Winners or losers:

participants in fantasy games redefine leisure sports

by Joseph P. Flood

When I was a young boy in the 1960s, nothing was snore important to me than sitting with my dad, uncles and grandfather on the lawn during a harvest moon night listening to Ernie Harwell announcing the latest adventures of our favorite baseball team on the transistor radio. Although the games were exciting, my richest memories come from the family stories that were repeatedly told between innings. We boys kept our ears perked, hoping to hear some new family secret or past grievance aired. Back in those clays, there were only two ways a sports fan could find out if his team won or lost--listen to the radio, or wait to read the sports pages in the newspaper the following morning.

Today, some 40 years later, the time-honored American pastime of following sports has changed dramatically. Participation in sports has been permanently altered by
the influence of the World Wide Web on our daily lives. Without question, the Internet has impacted peoples' lives, especially their engagement in leisure. Rather than joining a fast-pitch softball team, swim club, or tag football team, millions of people now play what is known as fantasy sports. Fantasy sports are Internet sites devoted to gambling via fantasy sport leagues. The fundamental appeal of fantasy sports, or fantasy leisure as it is also known, is that it brings participants closet to the games they love. Thanks to the World Wide Web, people have no limits in discovering obscure research and statistics on their favorite players, or hunting for new opponents around the globe.

As a result of this new, unprecedented access to sport information, Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of ESPN Internet Ventures, suggests that fantasy sports leads all sports-related Internet use. "Nothing comes close to this. It's a really big deal," he said.

Fantasy sports are now estimated to be generating more than $600 million per year in advertising and subscription fee revenues (Forbes Magazine, September 2000), and are one of the few business-to-consumer Web industries that actually makes money. Although this virtual reality participation in fantasy sports as recreation may seem benign, the level of physical inactivity, and the number of hours involved in fantasy sports, should grab the attention of recreation and park professionals and galvanize them into action.

In addition to the excitement of virtual reality ownership, another major reason that people participate in fantasy sports involves the entertainment element. For some fantasy sport leaguers, this experience is a fulfilling substitute for attending an NFL, MLB, or other sports game. Baseball fans, for example, who have followed their favorite team since they were children--collecting baseball cards, going to professional games, collecting autographs, eating hotdogs at the outdoor ball parks--keep up with the news on players each and every day. Baseball fans have always pored over statistics and used them to argue the merits of their favorite players: DiMaggio, Williams, Mantle, Mays, McGuire, or Sosa to name a few.

Who Are These Fantasy Sport Players?

A fantasy sports player is a man or woman who owns a team, each year drafts a pool of players for a specific league (NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.), and then manages his/her team like a bona fide sports team owner. Being a fantasy sports team manager is an empowering and exhilarating experience requiring little investment. It brings all the pleasures of being George Steinbrenner with none of the headaches, risks, or financial investments. Fantasy sports has evolved to cover almost every sport genre: auto racing, baseball, basketball, bicycle racing, howling, boxing, cricket, dog racing, fishing, football, golf, gynmastics, hockey, figure skating, volleyball, softball, horse racing, lacrosse, rugby, skiing, soccer, tennis, and even tug of war. These fantasy sports are played nationally and internationally by millions of dedicated users. However, the National Football League and Major League Baseball are the two most commonly played fantasy sports.

According to Esser (2003), the founders of fantasy football created a game that today inspires millions of players. As general manager the fantasy football league owner assembles his or her team of players, making sure riley have the right mix of passing, rushing and kicking. In some leagues the fantasy general manager ever) has to assemble a defense. Then, as the team's coach, the fantasy league owner picks the starting lineup for that week's games, making sure that the team's best players are healthy. One of the reasons that fantasy football has become so popular is that professional football is usually played only once or twice per week. This less hectic schedule makes it relatively easy for owners and managers to keep up with events occurring both on and off the field.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), there are seven basic steps to assembling a fantasy football team.

First, the league owner has to assemble a
league football owners who are willing
to wheel and deal throughout the
course of the NFL season. Step two is to
elect a commissioner. The commissioner
should be somebody whom every team
owner respects. The commissioner, who
most likely owns a team in the league, is
responsible for the league constitution,
bylaws and all final decisions. Step three
is setting the rules for your league. Step
four is to have a draft. Players are usually
acquired by using a draft process
similar to what the NFL uses. Step five is
setting the schedule. League schedules
are set up so that every team plays every
team at least once, and divisions are set
up according to league size. Step six requires
compiling scores. The final and
seventh step is transactions. Teams can
continue to trade throughout the season
and teams can also pick up free agents
anytime during that year (Fantasy
Sports Trade Association, 2003).

