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Is The NFL's Future A Fantasy Land?

What?!  We already used a cheerleader-fantasy joke?  Oh well...
What?! We already used a cheerleader-fantasy joke? Oh well...


Author's Note:  Is that the worst title in blogging history?  It has to be in the running.  In fact, it is so bad that once I wrote it, it had to stay.

When Arian Foster's now infamous tweet -- no, not the one about the MRI that projected his death, the one where he said those only concerned about his injury for fantasy purposes are "sick" -- passed across my feed the other day, the first thing to cross my mind was, "Phew, it doesn't seem major."  I then moved on with the things that occupy my normal daily activities, like Googling coworkers.

Next thing I know, I log into BRB and see Rivers fisking the crap out of some Yahoo who took offense to Foster's tweet.  Little did I know of the insanity that had ensued.  Arian was being called to the carpet by everyone from ESPN to Sports Illustrated to the Midwest Sports Fan (ok...that one was funny).

I found the whole situation oddly intriguing.  On one side, I can appreciate Foster's frustration, but on the other side, I can understand people who want him to respect those that enable his way of life (if not their approach).

The whole thing got me to thinking about the changes in football that fantasy has created and the future of football fandom as a whole.

First off, let me provide some full disclosure.  I no longer play much fantasy football.  I used to be in four to five leagues a year.  About four years ago, I had a pretty rough month where my professional and personal life were pretty taxed during a three week period in early November and as a result, I neglected my fantasy teams for a bit.

That same year, in another league where I was the commissioner, we had lost a few guys and replaced them with a few guys who turned out to be total jerkwads.  Suddenly a league that had been ongoing and happy for years became tense and painful.

In both cases, people got mad, tempers flared, and a game, which was supposed to be fun, ended up driving friends apart. 

As a result, I pretty much quit fantasy and now only partake in a single league, consisting mainly of castoffs from those other leagues that just want to get back to having fun and not take anything too seriously.

This was my decision, and I've been quite happy with it.  Still, while I no longer indulge to the same extent, I do not begrudge anyone their fantasy goodness.  I have heeded the call of the fantasy sirens and have crashed on their rocky shores.  This is neither a pro nor anti fantasy post.  May Durga bless you all with stupid opponents.

No, the purpose of this post is to ponder the future of fantasy as it pertains to the NFL.

The most interesting part of my fantastical debacle was how my views on football changed between my pre and post fantasy lives.  I became significantly less interested in individual achievements and far more interested in team performance.

My obsession with the Texans increased, but my manlove for Andre Johnson actually decreased (only slightly though - it went from brutal, insane manlove to just crazy manlove).  I no longer cared if he had a good game - only if he helped the team win.  I gained a further appreciation for wide receivers who block and for the tackling abilities of our backup safeties.  I no longer felt frustrated when Andre made a 40 yard reception but got pushed out at the 1, only to see Ron Dayne pilfer the touchdown.  I was just happy that the Texans scored.

Based on the incredible reaction to Foster's tweet, however, I can't help but wonder if the future of football will steer away from team fandom and towards individuals.  Will BRB be replaced in the future by individual player blogs like Andre's Johnsons or ODing on OD?

Let's play with some numbers.  For starters, let's estimate the market for NFL football.  I can't seem to find specific numbers, so let me just make some rough estimates.  111 million people watched the Super Bowl this past season.  Let's assume that that figure includes all real NFL fans plus those annoying people that shush you during the commercials. 

For the sake of discussion, let's put the normal fans at 75% and the commercial shushers at 25% (note: I completely pulled these figures out of my butt, but they're not super critical to the overall analysis).  That would estimate the NFL market at about 83 million people.   

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (yes, there is such a thing) estimates that 28 million people play fantasy sports.

Assuming that all fantasy players are NFL fans, then about 25% of the NFL's total market also plays fantasy football.  Of course, I'd be willing to bet that the amount of revenue generated from that 25% is higher than any other quartile, but we'll touch on that more a bit later.

Now you're going to have to give me a little bit of leeway on this next step here because I'm a bit limited on time and data. 

I don't predict that the total NFL market is going to increase that significantly over the next 10 or 20 years because the viewership in Super Bowls has not increased significantly in the past 30.  Many of the Super Bowls in the 80s have outperformed some of the recent Super Bowls.  That is not to say I don't think it will grow, but rather that the growth will be moderate.

This also makes a bit of sense when you think about it.  The NFL is already the most popular sport in America, so it is more difficult to grow at an rapid rate.  This explains the NFL's interest in playing games in the UK and Canada, as the US market is probably fairly saturated.

Compare that, then, to the fantasy football market.  The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimated that in 2003 only 15 million people were playing fantasy football.  That means that the market has increased nearly 100% in the past 8 years.

Regardless of whether you buy my argument on the rate of growth of the NFL market, I think it's fairly safe to say that it hasn't doubled in that same time fame.  Therefore, regardless of whether you buy my estimate of the NFL market at all, the argument that the percentage of NFL fans that play fantasy football is growing at a much greater rate than the total NFL market is fairly sound.  Now, I don't expect the fantasy market growth to be linear, but I wouldn't be surprised if it continues to grow significantly for a few more years.

So if we revisit the notion that fantasy crazies probably account for more than 25% of NFL revenue, and if we agree that the rate of fantasy growth is outpacing the rate of NFL growth, is it really a stretch to say that we're not far away from the day where the fantasy football portion of the NFL business model is larger than the non-fantasy portion? 

Even more, as younger fans are introduced to both fantasy and NFL games at the same time, is it that much of a stretch to see a day where the majority of NFL fans don't root for teams, but for players?

Will win-loss records (and by extension the Super Bowl itself) become irrelevant compared to individual player stats?

Ok, that last one may be a bit of a stretch, but how many people 20 years ago would have believed that MTV would no longer play music? 

I definitely wouldn't be surprised if ESPN and Sports Illustrated became fantasy sites with small sports reporting departments (and yes, you could argue that they already are "fantasy").

I think all of those questions are legitimate possibilities, and it will start to get extra interesting if the NFL adapts its rules to cater to fantasy (if you don't think they would mess with the integrity of the game like that, then I have a season ticket package you might be interested in - I give you good rate).

Whether you agree with these thoughts or not, I think it's fair to say that the business of fantasy football is now the business of the NFL itself.  And business is good.

The biggest market opportunity that the NFL has is in the fantasy world.  Expansion is too costly and logistically complicated, foreign markets are only slightly less costly and extremely difficult to penetrate, but there is plenty of money to be made by further exploiting the individuals who make fantasy football great. 

Ultimately, I believe this will alter the way the NFL is presented and viewed - and possibly even played.  I don't know if it will be good or bad, but it will undoubtedly be interesting.

And it will be bad news for all those players who complain about people criticizing their performance in a victory.