Fantasy Sports as Resistance to the Spectacle

by Lukasz Muniowski



In conceptualizing the spectacle, Guy Debord claims that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” The implication of this assertion for the sports world is that it is no longer a team that takes the field during a game, but a brand, consisting of eleven branded individuals. The players represent first and foremost their sponsors, then their team’s sponsors, and finally themselves. With much at stake—public image, sponsorships, etc.—the game’s authenticity suffers. Thus, as the focus is often on individuals, it may be difficult for the casual fan to relate to one particular franchise, or any franchise for that matter. Because “the spectacle is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” what the fans usually see are images, not people. There is too much correspondence between players and commodities to treat a game simply as a sporting event. This article presents fantasy sports as one of the last sources of pure fan appreciation, where athletes are not perceived as brands. By selecting a particular player, a fantasy league participant expresses that he/she values the performance and skills of that athlete, as opposed to a fan who buys that athlete’s jersey. Fantasy owners are often the first to see potential for future stardom, unlike a traditional fan who supports only prominent, band-name players. The former regularly overlook more established names in search of genuine skill. As fantasy sports is only concerned with the on-field aspects of any given game, it is actually one of the few modes of successful resistance to the spectacle.

Keywords:  Media; Philosophy; Sociology; Fantasy Sports; Sports


<1> In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord claims that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” (12). Upon this claim, he builds a compelling case regarding the fundamental importance of image to modern Western culture. The basis of this society, he asserts, is presentation and perception. He argues that, instead of direct, unmediated communication, people communicate through images that they create, maintain, and project. He describes a society in which people are more concerned with how they are perceived than with who they truly are. This idea is perhaps made most obvious in the field of advertising, which is concerned with selling what seems to be rather than what actually is. According to Debord, since the origins of these images are no longer accessible, one is left only with facsimiles of feelings, thoughts, and events, all meticulously crafted for mass consumption. In this sense, he argues that representation has become reality, a state that he terms the spectacle.

<2> For Debord, the spectacle is a culture of commodities. It is permeated by the relentless capitalistic desire for more. The main objective of those within the spectacle is to possess, while the spectacle’s main function is to dictate their desires. Given this state of hyper-mediation and hyper-commodification, one cannot be sure if what one is experiencing is representation or reality, though the former, he argues, is now widely preferred to the latter, due to its more appealing packaging. Debord claims that modern society demands constant entertainment to retain its fickle attentions. It is now more insistent than ever, constantly craving greater and greater extravaganza. In this way, the line between image and actuality—or, in the case of sports, the line between highlight reels and sporting events—has become blurred. Impressive plays are now expected in each and every game, otherwise fans leave disappointed. More, the society of the spectacle breeds a particular form of fan: invested though idle onlookers of highly produced and highly contrived events. These fans readily exchange their agency for entertainment. Through the construction and manipulation of desire, the spectacle is able to engage fans in the consumption not only of images but also of the material products connected to them.

<3> Given that Debord only directly addresses the subject of sports once in his work, and quite briefly at that, Douglas Kellner maintains that sports today are “a largely untheorized and underrated aspect of the society of the spectacle” (2). He argues that they have become an “unholy alliance between sports celebrity, commercialism, and media spectacle” (2). More, Alan Tomlinson believes that Debord’s text may be useful in answering “the questions of who produces the sport spectacle, how and why the spectacle is staged and performed, and what the spectacle both means and masks” (57). As these and other scholars suggest, Debord’s notion of the spectacle provides a productive way of analyzing modern sports and is helpful in describing their reliance on personalities and commodities as much as, or even more than, on actual sporting events.

