On the Ball: Fantasy Football—Why We Love It!

January 9, 2015 Updated: April 24, 2016

I admit it, I’m a fantasy football nerd. I’ve been playing this make-believe-you’re-a-GM game with my friends since the mid-to-late ’90s—right when the Internet started hosting it for free.

I’m not an uber-nerd though. I’ve never played for big money, never managed more than three teams in a season, never had a destination fantasy draft, and no girl ever cited “ignores me during football season” as a reason for breaking up with me—they had plenty of others. (By the way, I’m not going to say that “ignores me when KU plays or whenever The Big Bang Theory is on” wasn’t cited, but you get the point.)

The game is highly addictive. It takes the weekly football game to the next level, where fantasy GMs are personally invested in what happens on the field. Since the players on our fantasy teams are scattered throughout the league, there are always specific players to watch in every game. As soon as the games start, we’re checking online (this is where the ignoring starts) to see how our players are performing.

Twenty-six million Americans are in some kind of fantasy sports league, according to extreme fantasy sports insider Tony Cutillo. The venue generates close to a billion dollars a year. And, not surprisingly, 80 percent of those who play are overly competitive guys like myself who scream at the TV every time Peyton Manning throws to someone other than our starting tight end, Julius Thomas—especially in the red zone—regardless of the score. (FYI, Thomas got no TDs the last seven games, so I’m officially blaming Manning for my fourth-place finish.)

In case you don’t know how it works (or maybe you’re the one being ignored) here’s how we do it:

Every fantasy sports league is made up of a certain number of teams. The team owners (the fantasy football players) then participate in a preseason draft where they pick their team’s players. Once that’s done, trades are made. Players can be released, and/or added, to and from the league’s free agency pool, and when the real games start, points are based on how the players perform on the field.

Variables such as the number of teams, number of rounds in the draft, draft order, owners per team, scoring system, buy-in amount, and rules for approving or rejecting trades, are determined by whoever performs the thankless job of commissioner—which anyone can do. There are thousands and thousands of fantasy football league commissioners nodding right now.

Pretty simple, right? It’s also pretty fun.

While there are millions and millions of delusional fans like myself who think they know everything and love to second-guess every move their favorite team makes (such as drafting Geno Smith, starting Geno Smith, not releasing Geno Smith, and so on) only 32 people at any given time have the power to actually do it—the real NFL GMs. Some are successful and have done it for decades—others ran the New York Jets and were gone in two years.

Every Game Becomes Must-See-TV

Naturally, I’m not the only one who finds that fantasy football makes watching any game exciting.

“Playing fantasy football gives me a reason to watch games other than my favorite team,” said Alan, a fantasy football player from Nutley, N.J., who’s been playing since 2007. “Plus, it also gives me a chance to win a little bit of money and talk a little smack with my family and friends.”

Alan’s secondary reasons for playing are much like mine—keeping up with your friends and talking a little ‘smack’ when you win. (As a side note, though I don’t talk much ‘smack’ myself—you have to win first—I was the butt of many jokes last year as my ill-fated “Trent Richardson draft” yielded a last-place finish. At least I didn’t play for money.)

Though I’m not in a money league this year, I seem to be in the minority.

Alan, who said he lost somewhere around $300 this season, once took home $500 in winnings between the three teams he manages.

The winnings (and losing) can go much higher.

Standard leagues can range anywhere from $20 a team to $500 a team for an entry fee, said Cutillo, who runs the website fantasysportsaddiction.com. The average winnings based on these fees range anywhere between a $200 champion to a $2,000 champion.

“I do play for money,” said John, a 13-year fantasy football veteran from Paramus, N.J. “Most I’ve won is $300. Usually the leagues I play in for money have some sort of way of walking away with some cash. I normally play for money, but the best part is bragging rights amongst my group of friends.”

Although you can participate in fantasy leagues for any sport, football is the most popular venue to play—not just because it’s the most popular game out there—but because there’s enough time in between the weekly games that even the most casual of fans have time to participate.

When We Finally Go Overboard

But for us non-casual players, there’s always a chance that we go overboard.

Cutillo notes that there are extreme cases where, time-wise, some guys have been known to spend 20–30 hours a week on their teams—and that doesn’t even count the hours of research leading up the pivotal league draft. “It tends to consume the psyche of an individual,” he said.

Naturally, those extreme cases lead to problems in people’s personal lives.

“When you get to a point where it’s affecting your sleep, where it’s affecting your interactions with your family, and when you’re spending money you don’t have, it’s no longer fun. It’s no longer a hobby,” said Dr. Edward Daube, author of the self-help book “Emotions As Tools: A Self Help Guide To Controlling Your Life Not Your Feelings.” “It’s got you and it’s changing your brain and your neurotransmitters, and you’re hooked.”

And though many players joke about being addicted to it, the sad reality is that some really are.

“When you’re addicted to it, yeah you’re going to get some enjoyment in doing it, but the enjoyment soon fades and you’re pushed by the addiction,” said Daube. “It’s like the folks who need to have their next drink.”

“It’s the need that’s addictive. When you’re playing fantasy football, if you’re consumed by it and you can’t take time off from it, then it’s got you. You don’t have it.”

Given that I only spent 10–15 minutes a week on my team, I can safely say “I have it”—though ours is an unusual league. It’s a relatively inactive league where teams are limited to one transaction per season—also known as the keep-your-wife league.

These rare kinds of leagues place a huge amount of emphasis on the inaugural draft.

They can also be frustrating.

Oftentimes by the end of the season, half your squad is on injured reserve, you’re mad about wasting your one transaction on picking up Bobby Rainey (who??), and your ‘reasonably-toned’ calls/emails/texts to the commissioner for an explanation of why he set up such a ridiculous system go unreturned.

But at least I “have it.”