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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Interesting read in the New Yorker today, on the occasion of the Mets' home opener (they won!), about baseball that's not really baseball. It's about the trend, over the past 30-odd years, to divvy up the spoils of the sport into a hobby for many, an obsession for some and a living for a few, known by various names but mostly lumped under the term "fantasy."

One of the oldest terms for the concept is Rotisserie, which has nothing to do with barbecued chickens. It took its name from a now long-closed French restaurant in midtown Manhattan that hosted the first serious discussion of the concept.  Roto founder Daniel Okrent wasn't the first to shuffle the deck of players in a sport and reassign them to fan-"owned" teams; a still-existent card game called Stratomatic had done it for years by then; and, other, cheaper fans (like me) came up with homegrown versions of the concept, ours in late junior/early senior high years in the 70s.  I've described ours before on my baseball blog, but it was basketball which provided the names and stats. Yes, we were the USBL, formed from the performance lines of eight (eventually ten) real teams of NBA players, reassigned to teams either named for real ones (like the Knicks and Bulls) or created for the occasion (like the Los Angeles Stars and the Washington Plumbers).

We kept score. We tracked standings. We mapped out a full schedule of games, with an All-Star break in the middle, followed by playoffs. We even added two teams, complete with an expansion draft, and played a second season before real girls became more interesting than fake games.

But our venture, like the real Stratomatic, based its metrics on past performances. Rotisserie baseball and its many descendants added the dimension of future events. You'd draft your team, and then track "your players" on how they did that night, next week, all season, rather than on how their "cards" enshrined how they'd done the previous year(s).

Success killed the Rotisserie brand, just as its namesake restaurant died.  Okrent trademarked the name for baseball and other fantasy sports, preventing it from being used generically, and thus the term "fantasy" became the term of art.  For much of the next 20 years, I'd hear of people playing at this game. It never interested me; maybe it was too much of a busman's holiday after my USBL immersion two decades before; or perhaps I was finding the real games themselves to be themselves too removed from the rest of my realities. Still. It gained an awareness in sports media, expanded beyond baseball to other sports, but really didn't take off in its present form until made the only nationwide form of legalized sports betting by one of the oddest coalitions you'd ever expect to find behind that:

Fundies and Republicans.


Today's article explains how these paths converged:

Daily fantasy is one of those ingenious ideas that seem obvious and inevitable in retrospect, but it might never have existed were it not for a convergence of lobbying during the second term of the George W. Bush Administration on the part of the National Football League and the Christian right, both of which opposed the spread of offshore sports betting enabled by the Internet. Their efforts led to the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, a hastily appended rider to a port-security bill. UIGEA, commonly pronounced “you-EE-juh,” sought to block financial institutions from processing payments associated with offshore gaming and was later used to stamp out the booming business of online poker in this country. But the law also included an explicit “carve-out,” as fantasy entrepreneurs say, for fantasy-sports “games of skill,” thanks to the N.F.L., which had recognized that a casual fan’s vested interest in yardage counts and sack totals might well keep him from changing the channel in the garbage minutes of a 34–7 blowout. Better for ratings, better for ad revenues.

It took a few years after that passage for the fantasy concept to evolve further in this Wild West of deregulation into what the author calls "daily fantasy," and for good reason.  Companies like FanDuel and Draft Kings realized that fans are fickle, and often not into the effort required to maintain a season-long commitment to a particular roster of real but fakely-drafted players. So the concepts were built, and are advertised ad infinitum in male-oriented media. "One-game leagues! Play one day or every day! New rosters whenever you want them!" And, thanks to the Christian Coalition's fear of poker, real money can be wagered and won at these efforts. The biggest advertiser even matches a n00b's first $200 of betting money and offers chances at six-figure pots and even bigger-stake tournaments for the best of the best- one of whom, despite the sweaty-sock tone of the adverts, is a woman:

Pam Miles, who is fifty-one, works in the accounting department of a small oil-field company outside Houston. “I’m a numbers person,” she said when we spoke, shortly after she’d cashed FanDuel’s hundred-thousand-dollar check, which she planned to spend on having “the pool redone” and on other home-improvement projects. She began playing daily fantasy football last Thanksgiving, on the recommendation of the older of her two adult sons. Post-turkey, she created a FanDuel account and deposited a hundred dollars, which she hadn’t had to re-up in the months since. She’d qualified for the basketball championship on the basis of her football prowess. “I haven’t watched basketball in years,” she said, because it’s “too demanding on your time,” in contrast with football’s manageable Sunday-afternoon concentration. “There’s so many games, and they’re late at night.”

She crammed for three weeks, learning the difference between a center and a power forward, and ultimately produced a ten-inch stack of research papers.

The rest, as they say, is rotisserie.


There's some fear that the Fundies will come a-callin' again and take away this guilty pleasure in the US, while other sports in other countries (particularly top-level soccer) have billions ready to be wagered. Still, none of it appeals to me beyond its appeal as a story.

The ultimate evolution would be for computer geeks to create composite fantasy-only players from the records of real ones. You could draft and play anyone, then- from Sidd Finch to Joe Shlabotnik.  No steroids; no domestic abuse; no Tommy John surgeries.

My only worry would be that the Mets would offer a real contract to one of them.
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