<4> While modern sports, like the spectacle that shapes them, appear to comprise a totalizing system, this article argues that a mode of resistance has arisen from within them in the form of fantasy sports [1]. Brody J. Ruihley and Robin Hardin define fantasy sports, which have existed in various forms since the 1960s, as “an interactive team management activity based on statistics accrued by athletes of real-life professional sport organizations and/or college athletics” (qtd. in Billings and Ruihley 2). As of 2013, fantasy sports were a $70-billion-dollar industry, with an estimated 32 million participants in the United States and Canada (qtd. in Delaney and Madigan 396). According to a more recent study by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, North American participants now spend nearly $26 billion annually, a number that demonstrates the continued and exponential growth of the industry (“Industry Demographics”). On the surface, fantasy sports may seem quintessentially capitalistic, in that participants can buy, draft, and trade players, treating them like objects rather than humans. However, I contend that fantasy sports subvert the spectacle’s basic ideals of image, advertisement, and commodification. In doing so, I trace the development of the sports hero in American culture from the end of World War I to the present, focusing particularly on his transition from on-field star to off-field brand. This transition was made possible, I maintain, by the widespread adoption of a capitalistic logic, one that privileges style over substance and thus distorts true player value. It is against this logic that, I contend, fantasy sports constitute a unique form of resistance. A variety of case studies are used throughout to strengthen my claims.

Modern Sports as Spectacle

<5> Debord asserts that one function of the spectacle is to elevate certain individuals to the level of heroes. At the same time, “the individual who in the service of the spectacle is placed in stardom’s spotlight is in fact the opposite of an individual, and as clearly the enemy of the individual in himself as of the individual in others” (Society 39). In order to be elevated, one needs to sacrifice one’s personality—what makes one unique—and conduct oneself according to the standards of the society of the spectacle. Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan argue that the social functions of heroes include: leading by example, being agents of social control, providing for social integration, and being a source of identity (84-85). In order to perform these functions, they must sacrifice at least part of their own identity. Debord himself refers to this phenomenon when he writes: “the spectacle’s externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him” (Society 23). Impelled by the spectacle, the subject—whether consciously or unconsciously—mimics the gestures of others, submerging himself beneath the façade of representation. This submersion is hinted at by the lack of personality often attributed to society’s greatest heroes. Once they reach that special status, they must be extremely careful in order to maintain the image that allowed them to reach it in the first place.

<6> Barry Smart observes that the First World War was followed by an unusually high need for new heroes in America: “It has been suggested that this reflected not only the celebrity-fabricating impact of the new media of popular culture but also the responses of people seeking escape from the forms of disillusionment and disorganization that followed the end of the war” (3). This coincided with the increasing popularity of organized sports. With more sports coverage and more time devoted to leisure, the first modern sports stars were born. Soon they became celebrities on the same level as royalty and movie stars. The development of technology and the steadily increasing revenue that it produced resulted in the branding of sports superstars, society’s new heroes—a key component of the modern sports spectacle.

<7> In the capitalist world, an athlete is generally a worker who performs certain tasks for the amount of money that is made available to him or her by the market. In regard to sports entertainment, an athlete’s every act is a contribution to building a brand, hence everything that he or she says or does is a product. Debord writes that “workers do not produce themselves; they produce a force independent of themselves” (Society 23). The goals and points scored by the player are his basic products—he statistics that keep him employed as a professional athlete—and yet he is separated from them, as he shares them with the team, the sponsors, and the television companies. The distance between the athlete and the fans seems smaller thanks to commercials and social media, whose aim is to present a player as one of them. Actually, hidden behind the image is a whole cast of agents, as well as public relations and marketing specialists, who modify it, so that the fans see only what they are intended to see, not who the player actually is. While athletes are judged by their statistical production, that production is often, and perhaps inevitably, distorted by the image that the player constructs and maintains.

Perception vs. Reality

<8> In sports, it is commonly assumed that statistics do not tell the whole story about what has happened on the field or court. Basketball players who are great defenders, such as Shane Battier, Tony Allen, and Andre Iguodala, are referred to as “no-stats All-stars” or “no-stats MVPs.” The title describes the gulf between their statistical insignificance and their true impact on the court. For example, Iguodala was named the 2015 Finals MVP even though he averaged just 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. But, his inclusion into the starting lineup was the spark that inspired the Golden State Warriors’ comeback. He won the award over LeBron James, whose team lost the finals, but who averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in the six-game series. Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post attributes Iguodala’s winning of the award to the development of advanced statistics, which show that, “when they shared the court, James had a net rating of minus-15.5 and was held to a true shooting percentage of 46.4 percent, which skyrocketed to a net rating of plus-18.8 and 50.9 percent true shooting when they didn’t.” Such advanced data demonstrates that today sports statistics can paint a much more complete and accurate picture of what happens on the court or field than ever before. Amongst all these statistics, however, the most important remains wins. And to earn those, a team needs numbers—points, goals, assists, rebounds, etc. These, in turn, may be attributed to advanced stats like the aforementioned net rating and true shooting. The relationship between the three is that advanced stats can be used to describe how a player produces more traditional stats, which, in turn, explain how he contributes to the game’s final score. Much of this is common knowledge, yet it is often overlooked by fans who are, for various reasons, biased against certain players—case in point, the support for the decision to pick Iguodala over James. While James’ value to his team is obvious and indisputable, the case for Iguodala relied heavily upon advanced stats, which are far subtler. And, perhaps, James is still being made to suffer for the way he left Cleveland to form a “superteam” with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Another likely factor is that James was not given the award because his team did not win the finals, and the sport’s spectacle is particularly interested in winners.

