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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