Fantasy sports originated in the USA around baseball and American football, which are extremely stat-heavy sports and so lend themselves ideally to the fantasy concept (Image | ESPN.com)

In the age of the internet and the 24-hour sports news cycle, when one can turn on the television at any hour of the day and watch live sports taking place anywhere in the world, it is no wonder that we as a culture have become more fanatical about sports. From anywhere we are just a few clicks away from an innumerable and incomprehensible volume of websites debating and analyzing every aspect of a sport; a particular team, player, or play to such a meticulous and fanatical level that it is hardly surprising that fantasy sports have become such big business.

Fantasy sports is arguably one of the geekiest ways of experiencing any one sport, in the sense that in order to be a successful fantasy sports player, one has to possess an extremely developed understanding of any one sport. A great fantasy sports player must also be able to remember huge amounts of data about a great number of individuals (the athletes in their chosen sport). Fantasy sports fundamentally boil down to one thing; statistics.

 All fantasy sports are based on the statistical performances of individual athletes compared to others in their respective sport, whether that is goals, strike-outs in baseball or field goals kicked in Aussie Rules football. For this reason, some sports translate better to fantasy games than others.

Baseball, for example, is an extremely statistical game with almost everything a player does or does not do being recorded and measured in some way. There are well over 25 different statistics used to measure the performance in batting alone. The numerical nature of baseball has lead it to become arguably the most popular fantasy sport in America with around 32 million people creating fantasy teams each year in the US alone.

So far this season, Eden Hazard is far and away the Premier League’s leading fantasy performer with one goal and six assists in the first two matchweeks (Image | nevercaptainnickybutt.com)

Other sports do not convert so well to fantasy; football (soccer) for instance does not have anywhere near as many recordable statistics as baseball. Some football fans and pundits in Europe have even gone as far as to resist the conversion of their sport into stats claiming that looking at football in a statistical manor takes away the ‘beauty and poetry’ of the game. However, the growth of fantasy football across the world has been colossal; in the UK alone the number of players has grown by an average of forty percent annually over the past five years according to Sky Sports.

What is also essential to note is the sheer size of football in the global market. Although baseball and the NFL are popular in the US and some other pockets of the world, football truly rules the sporting world. For example, German research and consultancy group SPORT+MRKT estimated for the 2010-2011 season that the global viewing figures for the English Premier League alone topped 4.7 billion. To compare, the NFL’s viewership for that season globally was approximately 3.8 billion, with over 1.2 billion viewers tuning in exclusively for the Super Bowl. If fantasy football takes off globally anywhere close to the scale that US fantasy sports have then the industry’s profits are guaranteed to soar.

Fantasy sports development goes hand in hand with that of the internet. The modern fantasy model arose with the development of the ‘Rotisserie’ model in the early 1980s, which was based on the notion that fantasy players would have to predict the performances, injuries, slumps, the real players as the season ran its course, like a real manager has to do. This is a further reason why fantasy sports are so popular; being able to fill a manager’s shoes and organize a team is what attracts many to fantasy sports and also what makes the whole process so addictive.

Baseball lends itself most easily to fantasy sports; America’s national pastime now comes with myriad statistical categories (Image | EPSN.com)

As stats became an increasingly prevalent part of professional sports in the US the pastime began to grow through the 1980s and 90s, until the boom of the internet in the mid-1990s. The Internet allowed stats to be accessed easily, cheaply and instantaneously to a huge market. The development of real time stats, league message boards, daily updated box scores and other features lead to an explosion in fantasy sports popularity and major media companies started to take notice. In 2011 the approximate worth of the fantasy sports market in the US alone was $2 billion, up from around $1.5 billion in 2003.

This season all NFL teams agreed to install Wi-Fi in all stadiums so that patrons can check the progress of their teams throughout games as fans were choosing to stay at home and watch the matches on TV so they could keep tabs on their lineups. This is yet another example of the changes that fantasy sports is making to viewing habits and how we consume sports. These days viewers will flick between games on any given Sunday or Saturday just so they can see how their fantasy players are performing, whereas 15 years ago one would only watch the team he/she supported or other major games.

Fantasy has revolutionized the way many of us view professional sport and luckily for the sports industry it has meant we are consuming more and spending more watching the games we love.

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