<9> In European football, players like Andy Carroll, Ezequiel Lavezzi, or, more recently, Wayne Rooney are judged on one great season, on their potential, or on past achievements, and praised whenever they perform in accordance with their images. Their situations stand in opposition to a player like Alvaro Morata, who was traded out of Real Madrid to Juventus (though eventually brought back) and is now one of the most consistent strikers in European football, but does not yet have the same high-profile image as the footballers listed above. Other strikers like Alvaro Negredo or Roberto Soldado, both Spanish internationals, were traded from Real Madrid before even getting a chance at the team in order for the club to bring in bigger names. Real Madrid is notorious for buying superstars and selling its youth academy graduates almost annually, as thirty-four of the players developed in La Fabrica play in top five European football leagues. Real Madrid has the third best football academy in the world, yet it prefers to rely on well-known players bought from other teams (Shergold). Exhibiting the same approach, teams like Manchester City, Manchester United, or Bayern Munich, introduce young players, but still buy stars in order to maintain the interest of the casual fan. The reliance on big names by Europe’s best teams suggests that modern sports are at least as much about image as they are about winning.

<10> Franchises like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are proof of what Debord calls “the autocratic reign of the market economy which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty” (Comments 2). It is the economy that dictates the rules of the market, not the other way around. The sports market requires the most recognizable teams to buy the most recognizable players in order to uphold their special position among fans. This keeps up interest in the teams. Only recently has the Spanish Primera Division managed to introduce pay equality concerning TV rights—whereas, before, every club was supposed to sell its own rights, broadening the already immense gap between Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and the rest of the league (McMahon). Nevertheless, this equality is, itself, also influenced by the spectacle, as before the start of the season La Liga officials reserved the right to punish teams whose visible stands were not 75% full during televised games. Chris Wright of Who Ate All The Pies observes of this situation that “the way it looks is more important than the way it functions,” a statement that clearly articulates one of the fundamental principles of the spectacle.

Case Study #1: Indian Super League

<11> This principle was recently applied by the Indian Super League (ISL). The league enforced an innovative and controversial rule that each of the eight teams must sign a “marquee player,” a big name. This was supposed to generate interest in an otherwise “artificial” construct. What I mean by artificial here is that the league is in no way connected to the official league system of India—there is no relegation, and the team that wins the league is not allowed to represent India in international competitions. Instead of contributing to the development of the Hero I League, the creators decided to fashion an entirely new product. In the league’s inaugural season, former superstars like Alessandro Del Piero, David James, and David Trezeguet joined ISL clubs. In the next season big names like Roberto Carlos and Nicolas Anelka came back from retirement, as did Adrian Mutu and Carlos Marchena. In the second season of the ISL, almost all marquee players lacked fitness – Roberto Carlos appeared in three games, Marchena in just one, and Nicolas Anelka in six, but he failed to score a single goal. Their poor form suggested that their signings were insisted upon by the league ownership not to elevate the level of play, but to increase the league’s commercial appeal. Without such big names, it is doubtful that the league would have generated any type of interest outside of Asia. The ineffective performances by these star players, however, did not scare away companies, as the league’s sponsorship revenue doubled before its second season. Surprisingly, the league actually benefited from the insignificant on-field impact of its marquee players, and the second season turned out to be even more interesting than the first (Sharma).

