Despite its most literal definition, fantasy sports does not involve the average Joe daydreaming about being a famous athlete, or scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Instead, the term refers to a series of games, based upon sports, which award players points based upon the statistics of various teams or athletes. Though they have recently experienced a huge spike in popularity, fantasy sports can easily trace their origin back to the 1960's.
In his book The Numbers Game author Alan Schwarz traces a fantasy baseball game back to 1960. "That year, a Harvard University sociologist named William Gamson started something called the 'Baseball Seminar', in which colleagues would have rosters of players and be awarded points on the players' final standings in batting average, RBI, ERA and wins." Another key progenitor of fantasy sports was Strat-o-Matic, a gaming company which introduced a statistics-based table-top baseball game in 1961. Elements of the "points for stats" element of Gamson's game, and the simulated collection of players for a single user found in Strat-o-Matic baseball, can be found in the world of modern fantasy sports.
Many people view the genesis of more modern fantasy sports as being the invention of rotisserie baseball in 1979. Magazine writer/editor Daniel Okrent is credited with inventing the game, and the name is said to come from the New York City restaurant La Rotisserie Francaise where he and some friends used to meet and play. The game's innovation was that "owners" in a Rotisserie league would draft teams from the list of active Major League Baseball players and would follow their statistics "during the ongoing season" to compile their scores. In other words, rather than using statistics for seasons whose outcomes were already known, the owners would have to make similar predictions about players' playing time, health, and expected performance that real baseball managers must make.
Modern sports fans can not help but notice the in-roads that fantasy games have made into the world of sports. During television broadcasts, especially of baseball and football, players are cited not only for their statistical contributions, but for the impact that they may have had on the fantasy leagues in which they are owned. Corporate sponsors have taken note as well, and attached themselves to this trend. For example, in a recent NFL game between the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, an on-screen graphic was shown announcing the "Kia Motors Fantasy Leaders", which featured the quarterback, wide receiver, and running back who were judged to have made the biggest contribution to fantasy football teams. The networks broadcasting these games are also joining in on the fantasy action, reminding viewers to log onto foxsports.com or cbssportsline.com if they want to join a fantasy game. With the explosion in popularity of fantasy sports has come an explosion in the profitability.
Many industry experts place the value of the fantasy sports at nearly a billion dollars. Justin Cleveland, a spokesperson for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), agrees with these assessments. "You could say its up to a billion dollar industry. I am comfortable estimating in the amount of $800 million (for) the direct impact of fantasy sports...including people who are buying magazines, people who are buying fantasy draft sheets, and other things that are directly related to fantasy." Cleveland's organization itself is an example of the financial significance of fantasy sports. He describes the FSTA as " non-profit association that serves as a touch point for the industry. We put together conferences twice a year, and do a lot of research as to who the fantasy player is, how they are spending their money, in terms of both in the fantasy industry and without".
Fantasy sports recently received another ringing endorsement, from the highest office in the US. President Barack Obama participated in one of the most popular forms of fantasy sports when he publically filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket. The NCAA tournament pits the 65 best college basketball teams against each other in a single elimination tournament to determine the national champion. Fans across the country fill out a bracket predicting the winner of each game, and many people compete for money based upon the number of correct picks. When the President is taking part in a televised bracket, which is a form of fantasy sports, you know the genre has made it big.
So what is the appeal of fantasy sports? I have participated in fantasy leagues since 2001, and it has been primarliy with the same group of players throughout the past 9 seasons. We began as a group of college students and have grown into young men with careers, families, and myriad other responsibilities. As our lives have taken divergent paths, one of the few constants that has remained has been our particiption in "the Melrose leagues" (so named for the town in Massachusetts in which many of the participants were born).
When I spoke to the players in my league about what draws them to fantasy sports the response was, almost to a man, "competition". It seems that the thrill of pitting one's abilities against those of their peers, regardless of the effort involved, is a draw for those with a competitive mindset. We have never made money a factor in our competitions, as many leagues do, and yet the competition is as fervent as anything I have seen among those with finances on the line.