ertain statistics you don't want anyone keeping. In my case, such a statistic might be labeled Total Hours Spent Pondering the Relative Merits of Second-Tier Professional Golfers. Even the casual fan knows roughly what to expect from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but when you're trying to answer the tougher questions -- who's better: Glen Day, Bob May, Brian Gay or Bob Tway? -- I'm your man. Indeed, I know way too much about not much at all. Like millions of my fellow fans, I've given over an unseemly portion of my life to what is arguably America's fastest-growing armchair obsession: fantasy sports.
I have "owned" -- in the sense of choosing and controlling imaginary lineups of real professional athletes -- more than a dozen fantasy teams over the past two decades, including several baseball squads, two football teams and one motley last-place collection of professional basketball players. I've acted as "commissioner" of two leagues, one baseball and one golf, and overall I've won maybe $300 and lost about twice that. But before the uninitiated pause in their reading to go locate me a life, know this: According to Eric Karabell, content editor and columnist for the fantasy sports page at www.espn.com, I'm just a recreational user, a dabbler at best. Some especially rabid Espn.com subscribers, he says, run up to 12 teams at the same time. In the same sport. Every year.
Clearly, it's time to change the way we talk about fantasy sports. First of all, there are too many of us involved to pretend that this is just a story about stat-happy, date-hungry, stay-at-home sports nuts. According to Greg Ambrosius, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and editor of Fantasy Sports magazine, at least 12 million Americans, and probably many more, participate in at least one of the "big six" of fantasy sports: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf and stock car racing. If you're niche-oriented, with a taste for the exotic, you haven't been forgotten: Do a little digging and you'll uncover hardy souls playing fantasy X-Games, fantasy soccer, fantasy tennis, fantasy pro wrestling (admittedly a kind of fantasy sport already) and -- no kidding -- fantasy most wanted, in which contestants are awarded points based on the capture or continued freedom of a "team" of real-life FBI fugitives, stretching the definition of "sport," if not "fantasy," well beyond the breaking point.
Daniel Okrent didn't mean for all this to happen. Or if he did, he sure wishes he'd found a way to carve out a bigger piece of the fantasy pie for himself. In 1979, Okrent, a freelance sportswriter, spent a plane ride from New York to Texas sketching out the rules for a fantasy league he and his co-owners would eventually name "Rotisserie Baseball," after La Rotisserie Francaise, the Manhattan restaurant where the group first gathered.
Okrent and his fellow owners, many of them writers or editors, codified their new game in a 1984 book titled "Rotisserie Baseball," supplying rules, strategy and drafting tips to support the game's rapid word-of-mouth spread. Devotees of stat-based board games such as Strat-O-Matic and APBA helped fuel the growth of what became lovingly known as "Roto" baseball, and soon there were even play-by-mail (and phone) leagues connecting players across the country. All of this, mind you, before the sports world had ever heard of the World Wide Web.
"What I'd really like someone to do is to talk to a sports marketing expert and find out how I could have licensed this thing from the beginning," says Okrent, who recently left Time magazine after a decade as a writer and editor there. "If I had a penny for everyone who ever owned a fantasy sports team -- you can fill in the rest of that sentence.
"I've said it before, but I feel like Oppenheimer, inventing the bomb," Okrent adds, laughing. "We had no idea things would get so out of hand. It's an amazing, almost accidental convergence, interest in these games growing so rapidly just as the Internet made its appearance."
Okrent, 52, represents one side of a pronounced generation gap in the world of fantasy sports. Way back in the 1980s, there was only one fantasy sport, baseball, and there was only one way to compute your statistics: by hand. Owners like me waited for weekly updates of hitting and pitching statistics to appear in the Sporting News or USA Today, and then it was time to hunker down: time to meticulously record at-bats, hits, home runs, stolen bases, wins, saves, earned runs allowed and innings pitched for up to 25 players, to add these numbers together and then do the math to arrive at such measurements as batting average, slugging percentage, earned run average and hits and walks per nine innings pitched.
The process could take an entire morning and tax both the eyes (peering at row after row of minute gray numerals -- often, in my case, in the flickering fluorescent light at the very back of a college classroom) and the neck (constantly swiveling one's head to check for the approach of, say, one's boss). Die-hards -- and in the early days there was almost no other kind of fantasy owner -- wouldn't and couldn't wait for their weekly stats; instead, we would conduct our mathematical ritual over each morning's paper, box score by box score.
Compare our cloistered devotion to the life of today's fantasy sports enthusiast, a representative lad we'll name Joe (though more Janes than ever are participating, especially in the less time-consuming fantasy football).
