Negative effects could accompany fantasy sports' big-time growth

The Baltimore Sun

With 0-2 starts staring at me in two football leagues (thanks so much, Donovan McNabb and Larry Johnson), I'm trying my best not to focus on the fantasy details.

Sometimes, it's worth standing back from the hurly-burly of whom to start and sit in a given week. When I think about how far fantasy sports have come from the homespun baseball and football leagues I started with school friends in the early 1990s, I'm amazed and perhaps a little aghast.

More than 19 million people participate in the United States and Canada, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Almost one-quarter of American males between the ages of 18 and 49 play fantasy sports. High-level fantasy footballers gather in Las Vegas every September to draft teams in hopes of winning a $300,000 grand prize at season's end.

I once had to explain fantasy baseball every time I told an adult it was among my hobbies. Now, I'm much more likely to hear a 10-minute dissection of the person's team or to face requests for a few sleeper picks.

When I attempted to interview fans at Cal Ripken Jr.'s Hall of Fame induction in July, an alarming number wanted to discuss their forthcoming football drafts more than the Iron Man.

Given how far the industry has come, I sometimes wonder where it's going and what unintended consequences we might encounter.

I'm quite certain that within five years, we'll be offered some hybrid of a television channel and Internet site that will be completely tailored to our fantasy teams. Some fans won't bother watching the Ravens vs. the Steelers or the Redskins vs. the Cowboys. They'll simply be whooshed from game to game as their fantasy players near the end zone in cities around the country.

We already watch football differently from the way we did 15 years ago. Even on basic network broadcasts, individual statistics scrawl constantly across the bottom of the screen. The NFL offers a channel that flashes nothing but box scores during play on Sundays.

As part of its Sunday Ticket package, DirecTV offers cumulative stats at the touch of a button and customized "Big Play" alerts for individual players. So a viewing experience driven completely by fantasy is right around the corner.

Is that a good thing? I've always thought of fantasy sports as a way of enriching the real thing. But when it actually drives the presentation of football or baseball, has it gone too far?

I don't have strong moral feelings on the subject. I figure people have a right to buy their entertainment how they want it, and if the market dictates such changes, so be it.

But I certainly sympathize with those who grew up watching "just the game" and want to keep it that way.

Fantasy's growth has led to other unanticipated consequences. Web-based giants such as Yahoo and generate so much traffic on their fantasy sites that they're able to offer free scoring and league setups for fantasy football. That might imperil the small businesses that helped the game grow into such a leviathan.

Such mom-and-pop services rely on subscriber fees, but how many owners are willing to pay an extra $25 or more per league out of loyalty? So far, interest in fantasy football has surged steadily enough that most ships have risen, but the market will plateau at some point.

Major League Baseball, realizing the value of fantasy information, has tried to charge licensing fees from stats services that use player names and statistics. Judges have so far agreed with the small business owners, who say such information exists in the public domain. But appeals are pending, and if baseball officials get their way, licensing costs could drive many smaller stat services out of business.

The possibility also looms that government regulators could treat fantasy sports as gambling. Already, fantasy football has developed stronger ties to Las Vegas, where the World Championship of Fantasy Football and other events are held. And whether it's provable or not, anybody familiar with fantasy sports knows that money is at play in many of the leagues run by stat services spanning the nation and globe.

I don't think fantasy sports is exactly the same as sports betting or poker or blackjack. It lacks the element of instant gratification and doesn't allow players to continue raising the stakes at one sitting. In fact, it might be less like gambling than one of our great institutions - the stock market.

But there are many players who get no charge from the fantasy game if significant money isn't involved. And as long as that's the case, the specter of being lumped in with illegal gambling won't disappear. I wonder if, as the game becomes more widely understood, moral opposition will grow.

Anyway, I'll get back to writing about players next week. But expect more detailed columns on some of these issues. We shouldn't forget the whole muffin just because we're enjoying the crumbles on top.

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