Take Me out with the Crowd: Can Numbers-Happy Fantasy Sports Replace Team Play as a Metaphor for the American Way of Living?

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Native Texans living elsewhere raise their children to be expats, fluent in the motherland's culture. So, growing up in Virginia, I was well versed in the six flags of Texas and the Battle of the Alamo. I learned from my grandfather to shape my chubby toddler hands into the "Hook 'Em" shape every University of Texas fan knows. I understood that our family cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and never the Washington Redskins. In baseball, in good, bad, and heart-wrenchingly disappointing times, we pulled for the Houston Astros, the team my father had rooted for since 1962, when (as the Colt .45s) they became the first major league team in Texas.

My earliest baseball love was the Astros' first baseman Glenn Davis, a power hitter called up to the major leagues a month before I was born in 1984. According to family lore, as a baby I would point to Davis as my favorite player, and when I was old enough to write, I sent him a letter asking him to be my best friend. Then disaster struck. In 1991, Houston traded Davis to the Baltimore Orioles. In retrospect, it was a smart deal; the Orioles gave up Steve Finley, Curt Schilling, and Pete Harnisch, all of whom went on to have more-than-solid careers. But my seven-year-old self was devastated. I briefly considered rooting for the Orioles, but it just wasn't possible. Loyalty was the price you pay for having something to care about, I figured.

That's why, for years, I was convinced that fantasy sports were ruining America. Fantasy sports involve an entirely different kind of fan experience. Interested parties create a league in which every member "drafts" players, drawn from the entire sport, to his or her own team. The league then uses individual players' statistics from their actual games to determine whose teams win and lose. There are variations. In baseball, some league rules require members to change their lineup daily, others weekly. Some are limited to players in the National or American League. The strategies can vary depending on structure--different statistics can make or break you. In some leagues, participants put hours per week into managing their team; in others it's hours per day. Plenty of people who start with one baseball team soon wind up juggling teams in multiple leagues and across different sports. No matter how the league is structured, however, fantasy sports are about rooting for individual players. The teams that matter are the imaginary ones you've assembled.

The fantasy experience is based largely around drafting, the monitoring of stats, injuries, and trades (rumored and real), and figuring out which players might get benched. The bizarre result is that no one I know who's a serious fantasy fan can sit and watch a damn game. Instead, they flip channels, watching one team until the pitcher changes, then a different player's at bat on some other team. If they're hard-core, an MLB.TV Pass lets them watch up to four games at once on any device.

The beauty of a single baseball game--the changing momentum and shifts in strategy, even the boredom when it starts to drag--gets lost. Somewhere, so does some of the glory of being a fan. Not surprisingly, Matthew Berry, the senior director of fantasy sports at ESPN, disagrees. Berry, who started playing fantasy baseball in 1984, has made a life's work out of his passion. In fact, he writes in Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It, he thinks almost anyone who likes traditional sports should consider a career in fantasy.

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BERRY MAKES A GOOD case for the community of fantasy fans. As he notes early on, 13 percent of Americans play fantasy sports, and the market is estimated at around $4.5 billion, mostly in advertising on TV and radio shows that dish out fantasy advice and on websites like Rotoworld, where fans can get updates throughout the day. …