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.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
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."
Even Brad Wellen, whose gambling is limited to fantasy football, a single fantasy baseball league and several March Madness brackets (which are similar to football in that they have a "winner takes all" prize), incurs considerable costs. "When I add them up, they do tend to raise a few eyebrows," Wellen admits. "I usually spend around $30 on draft preparation materials such as customized cheat sheets, injury reports and prognostications," plus access to live games: $70 per year on the RedZone channel (which switches from game to game as teams go inside the 20-yard line and shows every scoring play on Sunday afternoons), $5 for the NFL mobile app, beer, and the occasional meal or drink at a bar on Sundays.
Wellen could be considered restrained in his fantasy spending. Fantasy fanatics can even pay additional fees for insurance in case one of their marquis players gets knocked out for significant time. Websites like FantasySportsInsurance.com allow fantasy owners to protect their investment by insuring their marquis (most valuable) players for a fee of 10% of yearly league dues. If a player misses nine games, the website issues the insured a payout.
Gregg Sussman is a fantasy sports analyst for RotoExperts.com and Sirius/XM Radio who answers questions about fantasy sports from thousands of listeners and readers every day, offering lineup advice or trade analysis. He's seen it all, from the casual player to the multileague extremist. "I'm not sure the exact number of people who risk money playing, but I'm sure it's a good majority," Sussman explains. "Money is undeniably a large part of fantasy sports in general. Exchanging money in fantasy sports just makes every play of every game even more intense. For some people, winning is everything; for many, money is much more important than team success."
But in his experience, there are far more losers than winners. "I would say the average person's finances finish significantly down at the end of the season," Sussman says. "If you win one league, you usually end up coming out ahead," he explains. "But it's not easy to do."
In any case, the rule of thumb is the same when it comes to gambling, whether it be in a league of would-be NFL general managers or at a craps table in Las Vegas. "You can only lose what you put in—so only spend what you can afford to lose," Sussman advises.
"Exchanging money in fantasy sports just makes every play of every game even more intense. For some people, winning is everything; for many, money is much more important than team success."
Playing Without Paying: How to Keep Your Costs Down
Immersing yourself in a fantasy league doesn't always have to lead to an empty piggy bank. "It's just an extra incentive," claims Sussman—who takes his work home with him. "In fact, in one of my fantasy football leagues, I would much rather win the trophy that we bought, rather than the $925 grand prize. For me, it's much more about the prestige of winning and the accomplishment than the paycheck ... but the money certainly fits nice inside my bank account."
Still, the idea of removing financial incentive within the game many Americans have grown to know and love isn't for everyone. "I don't think I could ever fully abstain from participating in at least one league during the fantasy season," muses Wellen. "However, if money was tight, I would cut back on lower-priority leagues—the least expensive and the shortest-running."
Some people opt out of the pay-for-play model completely. Take 29-year-old teacher Hallie Saltz. "Many of my coworkers' husbands and boyfriends were constantly talking about fantasy football, spending their weekends consumed with it," she remembers. So last season, she and a group of friends, all women, decided to start a league of their own to see what all the fuss was about. "It's illegal to gamble at a school, so we decided to play for fun," Saltz admits. Even without the economic attachment, it proved addictive. "I joined and I got hooked," she says. "Lots of my friends enjoy going to the movies on Sundays, and in order to keep social I join. Unfortunately, due to my incessant checking of my mobile fantasy app, I've been yelled at during the previews by both friends and strangers!" But her dedication proved worthy of a little scolding last year: "I won the league last year," she boasts. "I won glory."
Saltz isn't alone in keeping money out of it. Wellen, a 15-year fantasy veteran, points to weekly fantasy leagues such as DraftStreet and FanDuel, which offer free rolls (one-week-only fantasy teams), where fans can enter free of charge and win real money for having the highest scoring team that week. "The catch is that you're often playing against hundreds of other people," he explains, "but the action is still real and will keep you glued to the RedZone channel and your laptop each week."
Having something at stake can increase the suspense—and among the most intense players, money might actually be the lesser evil. "Other incentives could work, especially to avoid last place," Sussman muses. "ESPN recently ran a piece about the loser having to get a tattoo of the winner's choosing. That's a little intense; I'd rather just lose my $150."
Image Credit: Flickr.com/akanie