Building real connections through fantasy sports

I missed my calling as a National Football League coach. Evidence for this comes from my uncanny ability to manage players and win games, albeit with a fantasy football team.

But in reality, I don’t have enough of an understanding of defenses, offenses and all of the other aspects of football to make be a great coach.

So why play fantasy football?

For many people like me, it has as much to do with the social connections we can build through playing the “fantasy” game as it does watching the “real” game.

“People play for the camaraderie and social aspects of [fantasy sports], particularly those who aren’t really as involved with the sport,” said John Spinda, fantasy sports researcher and professor of communication at Clemson University.

Over the last 15 years, the Internet and, in particular, social media have contributed to the growth in fantasy sports participation.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, about 42 million people in North America participated in fantasy sports in 2014. Nearly 33 million participated in fantasy football last year.

Andrew Billings, the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting at the University of Alabama, noted that fantasy sports players had higher levels of social interaction when compared to traditional sports fans.

For the most part, this fantasy sports social connection is cultivated through the Internet and social media.

“The majority of adult males still watch sports alone, so the interaction comes via technology,” Billings said.

Billings also noted that these social interactions during fantasy games are more likely to take place with friends, family and co-workers.

Beyond the social aspect, people also play because they like having a sense of ownership, the excitement of playing and, of course, the bragging rights for winning.

“It’s a fun way to give others grief over decisions and brag about their teams,” Spinda said.

Bragging flourishes in social media.

Social media connections have made it easier for people to talk about their fantasy teams and players, get advice for managing teams, and for many fantasy owners, build stronger relationships with fellow fantasy owners.

Much of the research of sports fans reveals that people watch sports to escape the pressures of life (i.e., work, family, etc.). But Billings and his colleague, Brody Ruihley at University of Cincinnati, found that fantasy sports owners didn’t feel a sense of escape. This might be because they’re playing with friends and family — people they see every day.

“It’s really the family, friend, co-worker angle that makes this unique,” Billings said. “There’s no high-fiving a stranger when your fantasy team wins.”

Sports has always provided the ability to escape from the mundane. The idea of two teams lining up to compete, the conflict playing out for fans throughout world, provides that safe escape.

Fantasy sports enhances this experience. It creates networks based on the love of the sport and provides camaraderie. It solidifies friendships and helps those who play develop a shared history of experience.

In reality, I might not make for a very good professional football coach. But for a few hours a week, I can escape reality and become the Mike Ditka of fantasy football. All while being surrounded by friends and family, both offline and on.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.

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