<12> The ISL is a perfect expression of contemporary sports culture and its reliance on big names. The context is significant, since in India the richest 10% holds 370 times more wealth than the remaining 90% (Rukmini). That the sponsors decided to create a new league in a country criticized for its social inequality explains the overwhelming influence of the spectacle both as a predominant worldview and as a tool of modern capitalism. In a way, this is similar to the approach of team owners in Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Football League (NFL), who buy franchises, but expect their host cities to build and maintain stadiums and arenas, instead of spending money on more pressing social needs (Williams). ISL players who signed marquee deals were, consciously or not, contributing to the increasing gap between the richest and the poorest in the country. Of course, they were not doing anything different throughout their careers—getting compensated for presenting their extraordinary talents. Nevertheless, their decisions to sign with the ISL exemplify the “me-first attitude” of modern sports. The sports economy allows players to sign large deals, and given the opportunity, they usually do. They take advantage of the aforementioned reliance on individuals and image in team sports.

Case Study #2: Michael Jordan and David Beckham

<13> The NBA and Nike are at least partially to blame for the cult of individuality in modern sports, as both heavily marketed Michael Jordan, who combined with ease the roles of best scorer (ten NBA scoring titles) and best player in the league (five MVP trophies). In the 1980s, NBA commissioner David Stern decided that the league should market stars rather than teams. The games between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers were billed as “Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson.” This approach grew even more prominent with the arrival of Michael Jordan, whose individual exploits overshadowed everything else happening on the basketball court. Because of him, owners, general managers, and coaches across the league believed that the best scorer can actually lead his team to championships, something that has happened only once since the end of the Michael Jordan-era (1999 onwards). Scoring became the cornerstone of individual performance on the basketball court and Jordan’s ten scoring titles, combined with his individual heroics, underlined by Nike commercials, became the reason why fans started to believe the narrative as well. Because of his marketing potential and willingness to “play along”—understood as using his extraordinary position to encourage consumption of products as various as energy drinks, fast food, and basketball shoes—Jordan’s off-nights are rather forgotten, hidden behind the image of a perfect scorer and relentless competitor. His athleticism and scoring ability lured fans into arenas, as they flocked to see arguably the best basketball player in history perform magnificent feats.

<14> What separated Jordan from former greats off the court was the business savvy with which he managed to turn his sports abilities into a brand from which he continues to benefit to this day. Jordan used commercials to simulate a closer relationship to his fans. David Carter and Darren Rovell write that “Michael’s soft side, shown in playful [television] spots […] made the marketing difference. These commercials made Jordan appear more human, allowing legions of fans and consumers to relate to this ‘regular guy’” (84). In other words, his appearance was what mattered most. According to Debord: “understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance” (Society 14). In this way, Jordan helped to reinforce the spectacular nature of modern sports, in which the end result is just an element of the show that can be overshadowed by an exceptional individual performance or even a single play. He inspired a whole generation of basketball players like Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson—great scorers, who never managed to win a championship. Ultimately neither player was able to be anything less than the focal point of their team’s offense, arguably hindering their teams from winning NBA championships.

<15> Unlike Jordan, David Beckham was never considered his sport’s greatest player, yet for a number of years he remained its most recognizable. Barry Smart describes this discrepancy as follows: “notwithstanding his successes on the football field, if David Beckham had not looked the part he would never have attracted the media interest that has made him a cultural icon” (165). Just like Jordan, who famously refrained from controversies during his career, Beckham and his wife, Victoria, are largely known for presenting themselves as a regular family, spending time at home with their children. This, combined with their good looks, makes them successful at marketing various products. Their everyday life is subordinate to and dependent upon the spectacle. They reached this level of fame because of Beckham’s football abilities, but are able to remain a part of the spectacle for so long because of factors such as Victoria’s musical career and their shared fashion sense.