After football, the second major fantasy game played by millions of sport enthusiasts worldwide is fantasy baseball. Everyday more and more sports fans are becoming familiar with the rules and regulations of fantasy baseball and getting booked. Starting a baseball league is very similar to the process involved in fantasy football. Fans can even turn to their local newspapers for tips on organization, player selections and current statistics.

As recently as 10 years ago, fantasy sports was the addiction of a few thousand American men and a mere handful of women. In its early days, players gathered at each other's homes at the start of their favorite season to draft teams of real-life players, spending hours studying the statistics and box scores of the players they drafted.

While fantasy sports have been around since 1962, all explosion occurred in the mid-to-late 1990s with the creation of Internet sites (Fantasy Sports Trade Association [FSTA], 2003). While media companies are pouring in money, big-league baseball, basketball, football and hockey are paying close attention. Meanwhile, users of leagues are aggressively seeking meetings with professional leagues and media companies to discuss deals and trades, all with hopes of major financial pay-offs (Fatsis, 1995). Due to the popularity of fantasy sports, every major online sports site, including Disney's, and CBS's www., offers fantasy games for nearly every imaginable sport. Carl Foster, president and chief executive officer of the Fantasy Sports Players Association states, "The Internet has brought fantasy sports out of the closet and brought a lot of major companies like Disney into the industry." (Berentson, 2000)
Redefining Leisure

Are participants in fantasy sports, stretching the boundaries of what leisure means today? Or, are they just pushing the personal perceptions and comfort zones of what park and recreation professionals have determined recreation to be because of its rapid evolution? Recreation and leisure professionals must determine whether or not it is necessary for the profession to broaden the traditional definition of recreation and leisure. As professionals, most agree that leisure is both a combination of an individual's state of mind, and all activity engaged in without any sense of obligation. Kelly & Freysinger (2000), further propose that recreation, like leisure, involves both an individual's state of mind and an activity. Moreover, "recreation" is an organized activity with the purpose of restoring the mind, body, and spirit. Does participation in fantasy sports achieve this? It may depend on a number of factors--age and gender; the sport involved, and geographic location. One thing is for certain--the trend doesn't seem to be slowing anytime soon.

Future Possibilities are Endless

Beginning simply with friends gathering at houses and restaurants, fantasy sports have grown to be one of the largest Internet interaction sites in the world. Fast-forwarding to today, people interact with each other via the Internet by the millions, and over the next decade Internet site owners expect significant growth. FSTA commissioned a demographic survey through the University of Mississippi in 2003 to help businesses identify' the expectations of current players. More than 600 fantasy sports players responded to the survey, with the results showing clear trends. Fantasy football still holds the most popular status with 93 percent of respondents saying they prefer playing football to other sports. Sixty-three percent play fantasy baseball, 38 percent play fantasy basketball, 31 percent play fantasy hockey, 28 percent play fantasy golf; and 20 percent play fantasy NASCAR. The average fantasy participant has been playing football and baseball for more than six years and manages 2.4 teams per sport. More than 40 percent of the respondents use a draft method only for fantasy baseball, while more than half of the respondents compete in fantasy baseball leagues that draft and/or use an auction.

Greg Ambrosious, president of the FSTA stated, "The survey not only identifies today's fantasy players, but also shows that they are more likely to play in more leagues this year and in more sports. The results project a very positive future for the entire fantasy sports industry." (Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 2003)

Fantasy sports are being targeted as lucrative business opportunities for investors. According to a December 1999 Harris Poll sponsored by, 29.6 million people age 18 and older play the following fantasy games: Basketball, baseball, football, hockey, golf and auto racing. Of those participating, approximately 85% use the Internet to do so. "That translates to about 15 percent of Americans eighteen and older", stated Carl Foster, president of FSTA. Fantasy sports are a growing industry generating millions of dollars each year in advertisements, revenues, and subscription lees. According to a FSTA report, about fifteen million Americans played fantasy football in 2002, which is an increase from four million in 1994. Although the money generated from fantasy leagues worldwide is undoubtedly a major factor, the reasons people participate in fantasy sports is wildly diverse. Everyone playing a fantasy sport, whether it is a major sport such as baseball or football, or golf or auto racing, receives different benefits from their participation. According to interviews conducted by Rosner (Cox News Service August, 2003), many players believe that participation in fantasy sports offers "a way of maintaining friendships in a mobile society where roots don't hold so firmly anymore."

