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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

November 9, 2013 at 9:45 PM

Media madness: How fantasy football is changing fandom

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scrambles to get away from Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David in last week's game. The players earn points for millions of fans who manage fantasy football teams. (BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scrambles to get away from Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David in last week’s game. The players earn points for millions of fans who manage fantasy football teams. (BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Ian Allan gets bored watching full live games of his favorite sport. Davida Marion rolls her eyes when friends ask to hang out on Sundays. Marc Sells once yelled “Yes!” when he heard a certain someone had torn his ACL.

Is this madness? Maybe. It’s fantasy football.

I knew almost nothing about the booming $1.2 billion fantasy sports industry until a few weeks ago, when the Seahawks took on the Houston Texans. We served chips and hummus in the TV room, and Sells, a good friend, grabbed his phone and opened his laptop. While we rooted for our team, he rooted for his fantasy players, whose real life performance in games across the NFL would either validate or condemn painstaking decisions he had made that week.

More than 24 million Americans play fantasy football, and I’ve managed to avoid talking about it with any of them. This year, though, is different. This year, for the first time in my life, I’m actually following a season of sport. I’ve now gasped and jumped and scared the baby with some wild, out-of-nowhere shriek for nine straight weeks of soaring Seahawks football, and I can’t believe I didn’t get into this sooner.

“Next year, you gotta try fantasy!” a friend and fantasy freshman posted on my Facebook page last week. It seems the next logical step, the intensifier of choice for a generation of sports fans hungry for information, social experiences and fast new ways to get both.

But what, exactly, would I be getting myself into? And what would fantasy football do to my brand-new Seahawks fandom — not to mention the rest of my life?

Let’s start with that torn ACL. Indianapolis Colts running back Vick Ballard got it during practice in September, and Sells “owned” his backup, Ahmad Bradshaw, on his fantasy team.

There are variations, but fantasy football works mainly on point systems. You draft your players before the season, then decide each week who you’re going to “play” and who you’re going to “bench” for a head-to-head matchup with another team in the league you formed with friends or colleagues. The better your players do in their games, the more points they earn. And if they earn more points than the players on your opponent’s team, you win.

Critics say fantasy football turns human players into commodities. They’re right. With Ballard injured, Bradshaw was expected to carry the ball more this season. More real carries for Bradshaw, more fantasy points for Sells.

But it turns out Bradshaw injured his neck and was lost for the season that very day. You can strategize in fantasy football, but you can’t control it.

Sells acknowledges the weirdness. If his 11-year-old self could see him now, Sells told me, “He’d be very confused.” Sells grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan, but when the 49ers played the Arizona Cardinals last month, Sells was just fine with Cardinals running back Andre Ellington scoring touchdowns against them. Why? Because Ellington is on his fantasy team, and dominating those matchups means more to Sells than seeing his favorite NFL team win by any more than one point.

Members of Ian Allan's fantasy football league have been competing since the 80s. Winners add their fantasy team colors to the base of the league trophy every year. (Photo: Ian Allan)

Members of Ian Allan’s fantasy football league have been competing since the 80s. Winners add their fantasy team colors to the base of the league trophy every year. (Photo: Ian Allan)

Davida Marion went from uninformed sub to two-league NFL know-it-all addict in a few short years of fantasy football and, come fall, her friends all know it. It’s a natural law of our tech-enhanced world that the more information is available on any given thing, the more that people will be expected to consume it.

You can go on hunches or whims — the guy who’s second place in local fan Chris Soriano’s league drafted all the players whose last names end in “-kowski” — but for the most part, if you want to succeed in fantasy football, you have to do your homework. Lots of it.

“That cartoon is spot-on,” Marion said of a “DogHouseDiaries” webcomic that contrasts football fans with fantasy football fans. In the first panel, a football fan leans over his laptop to tell his wife he can’t go out Sunday because the game is on. In the second, a fantasy football fan leans over his laptop and stops any talk of such nonsense: “I’ll see you in February.”

This is where people like Ian Allan come in.

Allan, who lives in Bothell, is co-founder of Fantasy Football Index, one of the first fantasy football magazines in the country. He started it as a University of Washington class project with Bruce Taylor in 1987, and has made supplying subscribers with expert stats and analysis his more than full-time job almost ever since.

People talk about the “paper era” in fantasy football, and Allan remembers it well. He was his league’s “commissioner,” and instead of getting player picks on online platforms like Yahoo’s or ESPN’s, he would take a dozen calls at home every Sunday before games started at 10 a.m., stay up until 2 a.m. Tuesday morning tallying points by hand and then mail — mail! — the reports to his eight fantasy franchise owners.

For a few years, a handful of subscribers paid him in trade with videos of preseason matchups he had no way of seeing from Washington state.

“It feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Allan said.

Fantasy football went from a hobby to an industry in the past 15 years, after CBS launched the first online fantasy service in 1997 and growth tracked the spread of broadband and later, smartphones. It’s drawing new players, including more women, and industry analyst IBISWorld expects revenues to grow 7.6 percent annually through 2018.

Like so much that’s gone online, fantasy sports are getting easier to get into — and watch. Allan prefers to watch football on NFL RedZone, a channel that switches between simultaneous games to show whenever a team gets within 20 yards of the end zone. After the games, he reviews plays online. Live broadcasts, with all their ads and fluff, are just … slow.

I am miles away from understanding football. Ask anyone who’s watched me cheer then ask what happened.

But if fantasy is the next step, I may be crazy enough to take it.

Thanks to Greg Johns and fantasy football fans Emily Chen and Randy Leslein for their insights, and to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who helped introduce me to the sport!

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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