Fantasy Sports: Social Networking or Time-Wasting?

Most of you likely looked at the title of this post and wondered, “Tommy, what the heck are you talking about? Fantasy Sports is not social networking.”

On the surface, it’s easy to see why the game could be viewed that way. But I’m here to tell you that fantasy sports are as much a vehicle for social networking as Facebook, Flickr, and even foursquare / gowalla.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, let me elaborate. In its most simple format, 10-12 participants join a league before the season starts. Pretty much every major sport has a fantasy game associated with it. Prior to the first day of the season, the team owners get together in person or online to draft teams of real players from real teams, assembling a lineup in accordance with the league rules. Then, when the season starts, they start or sit players depending on a variety of factors (healthy vs. injured, good vs. bad matchups, etc.). Teams then receive credit for the actual statistics each player tallies. The overall goal is to end the season as the best team in the standings or to win the playoffs, depending on how the league is set up.

To many of you, this may sound rather pointless. In fact, there’s even a rebellion by “Fantasy Widows” as some have called them (you can learn more about on the Women Against Fantasy Sports website, complete with a line of related apparel). But these games play a role much more important than killing time and maybe blowing a little cash.

Believe it or not, fantasy sports are every bit a vehicle for social networking that many of the leading services are. Let’s take a quick moment to look at some attributes of the game that lead me to this conclusion.

  1. Tribe-based – All activities happen in pre-determined leagues where all the participants agree to play within the same scoring system, by the same rules, using the same tools and features. This sounds a whole lot like my friends on official social media sites.
  2. Online - Although the first fantasy game, Fantasy Baseball, was originally administered by avid fans using box scores from their local newspaper, the game has migrated completely online. So what if it started as a truly social activity and not a cool new web toy. It was social before it was online, so it most certainly qualifies.
  3. Interactive - Fantasy sports are all about the ongoing activities you must undertake to win a league. All of the team managers must take part in a live draft, with full chat functionality in the online draft room. Then, the season is  a mix of lineup decisions, trade negotiations, and adding and dropping players from the free agent list (a.k.a. the list of players who are not already on a team).
  4. Real-time – If anything is real-time, fantasy sports fit the bill. Games happen every day or every week, and real-time scoring is a must for the hardcore fantasy sports players. Team rosters can be adjusted in many ways on a daily basis. Team owners can work out trades at will, post messages in a threaded format (like blog comments), talk smack right on their team pages, and email back and forth between participants. Sure, the bulk of the action happens during live games, but whom among you spends 24 hours a day on social media sites anyway?
  5. Content-heavy – An entire industry has been built around fantasy sports blogging, analysis, advice, products, and games. Breaking news is a huge piece of this puzzle, and tools like Twitter and Facebook now play major roles in the dissemination of real-time player-related information. If you don’t believe me, you should have been paying attention to the chatter on Twitter leading up to the NBA trade deadline on February 18.

I know there are as many perspectives on this topic as there are fantasy games to choose from. What is your opinion? Do you play fantasy sports? Do you see it as a social networking activity? Is it just gambling, or old fashion bonding and honest fun? Let’s get a good conversation going in the comments, because I think it’s due time that fantasy sports gets the positive press it deserves.

For more information about the fantasy sports industry itself, read more from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association website. Industry writers also have their own Fantasy Sports Writers Association, of which I am a proud member.