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Real-world issues at play for fantasy football fans

ASU researchers find that worries about concussions, gambling affect how participants approach game

Man and woman in conference room
October 20, 2015

Fantasy football has become of America’s more popular pastimes, with almost a quarter of the U.S. population expected to play this year.

But this season the game that allows football fans to organize their own virtual “teams” of real athletes for competition among peers has been especially noteworthy. Popular fantasy sportsIn fantasy sports people take the role of “owner,” choosing players from various real-life sports teams to assemble a make-believe team. The owners win points based on the players’ performance in real-life games and compete for the entire season against other fantasy team owners. Fantasy games, which are available for all sports, run the gamut from casual office pools to massive online sites such as ESPN, where play is free. sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel have become regular names in the news as federal officials investigate whether they constitute gambling operations, even prompting Congress to discuss the issue.

And while commercials and television shows often characterize fantasy football players as people who only care about winning, research at Arizona State University has found that some participants are unsettled by the taint of gambling around their beloved pastime.

“Fans are split. Some find it fun, and they’re the ones who are a little more OK with the gambling aspect of it,” said Mary Ingram-Waters, an honors faculty fellow at ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College. “The other respondents are deeply concerned about the stigma of gambling on fan sports in general.”

The topical research is interesting, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, on what Ingram-Waters and her group of undergraduate student researchers have discovered about the fantasy football phenomenon.

Along with the gambling concerns, they’ve found that fantasy football team “owners” punish their fantasy team “players” for their real-world actions, and that these owners worry about their involvement in the ongoing issue of serious injuries and concussions to real-world football players.

“We did find that a surprising number of people — it was surprising to us — felt they were beginning to question fantasy play altogether because of things like concussions and field injuries,” Ingram-Waters said. “Out of 40 people we interviewed, 8 or 9 said, ‘I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I feel like I’m complicit in these life-threatening injuries.’ ”

A similar reaction extends to the fantasy football lineups as Ingram-Waters’ research shows that fantasy owners are willing to reject high-performing players who have been accused of serious crimes such as domestic violence.

“Even when people said they didn’t care about making any kind of ethical statement with their choices, they actually did,” Ingram-Waters said. “They always drew a line with their choices.”

As a corollary, the research shows that fantasy owners actively seek out players they perceive as “good guys,” such as Tim Tebow, an outspoken Christian.

Woman and man with computer

Arizona State University Barrett Honors College professor Mary Ingram-Waters and undergraduate research assistant Kevin Landauer discuss content they have researched in the past week addressing whether fantasy football is considered gambling at Barrett, The Honors College on Tempe campus Oct. 16. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Among the group’s other findings:

•  About 80 percent of the fantasy participants are male, but increasing numbers of women are playing.

“They play for the social aspects of it. They want to have something to talk about with their partners or family members,” Ingram-Waters said.

•  Trash talking in fantasy leagues has rules of engagement. When the talk becomes more pointed, the words are texted and not spoken. “When there’s a woman or a boss in the league, you have to hide it more,” she said. “The boss changes the dynamic in much the same way as having a woman does.”

•  The ever-growing fantasy experience is absent from the stadium experience, mainly because many football venues lack Wi-Fi, so participants can’t keep track of their fantasy players while they watch a real game.

The undergraduates involved in Ingram-Waters’ group are doing real research work — finding interview participants, conducting and transcribing interviews and reviewing literature.

For instance, one current Barrett student is writing a critical media analysis of “The League,” a show on the FX network about fantasy-football-obsessed people.

“I have these young researchers because people are like, ‘I can’t say this to you as an older woman,’ but they can say it to a 22-year-old,” Ingram-Waters said.

Some of the students, like Kevin Landauer, have used their fantasy sports research as topics of the thesis that Barrett students are required to complete. Part of his research involves the ubiquitous advertising of fantasy sports wagering sites.

“I saw they are partnered with 28 of the 32 NFL teams,” said Landauer, a chemistry major who plans to pursue a master’s of business administration with a focus in sports management. “I wondered, ‘How did this rise to fame become so quick?’ ”

His topic is up-to-the-minute current as earlier this month, the New York attorney general began an investigation into the accusation that employees of sites like DraftKings and FanDuel had won big payouts based on inside information.

Because choosing a fantasy team is considered a game of “skill” and not “luck,” the sites are legal in 45 states, but not Arizona. Still, participation is not regulated, and Ingram-Waters’ team has been able to interview fantasy players by promising confidentiality.

Landauer has interviewed about 40 people so far for his thesis, which he will present in May, just before he graduates.

He has explored the idea of “divided loyalty” — when a participant’s fantasy player performs against a favorite team in real life, and how wagering might affect that sentiment.

“It’s hard to put a number on that. If I got $8,000, would I be OK with my team losing, or if I got a million dollars would I be OK with my team losing the rest of the year?”