Book Review Essay: Andrew C. Billings and Brody J. Ruihley’s The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games within Games (Routledge, 2013)
Keywords: Sports; Entertainment; Media; Fantasy Sports;
<1> The more scholars that study fantasy sports, the more the cultural Pandora’s box continues to open to the many layers of its meaning. What might initially seem like a trite hobby among a subset of the population grows fervently every year into an ever-larger juggernaut of influence in sports and entertainment. Authors Andrew C. Billings and Brody J. Ruihley are two of the leading scholarly voices on the phenomenon of fantasy sports, providing statistical evidence and plenty of qualitative support for their conclusions regarding the motivations, purposes, and structures of fantasy sports. Their book, The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games within Games, is an excellent summary of trends in the industry as well as the academic coverage of fantasy sports up to this point. It seems an exceptional single volume on a subject that evolves almost daily.
<2> The strength of this book is that it brings together multiple perspectives on fantasy sports, providing viewpoints from players, writers, and even experts who design and develop the hosting sites. Together this group constitutes the fantasy sports industry, one that generates billions of dollars in annual business. It has been so influential as to fundamentally alter the sports media landscape. Billings and Ruihley spend considerable time discussing the changes in sports media, such as unique new shows on ESPN or Sirius XM radio, but also new “fantasy” segments on popular ESPN and Fox Sports programming. These changes are all attempts to serve the fantasy sports market, one that craves more and more statistics to make sure that its teams are competitive each and every season.
<3> The authors were also careful to address several key points regarding the demographic composition of the fantasy sporting public. Although the primary players are white, single, college-educated men, there are emerging variations of that norm. Billings and Ruihley offer their best analysis of the breakdown of gender and fantasy sports. Exploring some of the primary motivators, such as competition and surveillance (e.g., keeping tabs on players, leagues, and important statistics), seems to show that the game itself skews toward male interests (54-55). However, as leagues become more socially acceptable and accessible, more women are participating in fantasy sports for similar reasons as men.
<4> The book does wonderful work in explaining the origins of fantasy sports from the days of scribbling stats taken from newspaper box scores to recent “up-to-the-minute” smartphone applications that follow teams in great detail. This history, including a fascinating bump in publicity from the writer Daniel Okrent, shows a truly organic growth of an intriguing idea. The history of these “games within games” evolves based on the sports in question. The most popular fantasy sports are football, baseball, NASCAR, and basketball, with the first two being the most played by far. More recent history of fantasy sports shows the importance of the Internet broadening the user base, the total involvement of users, and the proliferation of fantasy sports as a social phenomenon (and not merely a fad).
<5> The book covers several elements of the fantasy sports industry, which follow in this brief book summary. The first chapter covers the basic history of the industry and how fantasy sports changed the sports industry overall. The second chapter explores the motivations of people who play fantasy sports, providing statistical analysis there to support its claims. The third chapter explains why those motivations are important for understanding the culture of fantasy sports. The fourth chapter focuses on the organizing bodies of the fantasy sports world, namely the Fantasy Sport Trade Association and the Fantasy Sport Writers’ Association. This leads nicely into the fifth chapter, which addresses the concept of gambling and betting on fantasy sports. The chapter considers how things change when money is on the line. The sixth chapter takes a negative approach, looking at folks who decided not to play fantasy sports and why they made that decision. The final chapter, number seven, surveys the future of fantasy sports, including its projected rise in a global marketplace (14).
<6> The authors break down seven distinct types of motivations that draw players to the game, but the history reveals that the heart of fantasy sports allure comes from the real sports themselves. Then, as players get deeper into the experience, they find themselves drawn to the other motivations. For examples, players may enjoy following their home team, which pulls them into following the sport overall (fanship). They may find themselves excited by the unscripted nature of sports (arousal). Fans may find a connection with other fans or players (camaraderie), enjoy the opportunity to win (competition) or the experience of managing a team (control and ownership). Some find fantasy sports a welcome distraction from the drudgery of daily life (escape), a way to relax (pass time), or even gain personal value from victory or success (self-esteem). There are social elements to the sport, too, allowing players to connect with others outside of the league due to familiarity with the sport (social sport) or to enjoy the process of following the real sport with significant depth (surveillance) (18-25). Each fantasy sports player would rank these motivations differently, of course, but together they represent the reasons that Billings and Ruihley offer for why people play the games, and their data supports these contentions.
<7> Another strength of the book came with chapter four’s discussion of the Fantasy Sport Trade Association. Casual fans of fantasy sports might be familiar with names like Matthew Berry (ESPN), or the Yahoo analysts Brandon Funston, Brad Evans, and Andy Behrens; however, many of the companies and names in this section are less familiar to folks on the outside looking into the “major players.” Many of the companies at the core of fantasy sports came from humble roots, utilizing statistics and analysis in an attempt to garner readership and support. Individuals like Berry found themselves in executive meetings pitching the concept of fantasy sports as a viable participatory element to sports media. Instead of fans merely watching a television show for the latest news on their home team, which could be more easily attained on a local station anyways, fans might tune in for updates on players across the league. It was a brilliant hook for fans to consume ever-increasing volumes of sports news and information. Although the statistical information throughout makes the book’s fundamental argument about the lasting viability of fantasy sports as a cultural shift, the quotes from the fantasy insiders really give the rest of the book both flesh and texture.
<8> The book is a snappy length, rounding out at 149 pages before the references. There are plenty of areas for expansion. The only small critique worth mentioning would be to have more of the human element in the section on the “major players” through more of the book. While there are quotes provided in the section on gambling, perhaps more qualitative responses from the survey respondents would give the book a bit more of a “snapshot of the industry” feeling. That being said, the way that the book surveys the industry from such a macro view seems essential both for the scholarship of fantasy sports and the historical moment (about 20 years into major market involvement). Some other areas for expansion include showing the cultural differences between “types” of fantasy sports, namely how different real sports develop different fantasy sports cultures around them. Surely a daily fantasy baseball league has a culture totally unlike a casual weekly fantasy football league. Similarly, with the rapid rise of Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) in recent years, there is another field ready for exploration in the fantasy sports industry. As the industry continues to evolve, further explorations of less popular sports (golf, NASCAR, MMA, etc.) will be necessary for future iterations of the book.
<9> This book will find readership primarily from scholars of sports or even entertainment. There is a substantive argument embedded in the book about the importance of technology to people’s daily lives. This all comes together for a book that might find itself utilized in several academic studies of a variety of topics. It is not a book for the casual reader. For a more informal approach to fantasy sports, Matthew Berry’s A Fantasy Life might be more palatable. However, for fantasy sports junkies and certainly scholars of sports and culture, this is a necessary read for both its quantitative analysis of the trends in the field right now as well as the even-handed assessment of a diversifying demographic and a rapidly changing fantasy sports landscape.