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And Now, The End is Near…

But I did it “my way.”

My fantasy football season hit an uninvited halt last week as I was unceremoniously booted from my two fantasy semifinals matchups. Still, all is well in my mind.

As every fantasy season reaches its conclusion, whether I have some extra cash in my bank account or I’m wondering what went wrong, there is a sense of relief. Next week, Week 16 of the 2010 NFL season, I can watch the games out of pure satisfaction. I don’t have to follow every player or track every touchdown. Just kind of keep an eye on my team and its rivals. It should make for a pretty easygoing Sunday.

Are fantasy sports too strenuous? I know it sounds ridiculous, but perhaps that is one of the problems. This past week, as I was watching all the games to follow my fantasy team, my wife was overwhelmed. While it’s become second-nature for me to keep track of my fantasy players, for a “newbie” like my wife, she just can’t keep track. And it almost takes too much energy. Whereas just following one team and one score is pretty simple, following 10 players from your team and 10 players from your opponent’s team, not to mention multiple leagues, is exhausting.

So, yes, I’m relieved (as is my wife). Next week I’ll recap my playoff decision-making and whether or not I’m the Indianapolis Colts of fantasy sports.

Playoffs?

I took the last week and a half off from the blog to focus on my semester long project, State of Change, but I’m back just in time for the playoffs (don’t forget Week 15 starts tonight).

Fortunately, I had a bye last week and didn’t have to pay too much attention to fantasy. However, I did see the craziness that was Week 14 in Fantasy Football. Duds by Aaron Rodgers, Dwayne Bowe and Adrian Peterson probably lost many managers their leagues. Meanwhile, Deion Branch, Jason Witten and Derrick Mason ushered many to Week 15. So, how do you plan for this stuff?

What could be the better system for executing fantasy playoffs in the NFL? For one, ESPN Standard Leagues need to eliminate the idea of playing the championship into Week 17. Plenty of players are unusable at that point. But what about weeks 15 and 16?

Playoffs in fantasy sports are so unique because oftentimes the team that has led the league all season, for one reason or another, gets knocked out in the playoffs. Last year, I dominated my league until Week 16, when I started Chad Ochocinco over Jonathan Stewart. Stewart of course had a monster week and I lost by three points. But the common methodology for approaching fantasy playoffs differs depending on who you talk to. Some experts say to play the players that got you there. In other words, don’t get cute about lineups at this point of the season. However, some would argue that matchups and situations are never more important than the playoffs. In my example from last year, Stewart became the primary back and had a great matchup against a bad New York Giants defense. I should have played him, but Ochocinco had been my guy all season.

Which brings me to this year. So, I got Kenny Britt who I just picked up and have never played all season. He’s got a great matchup against the lowly Houston Texans secondary. Do I start him over the proven, fairly consistent Mike Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

Is there a better system for fantasy playoffs? I’m not so sure there is, but it does tell you one thing: anything can happen.

You Think This Is Funny?


A better question from the reporter: You just cost my fantasy team the playoffs. What were you laughing about?

For years, there’s been a strange connection between crazed sports fans and their beloved athletes. Athletes rely on a familiar connection in order to sell their merchandise, but then they shut the fan out when it involves their personal life.

It’s a different manipulation than actors, musicians or politicians. The best actors reveal a part of themselves in every role they play, musicians invest their personalities into music and politicians, although seasoned manipulators, are inevitably required to disclose a portion of their personal life. Athletes? Not necessarily.

They make money with their physical skills. We know very little of Peyton Manning from a box score. In fact, we can’t even get a good shot of his facial expression as he naturally wears a football helmet.

Yet, despite all this, sports fans still oftentimes feel that truly they know the athletes. Following Kobe Bryant’s well-publicized denial of an alleged rape, a friend told me, “Kobe Bryant wouldn’t do this.” How could she know this? She had never met Kobe, never even come in contact with a Bryant acquaintance. So how did she know?

Perhaps it’s because he seems pretty trustworthy in his Nike commercials, right? Or when he’s putting up 81 against the Raptors.

I’m not trying to bury Kobe. Rather, I think it’s okay for me to admit that I just don’t know Kobe Bryant.

