A complicated fantasy

Being a sports fan has never been so complicated.

Back in the day, all you had to do to prove your mettle was keepup with your team and a few players just enough to argue with yourfriends when you stopped by the bar after work.

Not any more.

Now, in addition to pouring their heart out for their favoriteteams, a true fan must root for teams based on their favorite teamsand teams based on their teams based on their favorite teams.Confused?

Such is the overwhelming world of fantasy sports, the fastestgrowing (and incredibly profitable) intersection of the sports andentertainment worlds. Like a good cocktail, fantasy sports haveseemingly struck the perfect balance of fandom, betting andgeekiness that have allowed them to intoxicate the masses.

“Fantasy sports have struck the perfectbalance of fandom, betting and geekiness that have allowed them tointoxicate the masses.”

Last year over 15 million Americans, 93 percent ofself-identified hardcore football fans and 63 percent ofself-identified hardcore baseball fans, played in fantasy leaguesand spent nearly two billion dollars on it according to a survey bythe Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA).

If you’re in the minority of sports fans who missed the bus,fantasy sports are games that rely on the statistics generated bythe performances of real athletes in a spectrum of sports rangingfrom football to golf to stock car racing. Fantasy players (read:fans and people with too much time on their hands) set up a leagueof friends or coworkers, choose a sport and draft players from thatsport to create their own team. There are a lot of variations onhow scoring works but, at the most basic level, a fantasy team’ssuccess is determined by the real life performances of itsplayers.

The appeal is obvious. For a country full of citizens desperateto be a part of the action – whether text messaging their vote forthe next American Idol or frantically calling in to the latestunofficial Fox News survey – fantasy sports offer a chance to getin on the action that was heretofore reserved for the athleticallygifted: a chance to be a winner.

Instead of needling your friend when the Yankees beat the RedSox and you’re a Yankees fan, if your fantasy team beats hisfantasy team you can rip him because you beat him.

Sports bettors have understood the high that comes from anincreased stake in the outcome for years, but betting on sports hasbeen unable to crack the mainstream due to a tarnishedreputation.

Here in Oregon state-sponsored Sports Action, a weekly lotterygame during football season that allows players to pick gamesagainst Las Vegas betting lines and win shares of the total pot,has provided a taste of that high for the last fifteen years.Relying on a devoted base of players, the game has enjoyed steadysupport according to Marlene Meissner of the Oregon Lottery, buthas been unable to catch popular fire like fantasy sports have.

The effects are obvious. Nearly every website that has anythingto do with sports offers its own leagues. Sports coverage, bothbroadcast and print, tailors its content to obsessive stat-hungryfantasy players. There is even a legion of magazines, papers and TVshows solely devoted to fantasy sports.

Some fans are so drunk on the allure of fantasy sports thatthey’ve created fantasy sports based on fantasy sports. The leadingexample of this odd meta-habit is ESPN.com’s Uber competition wherediehard fantasy players vie against other lifeless devotees (Imean, players) in a yearlong decathlon-like event where each playerpits his roster of fantasy teams (sometimes as many as 20 or 30)against other Uber competitors’ rosters of teams.

Most fantasy players would consider Uber players freaks, but thesame was likely said of Daniel Okrent and Glen Waggoner, when theycame up with the league and ideas credited with the current boomway back in 1980.

Twenty-four years later the two can take credit for spawning atwo billion dollar industry with more customers than many smallcountries.

So maybe we better be careful whom we call freaks. We should beso lucky.