Thursday June 3rd, 2010

Five years ago this summer, I wrote a piece that probably got more reader reaction than all 7,236 of the other stories combined that I've done since I started covering the NFL two decades ago. And that was just from family members.

Maybe you remember it. It featured my top 10 reasons for hating fantasy football, in the less-than-ground-breaking list format that has become a staple of internet journalism. I thought I hit on some valid, cogent points and my punch lines were fairly crisp, but that didn't stop about 91 percent of the fantasy football lovers from wishing me ill in rather colorful ways and suggesting I perform a number of anatomically improbable feats.

As always, thanks for the feedback folks, and keep those cards, letters and clicks coming.

As much as I realized at the time I was swimming against a powerful rip tide of public opinion and, yes, biting the hand that helps feed me in this NFL-obsessed land of ours, I was still amazed by the width and breadth of that column's reach. Besides being deluged with requests from radio stations far and wide to discuss my reasoning on air, I heard from a documentary-maker who was shooting a film about the impact of the fantasy game, an author who was writing a book on the subject, and even a college student or two who were doing a thesis or term paper on the topic.

It later occurred to me that talking/writing about fantasy football (I still refuse to capitalize the f's, as if it's a corporation or a sovereign country) is apparently only slightly less popular than playing the game itself. Everyone seems to have an opinion on fantasy football, and there's no mushy middle to inhabit. You're either with the fantasy players or against them, and the debate is almost entirely dominated by the true believers who worship the game. Think American Idol fans, but in a sports crowd.

I get it. I'm not in the norm on this one. I still have never played the game, don't care to, and I'm certainly not about to start now. Not to rehash my entire list, but my objections to the fantasy game still center on how it changes the way you watch a game (trivializing the bottom line result and blurring lines galore when it comes to team loyalties), glorifies the stats accumulator over the team player (say, how come nobody seems to covet LaDainian Tomlinson any more come draft day?), turns defenders into bit players compared to the league's point-scorers (you tell Jared Allen or Ray Lewis that they're really not important), and spawns an environment where literally everyone is an NFL football expert (and let's face it, if we're all experts, then none of us are, especially us internet typists).

Five years after my fantasy screed (one of the kinder, more subtle descriptions offered of that piece), the game built around an alternate state of reality hasn't exactly plateaued, has it? The housing bubble burst, the stock market tanked, and the economy almost slid into a capital-lettered second Great Depression, but fantasy football is bigger and thriving more than ever. That point was soundly driven home to me again Wednesday, when an e-mail from the NFL landed in my in-box, announcing the league was jumping with two feet deeper into the ever-expanding world of fantasy football.

We're told that for the first time, NFL.com has launched a new fantasy platform (and don't you know it's all about the platforms these days), featuring "the world's only NFL fantasy game with video and extensive in-game highlights.'' The press release goes on to say that player projections are tied to Madden NFL 11, which seems about right, since that seems to link a fantasy game that really doesn't exist in reality to a video game that really doesn't exist in reality. All by a league that may not play any real games itself next year if it doesn't get its labor situation figured out.

How perfect.

The new NFL.com fantasy game will provide "thousands of game highlights that make fantasy football come to life.'' I don't know what your experience has been, but whenever I'm anywhere near someone keeping track of their fantasy football team on Sundays, coaxing them into making the game come to life doesn't seem to be an issue. I've had to resist the urge a time or two to shake the life out of them, but I digress.

Fans who sign up with NFL.com are promised game highlights and video analysis throughout the season, customized to each fan's team and fantasy matchup, with highlights of all "significant fantasy scoring plays integrated into the platform, making Game Day on NFL.com the ultimate fantasy experience.'' The words "ultimate fantasy experience'' sounds like a come-on line for one of those 1-900 phone services to me, but I realize I might be easily excitable and in the minority on this one.

As if that's not enough evidence that fantasy football might be close to becoming the tail that wags the dog in the NFL, at least four teams this season -- the Patriots, Ravens, 49ers and Raiders -- reportedly plan to offer their fans in-stadium glimpses of the NFL RedZone channel on game days, which provides live, real-time look-ins and highlights to every other Sunday afternoon game (a fantasy player's crack cocaine). Clubs can decide how they want to use the content, but all are believed to be intent on featuring it both before and during their games.

Also, the NFL at its March owners meeting heard a pitch from former Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson, who along with current Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is marketing a hand-held video device called Game-Day Vision that would be available to fans in their seats at the stadium, allowing them to keep track of everything that unfolds around the league while they're at the game.

Sure, some of that effort is simply in line with the league's new and sensible push to make sure fans don't decide staying home and watching from the comfort of their couch beats the NFL's game-day in-stadium experience, but a big part of the lure of staying home is all about the needs and wishes of the fantasy player. Catering to that football fan is a big part of the overall goal of the NFL's new innovation.

You get the feeling we're headed for all access, all the time, with fantasy football furthering its grip as this sports-crazed nation's favorite pastime while watching its favorite game. In the NFL world, fantasy is the clear-cut king. Even if non-believers like me have our reasons for not liking it, it's not about to go away or decrease in popularity. From the looks of things, to think otherwise is pure fantasy.

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