I don’t know Kobe Bryant, I don’t know Michael Vick, I don’t know Peyton Manning.

So this unwavering devotion to our favorite athletes is fairly astounding and I contend that fantasy sports has enhanced this phenomenon.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the individual athlete has taken over the sports landscape, and when we draft, trade and add/drop real players, we believe we know them even better. How well do I know Carl Crawford, who I’ve owned for four consecutive fantasy seasons? Not enough to know which team, other than my fantasy team, he’s going to play for next season.

However, many fantasy sports players feel that they must hack into the psyche of their fantasy players to prepare for their seasons. “Fantasy experts” will consider a player’s mindset when releasing their player rankings. How crazy is that? We have no idea what their mindset is.

Which brings me back to Derek Anderson. I blame his post-game meltdown on fantasy sports. In ESPN Fantasy leagues, 3.7% of fantasy players own him; therefore, less than 1 out of 20 players “knows” or even cares about Derek Anderson. That’s fairly frightening in a world of jersey sales and Nike contracts.

Hey, I’m not laughing either.

Why Cheat?

What would you do for pride? And what is pride if you manipulate the system?

This NFL season, I am participating in two fantasy leagues, one for money and one for free. I am so stupidly fanatic that I remain fairly active in both leagues. Unfortunately, as would be expected, many who play in free leagues lose their motivation as the season progresses. So by Week 12, which we are approaching, only four or five managers are still paying attention to their teams.

Josh, a manager in my free ESPN league, is not one who has lost his motivation. In fact, he is so motivated that he is ostensibly cheating to win the league. Convinced that his team is far inferior to mine (I’m currently in first place with a record of 9-2), Josh made a trade with another manager, John, presumably his brother, that is blatantly uneven.

I’m not here to wage a war on Josh and John (of the same last name) but rather to express my curiosity over a manager that cheats to win a free league. In the ESPN free leagues, there are really no prizes for winning a league. The only true prize is pride. Along with that, the winning manager is invited to play in a Winner’s League the following season.

So why cheat? The answer goes back to the very origins of this blog. I’ve argued since the beginning of my research that I don’t think people play fantasy sports for the money. Sure, I’ve discussed the massive monetary totals that are spent on fantasy sports, but that’s a byproduct. People play for pride. Brothers try to outsmart each other. Women try to prove their sports smarts over their man. Friends establish their dominance over one another. They play for PRIDE!

But again, how proud can you be if you cheat to get there? Josh declined to comment.

The Downside

Q. Why do Mark Reynolds and Adam Dunn refuse to cut down on their high strikeout totals?

A. Because they hit lots of home runs and receive big contracts.

They reflect the modern athlete: he who is motivated by stats.

Look at the box score of Sunday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. Ignore the score of the game, but just look at the comparison of stats between quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Their passing stats are as follows:

For Big Ben: 387 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception

For Brady: 350 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions

Based on the relatively traditional scoring system used in my league, Brady scored a whopping 0.52 points more than Roethlisberger in passing. Well, those who watched the game know how misleading that is.

In fact, Brady played one of the best games he’s played since 2008 and Roethlisberger picked up most of his stats in garbage time. Prior to the 4th quarter, as his team got dismantled, Roethlisberger had only 103 yards and zero touchdowns.

To further emphasize my point, if you look at the top scorers from NFL Week 10, you will find Matt Cassel as the second best quarterback, Keiland Williams as the best running back and Dwayne Bowe as the best wide receiver. All three play for teams that got blown out.

This is the unique nature of fantasy sports. Fantasy success rarely parallels reality.

But this is a vital component to 21st Century sports. As I’ve pointed out time and time again in this blog, fantasy sports no longer complement real sports. It is ingrained in them.

What that means is that these skewed fantasy statistics are having a greater effect on the way fans (and even management) think about current athletes.

Four of the top five scorers for the 2010 season in a standard PPR league are Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore and Terrell Owens. Their teams’ combined records? 12-24. In fact, of the Patriots and the New York Jets (the teams with the two best records in the AFC), there are no running backs or wide receivers among the top 25 fantasy scorers.

