Are fantasy sports for nerds?

Last updated 11:42 02/11/2012

It's been an exciting week for me... and not just because the American election will soon be over.

The 2012-2013 NBA season commenced on Tuesday night, bringing with it the promise of eight months of basketball for me to distract myself with.

This coming season, however, is a little different for me; this season I have dominion over two fantasy basketball teams.

f1Each of my squads (10 players in each, with three reserves) is competing in two different ten-team leagues. My players were allocated to me through a draft system. Which is a little similar to how you pick teams in gym class; except it's ten guys on the Internet doing the choosing and the people for the picking are America's top basketball players.

Now, fantasy sports are not just an American fascination. But they are a lot more of an American fascination than they are a New Zealand one.

The proof of this is as follows: across the USA and Canada in 2011 there were 36 million people playing fantasy sports. If the market keeps growing at the same rate it has been, in 2012 that number will be north of 40 million. 

In New Zealand fantasy sports have a negligible profile. I found one local fantasy rugby website that was still advertising a competition for the 2007 Super 14. Australian and South African companies run fantasy rugby leagues, but I found no New Zealand equivalent. ESPN's Cricinfo runs fantasy competitions in line with major world tournaments but I'm the only person I know that has ever taken a stab at these.

Why then, do New Zealanders not really get into fantasy sports?

f2We seem to match-up with Americans when it comes to sports obsession. But do we just not have the same reverence and devotion for the week-in, week-out domestic competitions as we do for our national teams?

American sports have a reverence for numbers and statistics, for itemising every fraction of every game numerically. New Zealand sports are on the whole less cerebral than that. We like team efforts, victories, guts and heart. 

Or maybe we just subscribe a bit more to a prevailing belief that fantasy sports are for big giant nerds.

"I'm out... Fantasy just isn't for me," my friend Oliver declared via email from New Zealand, declining an invitation to play fantasy basketball this year with myself, and our mutual friend, Jon. (This was actually a considerably warmer response than the one time a few years ago when I asked Oliver if he'd like to join a fantasy cricket league with me.)

Such a belief runs counter to how mainstream fantasy sports have become in America. Fantasy sports league are estimated to contribute between $3 and $4 billion in value to the local sports industry. The number of fantasy sports players has itself doubled between 2006-2012.

If 40 million people play fantasy sports in 2012 in the USA and Canada, that accounts for 11 percent of total population. And when you set aside the sectors of the population that don't watch sports at all, or don't care that much, the current engagement with fantasy sports in America by active sports fans seems even more remarkably high.

Although, us fantasy sports team owners do still battle heavy elements of nerd-prejudice in America. 

On draft night, after I was finished being tied to my computer, pounding red wine in excitement as I picked one of my two teams, my wife sent several bewildered looks and pithy jokes my way.

"I was talking to a friend and we decided that fantasy sports is dungeons and dragons for sports nerds," my friend Melissa told me in the weekend. 

I disagreed vehemently. The aforementioned dungeons and dragons in "Dungeons and Dragons" don't actually exist in the real world, I countered quickly. Playing fantasy basketball finally puts a wealth of sports factoids (which are probably responsible for me not remembering much more important things) to good use.

f3It has been a fun way to engage with my love of basketball. Now that I'm outside of the cultural reach of cricket and rugby it probably comprises about 90 percent of the sports I actually watch.

I have however taken to managing my two teams with an enthusiasm that might prove unproductive to more essential areas of my life.

I pour over lines of statistics like I'm Brad Pitt in Moneyball and an actual sports franchise is weighing upon my shoulders. I spent three-hours the other afternoon organising a six-person trade.

I'm not just rooting for my beloved Celtics anymore, I'm lying in bed worrying if my star point guard (and personal favourite-ever Canadian Steve Nash) will get as many touches now he's playing for the Lakers. I am scouring New Orleans sports media to see if my shooting guard with potential (Eric Gordon) is going to make it back from knee surgery anytime soon (prognosis: poor).  

Sigh. Maybe I am a nerd? Do you play?

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