<16> Beckham’s good looks were, at times, a double-edged sword, as he benefited from them but they also distracted some from his skills as a football player. For example, one of the first decisions Steve McClaren made after becoming the manager of the English national team was to drop Beckham from the squad, even though he was only thirty-one years old and the team captain. David Platt, a former player, claimed that Beckham was snubbed because of “his profile, not his ability” (Francis and Platt). After having scored just two goals in six matches in his absence, it became obvious that the team needed him. McClaren called Beckham back and the midfielder proved his worth, leading the team to four wins in six games and qualification for EURO 2008. When at Manchester United, Beckham scored 85 goals and had 152 assists in 394 games. In Primera Division, he racked up 33 assists in 116 games. During his career he assisted on one goal per three matches, which confirms he was a very reliable passer. His skills were, therefore, confirmed by stats—something that most Beckham fans were not primarily concerned about. Still, it must be argued that without his signature good looks and celebrity he would not be as famous or be considered as great as he is today. His last game for LA Galaxy, the 2012 MLS Cup final, was televised in 157 countries, while the league saw a 231% increase in merchandise sales during his five years in the U.S. (“David Beckham”). In this sense, Beckham and Jordan demonstrate that modern day sports stardom is as much the result of skill as of other attributes. Smart writes that “it is the perceived authenticity of the sport star’s ability demonstrated in performance that is recognized to be of unique commercial value by corporate clients and sponsors seeking to promote their products in an increasingly competitive marketplace” (194). It is due to their skills that athletes become part of the spectacle. And, once they reach that point, their images are often enough to keep them in the spotlight for the rest of their careers.

Style Over Substance

<17> Irving Rein, Philip Kotler, and Ben Shields coined the term “Highlight Generation” to describe contemporary sports fans (42). It designates those no longer interested in watching or able to dedicate their time to whole games, but rather only to the highlights. This trend, continuing from 1990 onwards, is another element of the spectacle. The highlights present the most exciting plays by the most exciting players; hence, they manipulate the images of sports stars to the point that their play seems almost flawless. One goal, dunk, or touchdown does not do justice to the athlete’s efforts (or lack thereof) throughout the game, yet the fan has come to evaluate and appreciate them on the basis of that one play presented during a sportscast. A single play is supposed to illustrate the impact he or she had on that particular game. Because this effect can be easily fabricated through montage, the individuals most aligned with the principles of the spectacle are often foregrounded. Hence, teams from smaller markets, who do not share the same name recognition as those from bigger cities, do not generate as much revenue because they are not as present in the media [2].

<18> Highlights continue to exist on their own later, in various videos collecting the player’s, the team’s, or even the season’s best plays. They can appear in commercials, mixes, and montages prepared by the league in order to promote itself. Although it is the product of an individual player, or of a small group of players, the highlight comes to represent the entire league, and becomes in a way its property. Thus, it is assimilated into the sports spectacle. For the athletes whose plays are, after all, the basis of these highlight videos, “all time, all space, becomes foreign to them as their own alienated products accumulate” (Society 23). Debord originally refers to workers who are separated from their work once it is over, but the quote can also be attributed to players, whose exceptional plays are products of individual genius. These highlights exist without context and with the sole purpose of impressing fans—old ones by reminding them about a particular image and new ones by urging them to follow games (or rather more highlights) in order to create their own memories—a cycle that reinforces the philosophy of the spectacle. Serving a whole range of functions, from nostalgia to excitement, highlights become independent of their true origins: the players themselves.

<19> Coming back to the sportscast, it is when the announcer reveals the statistics of key players that their impact on the game can really be felt. Only then does a particular play get its proper context and meaning. Only then does it become significant from a competitive standpoint. Goals or points are the most important statistics in sports. And, while some may dispute their privileged position, teams inarguably win by margins measured in these terms, underlying the relevance of scorers in sports. Statistics, not impressive plays, are what ultimately guarantee a team’s success. Players such as Tim Duncan rarely made spectacular plays, but their statistics proved their true value to their teams. Duncan was a two-time league MVP who won five NBA championships. It must be added, however, that his importance to the San Antonio Spurs, in the form of coachability, unselfishness, and willingness to take pay cuts in order for the team to stay competitive cannot be reduced to numbers. Simultaneously, opting for substance and consistency over style, Duncan was a player that teammates and fans could rely on. All sports organizations should covet such efficient individuals, but the spectacle’s privileging of the sensational urges them to evaluate players on these terms. Teams like Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone or Detroit Pistons under Larry Brown won Primera Division and NBA championship titles, respectively, yet were criticized for their defensive styles. Real Madrid or FC Barcelona are not only excepted to win, but they are expected to do so impressively. In the society of the spectacle, the image—understood here as an attractive, rather than a merely effective, mode of play—is as important as winning.