Consequently, odds are, if the season ended today, Philip Rivers would win the MVP. His fantasy numbers are phenomenal, no question, but his team is 4-5. Is he a better quarterback than Brady or Matt Ryan? If you take his fantasy production, yes. If you look at their team records, not even close.

There is more to an athlete than his statistical production. For instance, Andre Dawson was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame last year despite not hitting 500 home runs, a pedestrian .279 career batting average and not cracking the top 30 in career RBIs. Still, voters remember him for his intimidating presence in the lineup, his superb defense and his commendable work ethic. Those qualities don’t show up in the box score and, therefore, have no bearing on fantasy sports.

But I fear this is the direction sports is headed. That scares me because players will play for statistics, not championships, and owners will reward them with hefty contracts simply for their numbers.

How the Internet Changed Fantasy Sports

Let’s be clear here. The Schumpeterian moment did not skip over fantasy sports. This multibillion dollar industry got its wings from the Internet and exploded into where we are now.

I’ve focused much of this blog on the five W’s, but have avoided the H. How did the meteoric rise of fantasy sports happen?

Like citizen journalism, social media and stalking, the Internet has elevated fantasy sports to unexpected heights.

I remember playing fantasy football as a kid. My family joined a league with friends and neighbors and we drafted in somebody’s house with pens and paper. Weird, huh? To prepare for the draft, we bought fantasy magazines. Yes, magazines still existed back then. The magazines broke down draft order, strategy and sleepers, like ESPN.com, Rotoworld.com and Rotoexperts.com do now. I remember our “steal of the draft” was Bam Morris and our team name was “WPB,” which stood for “We Prefer Baseball.” If I can recall, we finished in next to last place.

Home drafts and paper magazines gave way to the glitz and glamor of online fantasy sports in the late-90’s. Two online innovators, Commissioner.com (now CBS Fantasy Sports) and RotoNews.com (now RotoWire), altered the fantasy landscape. They gave users the ability to easily customize leagues and also offered accessible analysis. League customization and analysis are the two major factors in the growing popularity of online fantasy sports.

First, league customization is vital to playing online. In fact, it may be the leading decision point for players. In recent years, personalization has emerged in fantasy sports. Players will refer to the traditional rules of fantasy football as “Standard Scoring;” however, these settings are not so standard anymore. Nowadays, many leagues are PPR leagues, or Point Per Reception. This means that a player gets a full point for a reception. While this may seem minor in effect, it can have a great impact on a season and greatly influences strategy. There are head to head vs. rotisserie leagues, auction vs. draft and even more obscure settings like return yards for punt and kick returners. All of these customizations are offered online.

In addition to the ability to customize, the Internet has offered quality and timely analysis. Each site has its own unique way to offer information and opinions to help fantasy players. For instance, Yahoo! offers live fantasy analysis for three hours every Sunday morning. If you are on the site, the Yahoo! fantasy experts appear on your team’s homepage giving injury news, advice and answering lineup questions. ESPN even implements a semi-paywall for fantasy information. ESPN Insider gives in-depth analysis and research on nearly every aspect of fantasy sports, but you need a subscription for access. More importantly, however, for the casual player, most of these sites make it very easy to access the information. Typically there will be some sort of marker next to the player’s name if there is news. Therefore, players can access all the necessary information for fantasy success from one page for free.

While major customization and in-depth analysis can be pricey, it is often much cheaper than the hundreds of dollars Commissioner.com cost over a decade ago. What does that mean? More money in the pot. The less money each player has to spend on the website, the more they can spend on the buy-in. Each year, the major fantasy sites introduce various nuances that take advantage of the Internet. Like Yahoo!’s live video analysis, ESPN takes advantage with its global competition. They have ESPN Uber Challenge, a competition where each player tries to accumulate as many points in every ESPN Fantasy game as possible. Seems pretty intense, huh? I can tell you from personal experience that it is very time-consuming. Prizes range from ESPN merchandise to Best Buy gift certificates and even live sporting events. And yes, registration is free.

As each fantasy site takes advantage of the ease and benefit of the Internet, there is no telling where fantasy sports will be in five or ten years. Just check out Facebook’s Title Town to catch a glimpse.