Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Baseball Fan and Gambling: A Defense of Fantasy Baseball

Watching the Fantasyland documentary, I came across interesting comments by Murray Chass and other older sportswriters claiming that fantasy baseball has changed how fans watch baseball (or really any other sport for that matter). The implication is that, thanks to fantasy, fans no longer care about their home teams--or teams in general--and find interest only in following the players. They apparently lose a broad scope and love for the intricacies of the game. They just want their star fantasy player to hit a home run...even if it's at the expense of their favorite 'real' baseball team. I hear this from friends of mine that are huge sports fans. They refuse to play fantasy because they think it degrades the game and how people watch it. That's fine, but why do you care what I think about the game? Do you think that my lack of screaming or belly-painting caused your favorite team to lose. Damn...I really should have bought that orange paint for the 'D' in our 'DEFENSE' chain. It's all my fault.

Now, the rest of my post isn't super-organized. I try to make some points, but mainly just dump my thinking, as I ran out of time today. But hopefully it gets these points across: 1) My interest in baseball shouldn't matter to you 2) Things change, and it's a part of the game 3) Fantasy provides good things for baseball and revenues and gets more fans interested in the everyday happenings of the league 4) The way fantasy affects fandom isn't really any different than sports gambling, which has been a part of sport forever.

I can honestly say that playing fantasy DOES change my view and how I watch baseball. So Chass and others are correct in their view: it changes the viewership, how they watch it, and what their incentives are in watching the game. But does it really make the sport worse off? I don't think so. I would argue that it gets fans more involved and more interested in every play. If it weren't for fantasy sports, could most of us really sit there and watch MLB Gameday for hours, rather than the game on television?

Teams are learning how to reach the fantasy player, and there's an amazing amount of potential reach using new technologies. Fantasy players are high-income and high-intelligence for the most part. They're the ones with iPhones, iPads, and Droids. They're the ones that program computers, design computers, and come up with forecast equations for Fortune 500 companies. They're the ones that spend the money.

Fantasy allows the fan to be invested in the game more than ever before, and creates an experience not unlike a video game, or even a second life world like The Sims or World of Warcraft. Except it's macho...and it's okay with your Wallstreet buddies to sit around and crunch numbers about sports for hours on end instead of going out and grabbing a beer. Try telling them you're staying in because you just got the new Sims add-on. Let the mocking begin.

We can paint fantasy in as only the latest innovation of fan interest in sports. We must remember that there hasn't been a time when professional athletics weren't the subject of extensive gambling or fringe innovation. I doubt we would have such enormous fan interest if it weren't for gambling. From the sketchy baseball happenings of the 1800's to the turf clubs in the 1930's to the internet today, gambling is a staple of American life. We're talking about a multi-billion dollar business. It's not discussed as openly as fantasy (as it often can result in the loss of homes and families--perhaps that's the future of fantasy), but the business is even bigger. The truth is, fantasy is gambling. It's not gambling in the sense that you're playing against a 'house', but it is gambling in the sense that you're risking money in a zero sum game against your friends. It's no different than a poker game in your buddy's garage.

This site has a great history of sports betting. The statistics are staggering: it's estimated that 1 in 4 Americans places a bet on a sporting even each year, with 15% of Americans betting regularly. 15%!!!! To put that in perspective, that's 46.2 million people in our country alone. Betting has always been a part of baseball, and Chass and the other writers know this. But they don't complain that Vegas is ruining fandom. I find these stats more disconcerting than newly minted nerdy baseball fans.

Really, gambling has always had similar effects on rooting for a team that fantasy does. The only difference is that fantasy brings focus to the player rather than the team. If an Orioles fan bet on the Yankees to win a game (probably a good bet), they would have plenty of incentive to root against the team they call their own. This isn't a new phenomenon with fantasy sports, it's just shifted from one interest to another. It's happened for over 100 years, and it's not going to suddenly disappear or get worse because of fantasy sports. It's just another way to get fans involved and invested. If you don't like fantasy, then don't play. Watch the game as you always would, and it will still be the same beautiful game that it was when Mantle and Mays roamed the outfield.

So I guess the gambling aspect kind of makes fantasy sound bad, no? Being a homewrecking money-waster and all. But my main interest is how it affects the game. The total sum of fantasy spending is huge, but for each person it's pretty small apples. Maybe 100 bucks a year. Sounds better than many other expensive hobbies. I'll begin with my own experience. As someone who has played baseball all his life--and someone who has a number of traditionalist thoughts about the sport in the back of his mind--I find that fantasy only enhances my love for watching baseball. I'm an Orioles fan by birthplace, but have never understood the ability to become die-hard for a professional or college sports team. Because I was always playing, I often put myself in the players' shoes when I was watching a game.

I find it fascinating--but will never understand--how fans become so emotional about a team that, honestly, they have absolutely nothing to do with. I'm not the one playing. I don't know the guys down there. In fact, I'm sitting 400 feet away. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but it certainly doesn't seem like a rational thing. It's borderline delusional, yet common practice. Die hard fans refer to their favorite team using 'We Won' (but then also use 'They Lost'--I'll leave this pet peeve for another day). This, I do have a problem with. Using 'We' infers that you had something to do with winning the game. Why would someone get such high enjoyment from watching someone else accomplish something like winning a baseball game? Why feel the need to associate yourself with that? Why not get excited about some random person graduating from Harvard? I understand that the entertainment value is different, but emotional attachment and entertainment value are very different things. We don't see very many people high fiving after the prosecutor from Law & Order gets his man, do we? What's the difference?

