Ever since the early 2000s, online fantasy sports have been a very popular way to one-up relatives, compete against friends and show off strategy skills and sports knowledge. Above all else, fantasy sports have made watching sports much more interesting. Indeed, making a roster of players from all over a given league gives the sports watcher a vested interest in teams and games that they otherwise would not have.
While “traditional” fantasy sports games, i.e, playing with an organized group of friends or relatives, often has a pool of prize money involved, I think that it’s fair to say that there are bigger motives for playing other than the money. In the years that I have played fantasy football with my friends back home in Minnesota, it’s been a great way to keep in touch. The weekly head-to-head matchups over the course of the NFL season was cause for friendly taunting and boasting that wouldn’t otherwise occur across state lines. The ten-bucks-each prize money was an aside, though we were all playing to win it.
Daily fantasy sports feels different to me. The roster selection process is roughly the same premise as traditional fantasy sports, except that the contests occurs on only one day of the league’s season. The money also plays a much bigger role. On sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, entry fees for any given contest range from twenty five cents well into the thousands of dollars. Since the industry boom in 2012, fantasy sports have continued to grow in popularity. The U.S. and Canada spent an estimated $26 billion dollars on fantasy sports in 2015.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trading Association, the average spending per fantasy player in 2012 was $80. That figure has risen to a whopping $465 in 2015. While statistics show that the average fantasy sports player tends to be male, college educated and middle-to-upper class, fantasy sports have become a significant expense to the modern sports fan. On the extreme side of things, Alex Stein estimated that by 2014 he had lost somewhere between 70 and 80 thousand dollars by drafting players exclusively from the Dallas Cowboys for his fantasy football games.
FSTA estimates that around 14 percent of the United States population plays some sort of fantasy sports contest in any given year — that’s about a quarter of the number of people who play the lottery in any given year. But at least lottery proceeds fund things like education and environmental conservation, and are government owned and subject to regulation. The giants of the fantasy sports industry are keeping all of the cash for themselves.
Ultimately, we should be wary of what this means for sports culture. Watching sports for entertainment need not require an additional fee of $465 per year. But if it does for some folks, we should gambling what it is.