By Leif Reigstad
Like many Americans, Renee Miller plays fantasy football.
Unlike many Americans, Renee Miller is a neuroscientist.
This has helped her develop a unique view of fantasy football; she has studied the effect of cognitive bias on the game, and writes regularly for fantasy football websites advising players to eliminate their biases and personal attachments from the fantasy football decision-making process, one Miller says is best based solely on cold statistics rather than the imperfect gut or the fallible heart.
Fantasy football is a game in which users compile a roster of NFL players and compete against other people’s fantasy teams, scoring points based on touchdowns and yardage gained by their fantasy lineups’ real-life counterparts.
One cognitive bias Miller applies to fantasy football is what she calls the endowment effect. It means, basically, that if a participant feels he or she has ownership over something, then they like that thing more—perhaps irrationally more.
“As fantasy users, we own the players,” Miller, a lecturer and researcher in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at University of Rochester, said in an interview by Skype from her home in upstate New York. “The effect is no different than other possessions we own and are attached to. It gives us a stake in the game that we won’t give up. The grip is personal.”
That may help explain why fantasy football owners struggle to trade the players they picked on draft day. It may also explain how fantasy football continues to grow in the face of the NFL’s very real problems with on-field head injuries and off-field domestic abuse, and why the NFL is so committed to fostering fantasy football’s growth to strengthen its own grip on fans.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, a marketing and advocacy-based organization focused on fantasy sports, about 42 million people played fantasy sports in 2014, up from 32 million players in 2010. About 70 percent of fantasy sports players listed football as their favorite fantasy game, so at least 30 million people played fantasy football in 2014 — about 10 percent of the total population of the United States. The average fantasy sports player spends nine hours per week on the game. According to Advertising Age magazine, fantasy football generated $1.1 billion in revenue in 2013.
The game’s grip is so strong that Miller said she has difficulty reconciling her aversion to the NFL’s problems with her love for fantasy football.
“I’m frustrated with myself,” Miller said. “As both a neuroscientist and a woman, I feel like I shouldn’t watch football or play fantasy because of the NFL’s problems with concussions and domestic violence. But my football consumption hasn’t gone down at all.”
Miller is not alone, according to Dr. Andrew Billings, a professor in the University of Alabama’s Sports Communication program, and Dr. Brody Ruihley, who teaches Sport Administration at the University of Cincinnati. Billings and Ruihley co-authored “The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games Within Games,” in 2013, an in-depth look at the motivations of fantasy players and the game’s effect on them.
“We find fandom among fantasy sports players is like traditional sports fandom on steroids,” Billings said in a phone interview.
Billings and Ruihley both said ESPN’s fantasy sports players consume three times as much sports media as non-fantasy playing sports fans (22 hours a week versus seven for those who don’t play), a boost comparable to the spike in consumer involvement seen during a major event like the Olympics or the Super Bowl.
“It’s exactly what media companies want,” Ruihley said. “Attention and time, so they can sell advertising. That’s the game changer. That’s where the tipping point is.”
Instead of just rooting for their favorite team, fans are following all 32 teams to watch their fantasy players. The NFL started to embrace fantasy football in 2009 when the league unveiled its special RedZone channel providing whip-around coverage of weekly games, showcasing only touchdowns, the most important statistic in fantasy football.
In 2010, NFL.com created its own fantasy football game to compete with ESPN and Yahoo! Sports. By 2014, NFL.com would have six more fantasy football games available for fans — NFL Perfect Challenge, Weekly Pick’Em, Thursday Night Football Challenge, Playoff Challenge, Fantasy Survivor, and Record Breaker — and an equal number of big advertisers, with Verizon, Lenovo, Snickers, Dodge Ram Trucks and the United Services Automobile Association sponsoring NFL.com fantasy football this season, according to the league.
The league’s stadiums are becoming more accommodating to the fantasy player, too, boosting wireless internet connections and providing personal TV screens and tents so fans can watch their fantasy players perform in other games throughout the league. The San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium even has a lounge dedicated to fantasy football, featuring large TVs and touch screens and charging stations.
The NFL’s commitment to fantasy football is clear. On the navigation menu atop NFL.com’s home page, the first drop-down tab after the league logo is labeled, in big block letters: “Fantasy.”
“The fantasy player is the league’s best fan,” Peter Schoenke, president of the popular fantasy sports news and analysis website Rotowire.com, said in a phone interview. “They’re more knowledgeable. They’re buying more jerseys, going to more games.”
They may also be more likely to ignore the NFL’s problems.
“There are rules to fantasy football, but not a whole lot of ethics,” Billings said by phone. “You can bet that if there were rumors that [Minnesota Vikings star running back] Adrian Peterson was coming back from suspension [for allegedly abusing his son], he’d be the hottest pickup of the week. Fantasy football users will so easily separate from moral distinction. People just want the party to keep going, and are willing to move larger issues to the back burner.”
Fantasy football’s grip is most evident among those, like Miller, Billings and Ruihley, who study it and are aware of their own consumption and the game’s grip, yet still readily succumb to it.
“I added [Cleveland Browns wide receiver] Josh Gordon a few weeks before he returned from suspension [for violating the league’s substance abuse policy],” Ruihley said. “And I teach a class about ethical issues in sports! We need them for numbers, not to fill a heroic role for us.”
While Ruihley and Billings said they believe fantasy football may be desensitizing fans and distracting them from important issues in the NFL, Rotowire’s Schoenke insisted fantasy football remained independent from the league’s real-life problems.
“It’s just something you do to enhance fandom,” he said. “If there are a few bad guys involved, it’s a minor annoyance at most.”
Fantasy football’s dominant demographic is white men. According to the FSTA, 80 percent of fantasy players are male, and nearly 90 percent are Caucasian. The area where fantasy football has the most room to grow is among the non-white, non-male population.
How the NFL will attempt to harness that population is a difficult question, given fantasy football’s unsettling racial rhetoric and the NFL’s male-dominated culture and problems with domestic abuse.
Fantasy football involves constant adding and dropping of players, trading, buying and selling. One of the most popular draft formats is the auction draft, where owners “bid” on players.
“The NFL players are treated as commodities, and that may be why black America is not showing interest,” Billings said. “There are connotations of slavery — white owners trading and selling predominantly black players.”
Emil Kadlec, owner of Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., which publishes four fantasy football strategy magazines and the website FootballDiehards.com, said he doesn’t think fantasy football has anything to do with slavery. “An auction is just a method to draft,” Kadlec said in a phone interview from his home in New Mexico. “And it’s the best way to draft a team.”
Kadlec also said he has “no idea” why so few women play fantasy football, and that he worries society will deem fantasy owners distasteful because they will readily add players like Peterson or Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice when they can.
“It’s not that we don’t care,” Kadlec said. “It’s just that fantasy football is supposed to be an escape. We don’t support the NFL — the NFL supports us. When I’m playing it’s all about me. I’m not trying to make a moral statement. I’m not thinking about the world’s problems.”