But that's just me. It's absolutely fascinating and very much the reason I sit in my office and try to understand the demand for sport. My emotional detachment seems to be relatively rare when it comes to sports fans, but it's one I feel allows me to have an interesting perspective on the game. It also leaves me with the desire to be out there and be part of the game, rather than just watch it. I look for something more, as I can't associate myself with other people accomplishing things that I have no part in. It makes me search for ways to involve myself in the game I so dearly love.

I love the intricacies of baseball, and I'm the guy that tells his girlfriend that he can't believe the umpire isn't calling a balk when the pitcher doesn't fully stop in the stretch (to which I get a look of confusion). I look at the grip the pitcher takes on the ball while in the windup and try to call what pitch it's going to be (if only I had a camera behind the pitcher relayed into my helmet when I was playing). I love these parts of the game, but they're not enough to get me to watch baseball (or any other sport) on a daily basis. So, in middle school and the beginnings of high school, my attention faded toward baseball cards--particularly the back. I wanted to understand what they did, how they did it, and how I could put together my own team of favorite players. I was the kid on our team that remembered every umpire (and how much I hated them). The other guys were convinced I had some memory chip...but I was just paying close attention.

In comes fantasy--the ultimate manly test of wits. My original introduction to fantasy was probably in the mid-90's. I was in middle school and in the heyday of my baseball career. Our team probably could have competed with any of those you see winning the Little League World Series, and I was the #1 pitcher. My baseball development hadn't yet stopped on a dime (though, that would come soon enough). My entire life was baseball. Well, that and Math Counts Club.

It was about then that we got our first free 500 hours of America Online. I used to go into the hilarious chatrooms where creeps professed their love for SweetieChick1981: 14/F/Blonde. I roamed the waters of Cafe 183 and Corner Pub 279. It was fun. Everyone did it...send out a fake Age/Sex/Haircolor and lead on random pedos for a laugh.

Then I found it: AOL had their own 'salary cap' version of fantasy, just like the Baseball Challege on ESPN today. I didn't understand what I was doing. I just clicked my favorite players and hoped for the best. I'm sure whatever I was picking was terrible, and good grief did it take forever to load. But it had me hearing the beeps and crunches of my modem much more often than SweetieChick1981 ever did.

The fascination from the baseball cards and the AOL fantasy game had me more interested in who was the best, how they were the best, and what I could do to become the best. I always loved watching baseball, but I felt that love for the watching the game process itself waning somewhat as I grew deeper into high school. That's about the time where playing became much more interesting than watching, and I didnt' get back into fantasy or watching much baseball until college.

In college, particularly my senior year in 2006, was when I truly found my love for fantasy sports project itself on my watching of baseball. Rather than turn on the Orioles game on MASN (or HTS, or whatever the hell it was that year), I was watching CBS Gametracker to see if Todd Helton was finally going to have a 40 HR comeback. I still cared if the Orioles won, but not nearly as much as I did about beating my friends. In the end, it was a terrible year for me fantasy-wise. But I found my interest turn toward improving it the next year, and watching the game in a completely different way.

*****

So back to how this affects the fan. Compared to the traditionalist, it changes things a lot. I'm not sure why Chass is convinced that it's for the worse. Maybe because everyone reads the boxscores instead of his articles, I dunno. But fantasy certainly saved me from becoming a non-chalant baseball fan. I imagine it's saved a number of others as well, and dramatically increased interest from different strokes of people. Remember, I'm someone who loved the game from a player perspective...imagine what it takes to keep someone interested that finds the pace boring. Fantasy is a way for those people to invest themselves in the product. That can only be good for baseball (putting aside MLB players participating in fantasy and the wonky incentives that might bring on).

I don't foresee fantasy sports changing the way that hardcore single-team fans watch the game. These are the fans that Chass thinks are more worthy to watch baseball...or something. Those traditionalist fans who wouldn't trade their favorite team for a million dollars. The ones that would scoff at the idea of Derek Jeter playing in anything but pinstripes. The ones that, if they play fantasy, likely get laughed at for taking nothing but Red Sox or Yankees players. If they get so much fun out of watching it, then that is great! I, of course, don't think they should be playing fantasy instead, since their fandom just ruins everything for me. What does it matter? This is why I don't understand Chass's (and some friends of mine's) disdain for a fantasy game they have nothing to do with.

What sort of positive externality applies to Chass if I'm there rooting for my favorite team, rather than my favorite Fredneck Flyers player? It seems that in the day of unrecognizable year-to-year rosters, it would be more beneficial for new fans to follow a player, rather than a team. That doesn't make traditional fans extinct. It just makes more fans. If they so choose, a fan can have that attachment to a player who can't go anywhere. They'll always have them on their fantasy team. It's more a product of a changing game, rather than the changing game being a product of the fringe innovations like fantasy sports.

For those on the fringe, fantasy captivates the mind and the soul of the fan, and integrates their interest in sport with their interest in business and control. There isn't much control in watching your team get spanked day in and day out...but knowing that you'll be able to trade that player on your fantasy team probably mitigates this feeling in some way. It seems much easier (and more rational) to have an emotional attachment to something you control, so why not do it? There will always be Red Sox fans and Yankee fans. They'll always go to the game screaming and cheering (and booing) their team. Most of them probably gamble on the games, too. Even more of them likely have a fantasy team. They'll enjoy watching the Yanks win, while Ellsbury steals 4 bases against Jorge to vault the Girardi's Giants to the top. There's no harm in that.

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