On an autumn Monday in 2012, Brad Wellen was licking his wounds after his fantasy football league’s make-or-break week, the end of the regular season in this virtual sport.
If he had only scored .7 more points, he would have clinched a spot in the playoffs and had a shot at $1,200 in prize money. Instead, he watched his season go down the tubes and the possibility of any prize money with it. He was out the $200 it cost to play. But when it comes to losing those bragging rights, “this sting is gonna last a lifetime,” he says.
Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 25 million and 32 million Americans participate in fantasy football, shelling out about $15 billion—or $467 each. The industry’s value is even larger when you take into account factors like lost productivity at work and ad revenue from fantasy football sites, which bring the industry’s estimated worth to over $70 billion. Whether or not you play, you have to admit it’s big business.
Where does all that money go—and can you play without the price tag?
The Play-by-Play: How Does Fantasy Football Work?
In case you aren’t already an avid player, a quick crash course in the game: Fantasy football allows you to build your own virtual team from the ground up. A bunch of friends, coworkers, or even strangers get together and decide to start a league of typically eight, 10 or 12 teams on one of a number of host websites such as ESPN or CBS Sports. Each participant pays league dues of about $100 (usually) and “owns” a team, made of players drafted from the pool of existing NFL players. One of the participants is selected to be the Commissioner: settler of issues, a voice of reason—and most important, the holder of the league pot, created by the dues paid by each player.
Each week two teams in the league face off, according to a league-specific schedule. Teams are awarded points based on players’ performance in real-life NFL games, and after Monday Night Football, the final game of the week, the points are tallied up and the team with the higher score wins. Based on teams’ wins and losses at the end of the first 13 weeks of the NFL Season, as well as total points scored, weeks 14–16 serve to determine a champion during the playoffs.
Even though you don’t have to play for a cash prize, most leagues do. Each league decides how much of the pot goes to the first-place finisher, second-place finisher and so on. Sometimes, last place is even awarded their money back in a “boobie prize,” and sometimes only the champ gets to stuff their pockets again. Since most Fantasy Players join more than one league, even more money can be at stake.
When the Costs Add Up
Nathan Young, a 29-year-old bartender, is in three leagues. He shells out $600 yearly on dues alone. Additionally, he throws $40 in the pot each of the 13 weeks of the regular season (another $520) … and that’s just for one league. “$20 is a straight bet against your opponent, and the other $20 goes into a pool to pay out the six highest-scoring teams each week,” he explains. Young has the opportunity to win a cool $5,570 if everything goes perfectly. But it never does.
Young has been playing for 10 years. He won once, back in college. “Buy-in was cheap,” he recalls. “I won around $200. I’m pretty sure I blew the money on booze.” Undeterred by his losing streak, Young gambles all year-round. “I make bets amongst friends on pretty much all sports—sometimes large bets of $100–$200, sometimes as low as $10–$20,” he says. Young still manages to come out ahead on his yearly wagers. “There are fewer factors involved and a smaller margin of error in straight bets,” he explains. “Instead of needing so much to go your way on an entire fantasy roster, week in and week out.”