Since September of last year, I’ve been a part of a small exclusive group driven by the same goal, meeting biweekly or so, but never in person. To be active, you have to check in every week, but to be competitive and a real part of the experience, you must dive in. And if you don’t, it would let down the others involved.
While it may sound like I joined a clandestine club or a culty fitness fad, I actually just participated in something millions of others do every year. In fact, according to an article from ESPN, which is the app that I used, 11 million people played ESPN fantasy football alone this season. That’s just one service, and there are plenty more, so if so many people can do it…what’s the big deal?
I last participated in a fantasy sport about 20 years ago. I don’t remember which site it was through(smartphones weren’t a thing then), but it was basketball, and I remember it being fun. At the time I had been watching basketball fairly closely for years so I knew most of the players and enjoyed diving into their stats and engaging in friendly competition with some friends. Although many fantasy leagues have a prize pot of some sort: either a belt, trophy, cash, or shameful task you must undertake, I don’t remember having one back then.
This time around, I was asked by a friend to join, and while I was reluctant, I ended up saying yes to 1)try something new and 2)because my friend asked. Getting enough people to play in fantasy leagues is essential, so the season and matchups work correctly. In essence, if you only had 5 players, it may be less entertaining and not provide the optimal experience. My reluctance was primarily based on my fear of taking on something requiring more time than I could handle and ruining the experience for others actively participating. Secondly, I was worried that my not watching the NFL other than here and there would keep me from understanding the game and lead to me making embarrassing decisions. So to recap, I don’t know the players, I don’t regularly watch the sport, and I don’t know exactly how fantasy sports work. So how did I do?
Well, first there’s the draft to kick off the season. The draft consists of you picking players from across the NFL round after round to make up your team. While this is often done in person, I found it doesn’t have to be and yet can still be exciting. Since I didn’t know many players aside from a few of our local Tampa Bay Bucs and other big names(mostly quarterbacks and headline makers), I did a little homework to try and prepare myself. This was fun as it was all new information to me. Each thing I learned felt like a new secret that I could use to surprise everyone and somehow succeed in this random endeavor. Then when it came time for the draft, it was fast and furious, with a countdown timer forcing you to make quick decisions as you navigate the app essentially for the first time. Was it stressful? A bit. Was it hectic? Yes. Was it also a rush? Yep.
So I scored a handful of the picks I wanted and got another couple of picks my research said would help me do well. Leading the charge and my team was Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills’ defense. I was happy as they were a mix of research and my decision. Little did I know that they would lead me to watch every Bills game and follow them closely for the rest of the season(and likely next season)!
The next big step is week one. Watch football, pay attention to who you’re playing and who’s injured, and see if you made the right choices. For someone who hadn’t spent all day Sunday watching football with an app of interesting stats and a competitive draw, it was quite a change. I quickly was invested in the games, caring about how my team did, and enjoying the sport more overall.
Despite losing my first two games, I found myself hooked and wanting to win one. There’s only so much you can do to impact your success after the draft. However, I did try! And of course, you have no control over injuries, and my team certainly had injuries. While this was frustrating as a team manager, it made me realize how often the players get injured and how rough the sport can be. I was constantly switching players and trying to find new available players to fill spots for all of the injuries I had. To put it bluntly, i’d be in financial ruin if I had actual money invested in those players playing or the team’s performance. Had I picked a bad team? Was I going to spend the season losing?
Fortunately, my research and wild guesses combined, and I finally put together a win in week three and actually won quite a few afterward. When it came time for the playoffs, I missed the top half of our eight players by mere points, and I ended the actual season at the top of the middle of the pack with 8 wins and 6 losses. A winning record? Not a bad turnout for a first outing, but I did miss out on going all the way, which gives me something to prove still next year. Maybe…
So what did I gain? Fantasy football, at least the app and league I was a part of, cost nothing except a bit of time. To address my initial concern, I probably spent about as much time tinkering with my team as possible, and it still never felt like a burden to me. I gained an appreciation for the actual players who risk life and limb every week to play a game that entertains millions sitting safely at home, screaming insults and judging them. Yes, they get paid well, but that doesn’t change being carted off on a stretcher, having emergency surgery, and sitting on the sideline for 4 weeks watching your friends and brand go on without you while you can’t walk or do the thing you love.
Most of all, though, I got to witness and be a part of the fans and culture by watching the sport every week, sometimes three days a week. It may sound crazy, but it was exciting, and I looked forward to those days and games more than ever before. There was always something to do or pay attention to on Sundays, and there was always a game to work my schedule around to make sure to catch. Plus, though I may not have started out this way, each time I opened the fantasy app, I felt like I was doing something for myself. That was my time because that was my team, and only I cared about it or didn’t. Did I waste a lot of time between September and January on fantasy football? Maybe, but I enjoyed every second of doing it, and I just remembered I have a friend I need to thank.