet than a television screen. Given that looking up a box score on ESPN.com does not count toward the NFL’s ratings, this is anything but a benefit to the league’s profit margins.

In emphasizing individual players, fantasy football has propagated a mindset in which the fans are less incentivized to bother with a specific team come Sunday afternoon. They care about football as a concept, not football as a game, and the accompanying sense of apathy is hurting the NFL’s bottom line.