The central idea of Andrew Billings and Brody Ruihley’s book, The Fantasy Sport Industry¸ is that fantasy is a game-changer. It is a game-changer in the way sport is covered by and represented in the media. It is a game-changer for the fans and how they consume sport. Indeed, it is potentially a game-changer for the very sports on which these games are based.
Fantasy Sports have been around for several decades. They started small, the domain of, so the stereotype goes, geeky guys in their basements. But these games have expanded exponentially in the last twenty years. Something like thirty five million North Americans play fantasy sport in some manner: that’s more than the numbers of people who play golf, watch the American Idol finale, or own iPhones (Berry, 2; Billings and Ruihley, 5). Fantasy is now a regular and frequent feature of the broadcasts and news reports of sporting events. Networks such as ESPN have dedicated programs for fantasy. There is even a TV sit-com centered on the members of fantasy football league called, appropriately enough, The League (of which this reviewer confesses he is a big fan). Much of all this revolves around Fantasy Football, but there are fantasy leagues for all the major professional sports (indeed there are fantasy leagues for non-sporting activities as well: Fantasy Congress and Celebrity Fantasy to name two).
Given all this interest, it is no surprise that fantasy has become big business with billions of dollars in revenue. Billings and Ruihley set out to provide a much needed look at this growing industry. The first chapter provides the overall context. The authors discuss the philosophical question of just what makes something a fantasy sport and breaks down the basics of how fantasy games are played. They demonstrate the popularity and growth of fantasy and through this ask the main question of the book. Why do people play fantasy? This raises the important follow-up question: what effect does fantasy have on all the ways we normally consume and understand sport?
The second chapter provides a wealth of information about the different motivations of fantasy players. Much of this is not too surprising, but it is interesting, nonetheless, to see common sense confirmed by their data. People play fantasy for the same reasons we play any other kind of game. We want to engage with friends in competitive and enjoyable activities. People naturally enjoy playing and winning games. Fantasy sports are a relatively easy and inexpensive means by which to exercise these desires. The research discussed by Billings and Ruihley show that these are major motivations for people who play fantasy. Another aspect, however, highlighted by the authors is the importance of knowledge. Many fantasy participants play because they believe they know a lot about the sport upon which their league is based: “one of every two fantasy participants feels they ‘know it all’ in regard to fantasy sport play” (34). These players are motivated to demonstrate and share their knowledge and fantasy is the perfect avenue to do this.
Another fascinating aspect of the data Billings and Ruihley discuss is the demographic breakdown of people who play fantasy. In chapter three, they look at the breakdown of fantasy players by age, race, gender, and marital status. They discuss the motivations and consumption of fantasy within each of these demographic categories. Chapters two and three together provide a near comprehensive picture of who is playing fantasy and why.
It is probably not surprising to those who regularly play fantasy sport that research “reveals profound racial and gender splits, with seven eights of participations being White/Caucasian and male” (60). But Billings and Ruihley point to trends that suggest that as fantasy continues to grow these numbers will change to reflect more closely the general population. One thing they focus on is that “once people of different demographic groups opt to play, they find similar reasons for participating” (60). This suggests that part of the demographic discrepancy is just an accident of history that is changing as fantasy grows more popular across all demographics. For the fantasy sports industry, this points to a significant area of potential new growth.
The next chapter changes gears to look at the history of the industry of fantasy sports itself. They interview key players in fantasy: from those on the production side like Peter Schoenke of Rotowire and Brandon Funston of Yahoo! to those on the analysis and journalistic side such as Matthew Berry of ESPN and Steve Gardner of USA Today. The information shared from these interviews provides a fascinating insider’s look at the evolution of fantasy from its geeky origins to the mainstream industry it is today.
Most people play fantasy for free or nominal fees (87) and most of the victory consists in bragging rights over one’s friends, not large cash prizes. In Chapter 5, Billings and Ruihley survey the small subculture in fantasy of so-called high-stakes participants. These are people who play fantasy for large cash payouts. The authors wanted to see if and how the motivations of fantasy players changed when significant money was involved. While the financial factor looms large, players “also enjoy competing with kindred spirits who take the game as seriously as they do” (103). For high-stakes players, fantasy is not another form of gambling on sports, but an opportunity for increased friendship and community.Another area that was not explored was whether or not actual sport was itself changing in response to fantasy.
At several points throughout the book the authors touch on the connections between fantasy and gambling. Given the focus in this chapter on high-stakes participants, they go a little more deeply into the issue. There is, however, some ambivalence about their discussion; the authors report various views on the relationship between gambling and fantasy but it is not clear how they view it.
Chapter Six explores the reasons why some people quit playing fantasy. This is an important chapter in terms of fleshing out more completely what motivates and retains fantasy sport participants. There might be some useful tidbits for someone in the industry who is trying to identify how to head off customer attrition, but in terms of getting a better understanding of the industry and its participants, there wasn’t as much here as I would have liked.
The book closes with a look at the future of fantasy: what are the future growth opportunities as well as the potential pitfalls. The authors conclude based on their research and existing previous research that fantasy sports are going to continue to grow and to continue to grow significantly. They see fantasy expanding with greater participation across demographic categories as well as international markets. Fantasy will also grow with increased platform options as mobile applications and bandwidth expand. Another way fantasy will grow is with the greater diversity and variety within the games themselves. We already see some of this with the weekly and daily fantasy leagues. But they also see the potential for growth with new formats in leagues as well as the development of leagues that span multiple sports.
I would have liked to see more attention on the ways that fantasy sport is or might be changing the sporting world around it. The authors demonstrate that fantasy is now very much mainstream and that this has changed the ways in which the media reports on fantasy. But they only touch on a few ways that fantasy is affecting sports fandom. For example, they report the findings of a study that found that “41.4% of fantasy players … seek a win from their fantasy team more than from the team they support within traditional sport” (19). (A statistic I find both shocking and troubling.) They also discuss how many fantasy players see their fantasy playing as an extension of their fandom. Nevertheless, a dedicated chapter that explored in detail the effects that fantasy is having on traditional partisan fandom in general would have provided even greater support for their claim that fantasy is a game-changer.
Another area that was not explored was whether or not actual sport was itself changing in response to fantasy. For example, it might be argued that the recent increased emphases on certain rules in the NFL that give an advantage to the offense are based on the influence of fantasy. Evidence of this kind of influence would have shown another significant way that fantasy is a game-changer.
The book is at its best when it is providing the in-depth look at the make-up of the participants of fantasy. It provides a wealth of interesting information about the motivations of fantasy players and the industry that provides these games. It also provides useful insights on how this research could be used by the fantasy industry to improve or to expand its products and marketing. In these ways, the book is an important contribution to sport media, marketing, and management. Overall, anyone interested in learning more about the nature and make-up of the fantasy industry will find this book rewarding.
Copyright © Shawn E. Klein 2014
- Berry, Matthew. Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It. New York: Penguin, 2013