I spent New Year’s Eve just as I have the last few years — surrounded by a couple hundred people, some of whom I’ll care deeply about in 2019.
They were 200 names on my computer screen, all NCAA gymnasts ranked for my fantasy draft.
By midnight, I had gone through the individual scores of about 80 gymnasts. I moved some a few spots up, rethought decisions and checked to make sure I hadn’t missed an obvious selection. Once I started to adjust my list haphazardly, I pledged to be done.
You play fantasy football, maybe fantasy baseball or basketball. Let me introduce you to the Gymternet, the home of college fantasy gymnastics. I’m one of 1,834 people who just received a team for the NCAA season that begins this weekend.
“If you follow football or basketball, you have 80 million websites with analysis, shows and podcasts,” said Spencer Barnes, who runs The Balance Beam Situation, a popular gymnastics blog that provides analysis with a humorous approach. “You don’t have that with gymnastics. But the hunger is there for that, so [fantasy gymnastics is] an outlet for it.”
Consider this: Last year, I covered the world’s best athletes at the Winter Olympics. Yet, every week in South Korea, I updated my score-tracking spreadsheet to reflect my time zone and filled in results throughout the weekend. At breakfast on Saturdays, I’d obsessively refresh live scores for the Friday night meets back home. One day, I knew I’d be busy at an event, so I enabled Twitter notifications to keep up with Florida’s Alex McMurtry, my first-round pick.
After the 2012 Olympics, conversation emerged on the Gymternet about formalizing a fantasy league for college gymnastics. Kristen Watkins, a former MIT gymnast who took a couple programming classes, built the league, which began with about 150 players during the 2013 season.
The draft process is automated. You rank up to 200 gymnasts on a list. Then you’re randomly placed in a conference with strangers and maybe a couple people you know from Twitter. You receive your 20-person team, which was created by selecting your highest-ranked pick available as the system snaked through members of your conference. Thus, players spend significant time tinkering with their all-important draft order until the 9 p.m. deadline on Jan. 1.
Because the Gymternet is global and based online, the drafting method reflects “the way the gymnastics fandom exists,” Watkins said. Draft parties are replaced by a surge of excited tweets the moment the site releases teams.
A year ago, I joined the crowd of fans who make spreadsheets to analyze their draft order. Even then, I wrestled with how to evaluate gymnasts: Should I value consistency over potential? Solid all-rounders or two-event stars? My best run is still 2016, when I finished in the top 25 out of about 800 players. That year, I selected my team without an advanced system.
This season, I ranked gymnasts using a mixture of my head and my heart. Sometimes, I feel partial to gymnasts who have boosted my past teams, but I try not to be swayed by much, not even by using an early pick on a close friend.
Naturally, Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols, possibly one of the best college gymnasts ever, earned my No. 1 spot. The moment I saw Sarah Finnegan’s vault at LSU’s televised intrasquad a few weeks ago, I moved her to No. 2. Wednesday night, I received the good news: Finnegan will lead my 2019 team.
The reality, though, is with about 25 players per conference, you receive very few of your top choices. Knowing the stars on lower-tier teams becomes essential, and those who succeed usually took time to find these underrated gymnasts. Keeping the game like this is by design, said Watkins, who competed at MIT for two years before the team was cut.
Fantasy gymnastics prompts “people to learn about schools and other teams that they may or may not have known about before,” Watkins said. Instead of watching only the top teams, fans follow smaller programs because they feel invested in their fantasy lineups.
“I used to never cover those teams because we didn’t have access to watch those competitions. There wasn’t a lot of audience for it,” Barnes said. “There’s much more audience for the lower-ranked teams now, specifically for fantasy.”
Each week, users choose eight gymnasts per event and five scores count. I shy away from picking gymnasts from UCLA, the defending national champion, because the Bruins often shuffle lineups, which leaves fantasy players without key scores. Drafting freshmen also presents a risk because it’s hard to know how much they’ll compete.
As fantasy gymnastics has grown, sites keep up with injuries and roster changes. Fans obsess over December intrasquads and use the hashtag #fantasygym on Twitter to ask for insight. The site announces winners in an email at the end of the season. There are no prizes.
This time a year ago, Pete Arenas, a club coach in Georgia, tweeted, “Fantasy gymnastics tip: Kyla Bryant (Stanford). Thank me later.” Arenas coached Bryant, who’s No. 19 on my draft this year, before she headed to Stanford.
Take a moment and imagine a college coach hopping on Twitter to encourage you to draft his former players to your fantasy football team. That’s what makes gymnastics, and fantasy gymnastics, special. This world is small and obscure but engaged and connected.
It’s too late to join this year and you probably won’t remember in 12 months. But at least now you know — about the Gymternet and all the spreadsheets, the newcomer mistakes and this frenzy of passion and competition you’re missing.