Friday, September 7, 2007

Fantasy Football

This weekend, in America, the 2007 NFL seasons begins. For anyone outside the U.S. who doesn’t know, the NFL is the National Football League, and the sport they play is football on the gridiron, much different from the sport we celebrate here on this website.

That means this weekend also marks the start of the 2007 Fantasy Football season, and it is quite possible that each event equals the other in importance.

Fantasy Football is remarkably popular hear in the States, and I most certainly don’t have to explain it to any American readers. In a nutshell, a group of friends or co-workers get together and draft real players from the NFL, and their play in real life mirrors how well you do in your fantasy league. The system works wonderfully well because anyone can play, it’s fairly easy, and it generates massive interest in the NFL. For instance, I watched with great interest a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints last evening, even though I did not care at all who won the game. I “had” players in the game on my fantasy team. I am the commissioner of a Fantasy Football league and also participate in a fairly serious fantasy baseball league. This keeps my interest high in both sports, even though at heart I am a fanatic only for real football.

In the United States, at least, this fantasy craze has not caught on to the sport of Soccer. In England it obviously has more traction, but it has still not reached the massive level of popularity here in the states.

Fantasy Soccer (I use the term to differentiate it from American football) has two broad types. One can either participate in a league where all the players in, say, the premiership are available for all fantasy players. You just have to fit them under your salary cap. Thus all of the teams in the fantasy league can employ, say, Christiano Ronaldo if the owners so wish. The other format is an auction league (the format that I suspect will be more successful in the long run.) In this format participants use monetary value to draft players; thus the fantasy owner who wants Christiano Ronaldo the most will bid the highest for him. This format is probably the more challenging and rewards the fantasy participant who knows the most about the game.

Still, as I said, Fantasy sports have not caught on in Europe like they have in America. This is probably because, unlike the American sports of baseball and football, soccer is not driven by statistics. It is difficult to measure the worth of a player in soccer by statistics. For instance, anyone who watches Chelsea knows what a great player Michael Essien is; the fact that he can play anywhere on the pitch only adds to his value. But he doesn’t score as many goals as, say, Andy Johnson, a so-so striker for Everton. Someone who knows his football would never swap Essien for Johnson, but in fantasy value Johnson is close to being more valuable, since he scores more goals. That is because, of course, in soccer goals, along with assists, are virtually the only useful measurable statistics. Everything else is just noise. To know a great player we must watch the game with our eyes, and not read about it on a stat sheet.

Does this mean Fantasy soccer will never take off the way fantasy football and baseball has? Perhaps. It is a shame, on one hand, for clearly fantasy sports brings new and enthusiastic converts to the table all the time. On the other hand, however, I like the game just as it is, with the game being played on the field and not on the stat sheet. And it is my fantasy that it stays that way.

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