Joe may be as young as 8 or 9 years old, but we'll make him 14, armed with the use of his parents' credit card and the company of nine of his school buddies who dream of someday playing in a World Series, of winning a Stanley Cup or, better yet, of hosting Daniel Snyder in their owner's box and talking player salaries and potential trades. These 10 teenage owners log on to Mlb.com, Nfl.com, Nba.com, Nhl.com, Espn.com, Sportsline.com, Yahoo.com, Cnnsi.com or any one of a number of other online fantasy sports providers. For a fee (or in a few cases for free), the Internet site provides a set of sometimes customizable rules, a draft day structure in which Joe and friends take turns choosing their players, and a "commissioner service," which allows Joe to broker trades with his friends and that provides weekly summaries, statistics and standings all season long.
Joe may have to click on a Web link and enter a password to receive this information or he may receive his updates via e-mail, but either way, Joe's not getting his fingers full of newsprint and developing a permanent squint in the bargain. At season's end, depending on the Web site, Joe (now hypothetically our league champion, because we're nice) might receive a T-shirt, a cash prize or collect winnings that he and his friends have pooled themselves independent of the Web site.
Another convenience for the newer generation of fantasy sports owner is less obvious but no less important: Joe is legally scot-free. During the '80s and early '90s some prosecutors tried to lump fantasy games in with office gambling pools and talked of shutting down more visible operations. Fantasy sports advocates, though, were successful in defining their leagues as contests of skill and therefore secure against legal action. The issue seems settled: Most professional sports leagues, which notoriously steer clear of the slightest scent of gambling, now produce, promote and license their own fantasy games.
Joe's desire for maximum gratification with minimum paperwork has also fundamentally changed the way television presents sports.
"ESPN realized very early how important these games were to the average fan," Ambrosius says, "and they were way ahead of the curve in providing highlight shows like 'Prime Time' and 'Baseball Tonight' that catered to fantasy sports."
The key to these shows was and is, in case you hadn't noticed, a constant flow of individual player statistics. No longer were you tuning in solely to learn if your team won, information the evening news or morning paper could provide; now it was a matter of finding out exactly who hit the home runs and who caught the touchdowns. If you've ever wondered who's responsible for the viral spread of clutter on your sports television screen -- the crawl along the bottom, the "in-game box score," the detailed player injury updates, the scrolling list of top weekly performers -- blame the fantasy owners and their never-ending appetite for raw data.
Someday Joe will grow up, of course, but it's more than likely he won't leave fantasy sports behind; if anything, he'll be hard-pressed to keep up. Spurred on by the example of the World Series of Poker, Ambrosius and other organizers this September inaugurated the World Championship of Fantasy Football, a gathering of 552 owners, each one paying $1,250 to draft a team and compete for prize money ranging up to $200,000 for the grand champion. The event is open to all comers, first-pay, first-served, and a baseball version is slated to launch next March. "We're just on the tip of this thing," Ambrosius says, "in terms of the number of people, the number of leagues, the money and the kinds of events available."
If the question is no longer "Who are these people?" -- we're everywhere, literally and virtually -- it still seems important to ask: What exactly is going on here?
In search of an informed perspective on the national infatuation with fantasy sports, I spoke with Ellen Klosson, a practicing psychoanalyst and a professor at the Center for Professional Psychology at George Washington University.
Klosson is no fantasy innocent: Her husband belongs to a roto baseball league based in part on the scoring system of bridge. (Really.) Professional expertise and firsthand observation have left Klosson with plenty to say about the motivations of people acting as fantasy owners. "First of all, you get to control who plays and who doesn't play in the realm of professional sports, a realm where most people are usually powerless," she says. "By making the game intellectual instead of physical, you can play how you want, you can be a success, you can pull the strings. It's the pleasure of omnipotent control, the phenomenon of the man behind the curtain."
Klosson mentions several other emotionally gratifying aspects of fantasy sports, including the intellectual challenge -- winning at fantasy sports, she says, is "like doing well on an exam" -- and adds that ultimately, through a psychoanalyst's eyes, it's all about creating a more substantial connection to the larger world. "We as individuals are constantly seeking meaning in the world," Klosson says. "By playing a fantasy sport and choosing players for your own team, you're creating a new vested interest in those events. The actions of these players suddenly have implications for your life. Your rooting interest gives you a stake in something that might otherwise be meaningless."
Okrent, father of fantasy sports, agrees, with a twist. "It's deep baseball," he says. "It's a chance to crawl into something you really love and, apart from the gambling aspect, get underneath the sport in a way the typical fan never will. When I'm playing rotisserie baseball, I need to know something about the 25th-best player on the San Diego Padres or how the Kansas City manager uses his bullpen."
But seriously, folks, what about the money? What about finishing first and fleecing your friends of a few (or a few hundred) dollars?
"Of course that's part of it," Klosson says. "But more than the money, it's a chance to win bragging rights. And in a way, you're not only competing with your friends but also with the managers and owners of the professional teams themselves. You're not playing the same game, but you can think of it as the same game, and you get to tell yourself that you would have done better at that game than the experts."
Or, as Ambrosius puts it: "You win your fantasy league, you get an entire offseason to talk some serious smack."