Fantasy sports. We can’t get away from them. More people are playing fantasy sports today than ever before. Close to 52 million of them, or 20% of the population in fact. And more young kids are becoming as obsessed with building their fantasy teams as they are about video and mobile games. The fascination is palpable and supported by a huge industry. But what is ‘fantasy’ doing to us, our kids and to the youth sports culture? There are positives for sure, but we should look carefully at what we’re getting hooked on.
Stats, Fun and Failure
Fantasy sports provide a way for people, among all generations, to be in touch with each other. Folks discuss, email, and text their weekly picks – making for easy and frequent social engagement. Surely this isn’t bad. Success in fantasy sports is a function of luck and significant research – it requires reading, analysis, math skills, and decision-making. The chances of winning each week are slim, forcing many young people to deal with failure, recovery, and regrouping for the next week. So, we have social benefits, some learning, and dealing with failure. OK, those are some decent positives.
Keeping More Kids Hooked on Sports
It is also amazing how many young people have become knowledgeable about so many players, providing an appreciation of, and engagement in, sports and athletics that happen in real life. While the teams are virtual, the players are actual people. Fantasy sports are also fun, fast and easy to do. Almost anyone can play at some level regardless of age or ability.
My concerns are best captured in fantasy football – a multi-billion-dollar industry that undermines what is great about sports. First, fantasy football is gambling. The fact that fantasy football is legal is remarkable – its legality must be the result of persuasive money-supported lobbyists who found ways to manipulate lawmakers behind the scenes. Gambling is illegal for a reason. It’s addictive and unhealthy. There are many more losers than winners. And while gambling is bad for all sports, professional football is its biggest casualty.
Focus on the Individual Over Teams
Through the fantasy lens, the focus on individual stats has supplanted the drive to cheer for one’s favorite team. Fans don’t seem to care about their home teams as much, unless it leads to more points for their weekly fantasy picks. The Red Zone, the NFL Network “game day” channel, highlights scoring plays in highly condensed action-packed reels. It’s entertaining and seductive – like watching football on crack. Do we ever feel restored after watching the Red Zone? It just leaves you wanting more.
Sports radio stations and television programs are jumping on board. They have to, right? It’s a business movement that can’t be ignored. To ignore the importance of fantasy football would be business foolish even if morally wise. Media coverage mirrors fantasy football – where we continue to celebrate the stats of the individual – the great catch, the highest number of fantasy points to make someone more money through gambling. And sadly, this theme of individualism trickles down to us parents and our kids playing youth sports.
Not too long ago, I attended a youth sport contest that was an exciting game decided in the last seconds. After the game, I was perplexed as to why the parents of the winning team seemed depressed. I asked a coach I knew at the game, and he said that many parents are often not happy with a win unless their own child plays and has a good game. This rise in focus of individual performance, often driven by the pursuit of college admission, is a concerning shift.
Missing the Full Opportunity of Sports
The success of the team no longer seems to matter. While many of us parents can understand a myopic focus on our child’s performance, wouldn’t we all agree that we should at least show pleasure in our child’s team success, even if our child didn’t play or play well? Isn’t this what we are supposed to do in good communities, trying to build healthy character for the next generation? The problem is that many youth sport travel teams and club programs are all about cultivating and showcasing individual talent. Team play is not emphasized when college scouts are watching. Are we just becoming a youth sport factory?
Granted, it is a leap to connect parents’ sideline behavior directly to fantasy football blood. Fantasy play is not the source of all evils, and some might argue that the benefits mentioned above are worth the downsides. This said, the gambling elements of fantasy sports, our drive toward outcomes and the celebration of the individual go against grain of what makes sport participation great: Cheering for our team whether they win or lose and never losing sight of the importance of unselfish team play, which cannot be sacrificed for the sake of individual glory.
There is great value to the process of building teams, working and growing together over time. If we don’t recognize this, we risk regressing to the behavior of our gladiator cheering ancestors at the Roman Coliseum, just seeking entertainment from the kill.