When most people think of fantasy football, they think of a bunch of hardcore fans — all-American men — sitting around talking about football players. This might have been the reality 10 or so years ago when fantasy first became popular. Today, however, fantasy football appeals to a much broader range of people. ESPN estimates that around 18 percent of the fantasy sports content on its website is consumed by women. In addition, many people outside the U.S. appear to be playing.
This interest in fantasy football appears to have a lot of momentum. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that nearly 57 million people played fantasy football in the US and Canada in 2014. American Express is projecting that almost 75 million Americans will play in 2015. With these numbers, I’m guessing that a lot of women, kids, and non-traditional NFL fans are involved.
My personal experience with fantasy football shows the broadening of interest in fantasy football.
I started playing fantasy last year with my friends on my street (all sixth grade boys). But this year, I am playing both with the group on my street and with a group of 11-12 year old girls from my class. Most of these girls don’t know really anything about football, but were encouraged to play to learn more and get more interested in the games on TV. My mom, who has almost no interest in football, is also joining a league with her friends.
All of this interest is having an impact on the business of football. Fantasy players are estimated to spend anywhere from $100 to almost $500 on fantasy leagues, creating a multi-billion dollar business.
But that’s just part of the story. Instead of just watching their hometown or favorite teams, viewers are likely tuning in to watch the guys on their fantasy teams play. This should mean a bigger audience for all the games and likely higher advertising revenues for the NFL. And because fantasy football players are interested in more players than just the ones on their favorite teams, they are likely buying a wider range of NFL jerseys and other merchandise. Here’s an example: For Christmas last year, I asked for a Jordy Nelson Bleacher Creature instead of one from my favorite team, the Eagles. I got to know and like Nelson because he was the wide receiver for my fantasy team and I followed him all season.
But even though people seem to really like fantasy football — either by playing it or by profiting from it — some of the athletes on the field feel differently.
The broadening interest in football players seems to be taking away from team loyalty. “I think it has ruined the game. There are no true fans of the game,” former quarterback Jake Plummer told ESPN. “If I lost a game . . . no Denver [Broncos] fan was mad because I lost, but happy because I threw three TDs."
Gregg Jennings, wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, echoed this negative sentiment. “It puts pressure on us to make sure we’re the liked player in that category,” he said. “It plays with your mind.”
When I interviewed Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles earlier this year he, too, saw two sides of the fantasy coin. On one hand, he liked that he was drafted in the first round for many fantasy leagues after being a third-round pick in real life. But he also saw the downside when a wide range of people “trashed him” when he tore his ACL a few years ago.
Regardless of how you feel fantasy football is impacting real football, one thing is for sure: fantasy football is here to stay. And whether you are male or female, a kid or an adult, a hardcore NFL fan or a newbie, I wish you a great fantasy season!
Photos: Ronda Churchill for Sports Illustrated