When Fantasy Football Meets Reality
There was no shortage of great NFL match-ups on Sunday, but for Yahoo fantasy football players, the only games that mattered were the ones they couldn't get any information on.
Along with ESPN and CBS Sports, Yahoo is one of the biggest players in a fantasy sports industry that generates nearly $1 billion a year, much of it from football. Normally, that's easy money, but this week it was a big problem. Yahoo's fantasy site and mobile app went down before kickoff, keeping millions of players from making last-minute lineup changes, rendering them blind to the score of their match-ups throughout the day and drastically altering the way Americans watch sports.
My typical Sunday football routine, where living room couches are crowded with two guys to a cushion watching games on TV and checking broadcasts on laptops, was disturbed. In addition, each guest holds an electronic device of some sort, be it an iPhone or iPad, with a live feed of a fantasy match-up.
Much of the time the TV goes unwatched, and between every play and during every commercial there's no talking, no eating or even drinking. Just silence as everyone looks down at their devices to see how the action around the league is affecting their individual game. The only exchanges come in the form of smack-talk or audible groaning when Adrian Peterson breaks off a 70-yard touchdown run against an opposing team.
What Yahoo players endured on Sunday existed not too long ago, but few dared to imagine today: a world without fantasy football. No one took it harder than Steve, my league's resident fantasy guru. By the fourth quarter of the early afternoon games, Steve had enough. His frustration may have had something to do with the fact that his New York Giants were getting pounded by the Cincinnati Bengals. But, still, he couldn't stand not knowing whether his team, "Rice Rice Baby," was defeating competitor "Here for Beer."
"Get me a pad and paper!" he said, resorting to more traditional means after his countless attempts to log on to Yahoo failed.
After granting Steve's request... no wait, his demand, I watched him go to work. He wrote down the name of each player on his team then sorted through the box scores of each game on ESPN's website to translate the stats into fantasy points. Six points for every touchdown, a point for each reception for receivers, another point for every ten yards rushing for running backs. By the time he was done, his sheet held a series of mathematical equations and everyone hovered around as he calculated the score.
The effort was a valiant one, but in the end it was never going to be anything but a temporary fix. Within minutes, as the games progressed and players' stats changed, the entire math would be useless.
The passion for fantasy football in that room was motivated by friendly competition and a small cash prize that goes to the first, second and third place finishers at the end of the year. However, across the country there are millions of fans who are playing for much more money and make Steve's reaction seem incredibly mild.
The story here is not about how crazy fantasy football players are (there's an entire show about that on FX), Yahoo's incompetence (there was plenty of that) or even the money that changes hands as a result of games each week (and trust me, there's a lot of it). Last weekend demonstrated just how much technology has completely altered, for better or worse, the way people watch sports.
When I was a kid, my father would invite his friends over to watch the game, and the scene in my living room was much different from it is today. The only entertainment I had outside of the game itself was getting them all drinks, and their only entertainment beyond the gridiron was watching me carry them.
Fantasy football has become so big that it has helped make the NFL the most popular thing in America. Don't believe it? In addition to the millions playing fantasy football, downloading apps and keeping a device within arms' reach during games, there are also the TV ratings. Last Sunday night's regular season showdown between the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears delivered higher ratings than the first two nights of this year's MLB World Series combined and would be good enough to rule prime time TV lineups any night of the week.
Why would someone from New York, Miami, New England or Washington tune into a game between two teams' miles from the Atlantic seaboard? Sure, part of the reason is it's a good game, but the other is because there are millions of people in those cities who have players on their fantasy team playing in that game.
In the age of high-speed Internet, smartphones and apps there are hundreds of businesses and industries attempting to adopt technology to boost their bottom line. The NFL did it seamlessly and with practically no effort whatsoever. All the league does is put its basic product of 32 teams out on the field to do battle every Sunday and the rest takes care of itself.
Companies like Yahoo and CBS Sports provide fantasy football services and the ripple effect is felt through multiple industries. The NFL receives higher ratings, ESPN creates entire shows around fantasy football, networks command more for advertising, Bud Light reaches more customers and an entire football culture explodes upon America like never before.
Sometimes it's only in the absence of an everyday thing like fantasy football that the incredible influence tech can have is truly felt by everyday people. The NFL has always been an institution, but over the past decade its undergone a revolution that has made it incredibly accessible and attractive to a younger audience.
No one is saying the NFL wouldn't be thriving without fantasy football, but it sure helps, and it's only possible with a little technology, as Yahoo so aptly proved to us all this past weekend. ♦
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