Clinton Yates columnizes on local issues for The Post, but he’s also something of a soccer die-hard (his rooting interests: D.C. United, the U.S. men’s national team and Liverpool). And with the Premiership season about to kick off, he gives his take on fixing fantasy soccer.
As English soccer grows in popularity in the United States, the challenge of engaging American fans becomes more important. And although NBC Sports plans to air every Premier League game across its platform of networks, and the new Fox Sports 1 has a daily soccer program ready to launch and ESPN has premiered its new ESPN FC, it will still be a tough climb. But there is one way to draw more casual fans to the screen, while simultaneously educating them and creating a sense of fun beyond the beautiful game. It’s time to for a major sports site in this country to revamp the Premiership fantasy league setup.
As it stands now, Yahoo and ESPN, the titans atop the fantasy sports mountain, have free leagues for the BPL. They’re easy to use, with clean interfaces. One problem: They are manager competitions. You pick your team, typically based on a £150M payroll as valuated by a computer — then wait. You “play” against a bunch of people who can all have the same players you pick. Why bother? It’s boring, unimaginative and ultimately lame.
If altered to a format more similar to the one employed by NFL fantasy leagues, you could drastically reshape the way fans interact with the game. By creating a system that allows groups of people to form leagues, hold drafts, create their own scoring systems and compete against one another, you add game-day excitement that has helped the NFL become the most popular league in America.
Ideally, by making some of the less-discussed metrics of soccer more accessible and understandable to fantasy competitors, there’s the possibility of fostering a more natural, self-interested collective learning that’s difficult to manufacture artificially. However, without week-in-week-out incentives beyond one’s own laziness, the current system is about as fun as playing an arcade game simply to notch the high score.
Changing a fantasy league format is by no means some miracle fix to make soccer suddenly super-popular in the United States, but it sure would be fun. Think about how ingrained fantasy leagues have become as part of the NFL viewing experience. It’s the only reason many even care to follow the league. And the residual knowledge of the sport gained from the simple desire to be the best on your proverbial block has fueled an entire cottage industry that includes a major cable network television show. No matter what you believe of fantasy sports, they add value to sports followed by large swaths of people.
More specifically, head-to-head fantasy leagues would foster a natural connection between longtime hardcore fans and open-minded newcomers. And you can bet holding public live drafts would become quite the fun pastime.
Draft-based leagues also could offer a more familiar way for complete novices to ingrain themselves in the league and eventually the game on a whole. As much as we older fans don’t want to cave culturally to some jingoistic notion of what the sport is supposed to be just to appease newcomers, fantasy sports don’t actually change the game. And soccer lends itself well to the enhanced statistical experience.
As for NBC Sports, this seems like a no-brainer. You’ve just spent $250 million for rights to broadcast the league. You’ve trotted out somewhat ridiculous, even if funny, ad campaigns to advertise the sport. And you’ve gone as far as to offer up ham-handed explanations of the most basic rules. All of which is fair, and sensible. But if the network rolled out a game that we’re all familiar with as a way to have fun while we watch a game that many of us have loved for years and others are willing trying to learn, you can build a whole new generation of fans, even if they watch the sport for different reasons.
If nothing else, an NFL-style fantasy setup would be a natural content draw for whichever site made the effort. It only makes sense from a branding standpoint. The sites that do currently offer head-to-head competition are marginal, at best.
Frankly, the days of expats and die-hards populating smoky bars at ungodly hours to catch a match are moving away from us, and that’s not a terrible development. Big games will still be best enjoyed in public. England’s top flight is the most visible and popular league the sport has to offer. It’s moving toward being a household name. If you have a vested interest in its growth in this country, why not invite people to the table with a dish you know they like to digest?
For stalwarts, leave the old system as an option. After all, the EPL itself will always have its own site if fans love playing it that much. But for sites stateside to not offer a new choice is frankly un-American.