A potential downside to fantasy sports is that money is involved, and, like gambling, it can get out of hand for some people. However, the camaraderie, meeting new people, and the illusion of being an owner of a sports franchise may sometimes counterbalance the addiction element (Lightly, 2000). The fantasy of being in charge encourages fans to watch their favorite team play and ponder how they can make changes that will make their team more successful. On some level they are living a vicarious life while simultaneously enjoying the opportunity to see how their management skills pan out. But fantasy sports are not all positive. There are many red flags. One predominant problem is reflected in the statement of a fantasy sport fan that confessed he no longer cares about the outcome of real games anymore. Real, tactile, participatory experiences are taking a backseat to the clicking of a mouse.

The Consequences of Fantasy Sports Participation

Although there are many individuals participating in fantasy sports, little attention has been given to the peripheral effects of fantasy sports on family cohesion and stability. For example, the fact that participants visit sites an average of 4.5 times per week, spending 22 minutes on average for each visit (Nielsen-Net Rating, 2003), suggests significant blocks of time are used to manage teams. The average per week involvement in managing teams, both in the office and at home, is approximately six hours per average user. To many, this raises serious cultural and social issues.

According to a study conducted by the Office of Communication and Marketing at
Indiana University (2000), about twenty percent of the respondents listed two primary reasons they joined a fantasy league--to pass time and for something to do at work. Findings also indicated that time spent on fantasy sites were slightly higher at home than at work. However, the actual time spent engaged in fantasy sport activity is difficult to pin down. Respondents often miscalculate, or fudge about what and how much they actually play. In a pilot study, Flood (2003) asked a fantasy league manager how much time per week he spent participating in fantasy sports during his team's season. The manager responded that each week he spent 15 hours, both managing the site and watching the games in real time on television.

As recreational professionals, ask yourselves whether this level of participation influences a parent's ability to teach their son or daughter how to play catch with a baseball, build a tree house, swing a racket, or learn the skill of fly-fishing Is this in fact a valid substitute for kicking a soccer ball or actually swimming laps? Will parental involvement in fantasy sports result in a failure to spend enough quality time with their children? Moreover, park and recreation professionals need to investigate the potential health care costs our society will incur as Americans move into an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Today childhood and adult obesity as well as diabetes and heart disease, are becoming alarmingly more frequent medical issues. One challenge to the recreation profession is to begin investigating the influence fantasy sports has on families. A second challenge is whether parks should facilitate fantasy sports: For instance are teen recreation centers an appropriate location to facilitate this kind of activity? Recreation and park professionals can choose to be in the driver's seat as look in the rearview mirror. Although participants recognize few downsides to their participation, it seems prudent to monitor and continue investigating the long-term effects of this rapidly growing phenomenon.

Fantasizing About the Future

As park and recreation professionals position themselves for the future, they need to face this new and wildly popular "virtual reality" of fantasy sports and decide if it has long-term social ramifications or if it's simply a passing phase in the evolution of recreation and leisure. Although growing numbers of fantasy sport players enjoy the fun and relatively carefree experience of owning and running a team, it is important to remain cognizant of the potential problems directly resulting from this inactivity Park and recreation professionals must determine if the potential benefits of fantasy leisure outweigh the potential harm: Loss of quality family time, healthy interpersonal relationships, and sedentary lifestyles, which foster health problems.

Most importantly, park professionals need to deckle if creating a virtual world is easier, and more reliable, as well as being more palatable for the younger generation than the one their parents experienced. The question is whether fantasy sports are "recreation wise" when television and computer screens dominate people's free time.

If we want to ensure the words "play ball" mean beading out to the mound, versus turning on the computer, it is imperative that we unite in addressing the profound impact technology has, and will continue to have, on each of us. Let's work to make sure that Ernie Harwell was correct when he stated, "Baseball has been handed down from father to son, from generation to generation. I don't expect that to change" (, 2003).

Dr. Joseph Flood, Ph.D. has spent a career as a wilderness/park manager and has a life-long love of baseball. He has been leaching recreation management courses at East Carolina University for the past three years.

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