Fantasy Sports vs. the Spectacle

<20> It should now be clear that modern sports are, indeed, a construct, driven by the logic of the spectacle. In staunch opposition to this logic, I argue, stand fantasy sports, games that encourage participants to value actualities over appearances. Fantasy sports divert attention away from the packaging (e.g., brands and images) and toward the true product (e.g., statistics), focusing entirely on what players produce during their labor hours. In this context, the “generalized separation of worker and product” (Society 21), described by Debord, does not apply, as the two are inextricable. Scoring twenty points in a basketball game means making at least seven shots in forty-eight minutes, just as scoring a hat trick means scoring three goals in the span of a ninety-minute game. These are individual achievements, requiring a high level of skill and effort. As they encourage the valuation of players wholly on the basis of the statistical results of such skill and effort, fantasy sports offer fans a unique opportunity for pure athletic appreciation.

<21> Opposed to the spectacle, fantasy sports resist the belief that what happened around a sporting event is equally as important as what happened during it, the latter of which is expressed most objectively through numbers. For example, the introductory page of “ESPN Free Fantasy Basketball” claims that “[fantasy] basketball is a game filled with unbiased player performance statistics. By using these statistics, you have everything you need to understand which players are performing well and which ones are not.” While the unbiased status of statistics may be questioned to some extent, access to this data gives fantasy sports participants the opportunity to become a singularly knowledgeable group. According to ESPN, “sports media consumption more than triples if a person participates in fantasy sport” (qtd. in Billings and Ruihley 5). This means that fantasy sports participants may actually be more informed than average sports fans. Adam Ganser of Cracked half-jokingly claims that when taking part in fantasy sports, the participant knows all of the players on all of the teams, because he evaluates their usefulness for his fantasy team, and that this “ruins sports” (Ganser and Schmidt). I argue, rather, that while fantasy sports may ruin the spectacle of sports, it does not ruin sports per se. An aware fan, one who follows all of the games and focuses on stats, not images, can truly appreciate effective yet relatively unknown players. Thanks to fantasy sports, participants learn about players they otherwise would not have heard about. Often they first learn of the statistics and then match those statistics to a name. In this way, fantasy sports resist the spectacle by encouraging participants to appreciate the true products of a player’s labor.

Case Study #3: Fantasy Premier League

<22> With over three million participants, Fantasy Premier League (FPL) is hailed by its creators as the biggest fantasy football game in the world. It is a season-long game in which participants, operating on a budget of £100 million, pick teams of fifteen available Premier League players—eleven starters and four reserves—with the number of teammates limited to three. The participant is allowed to trade one player between gameweeks without being penalized. The player’s salary is determined at the beginning by the creators, but it changes when he is either bought or sold by a certain amount of participants. Out of the top ten highest scoring players in the 2015/16 edition of FPL, only two were worth more than £10 million by the end of the season: Harry Kane (2nd—£10.2 million) and the game’s most expensive player, Sergio Aguero (6th—£13.3 million). When it comes to efficiency, calculated as total points/price, only two of the most expensive players were in the top ten. And, of the top ten players, only three were from teams included on the Forbes “The World’s 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams 2015” list—Manchester City ($1.39 billion) and Arsenal ($1.31 billion). This clearly indicates that the richest teams do not necessarily have the best players, as revenue is generated by the spectacle, not solely by performance on the field. Other players in the top ten were from teams such as Watford, Everton, Tottenham, Swansea, West Ham, and Leicester City. The ‘cheapest’ player among them was Watford’s striker Odion Ighalo, valued at £5.6m. Other lesser-known names included Andre Ayew of Swansea (£6.6m) and Hector Bellerin of Arsenal (£6.5m). Bellerin’s inclusion may seem to suggest that the best players play on the most popular teams, but he is actually an exception to the rule, as he is still rather unknown, playing right back for the London side. The highest scoring fantasy players, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy of Leicester City, were evaluated by the end of the season at £7.2m and £7.4m respectively, even though they were largely responsible for Leicester’s championship run. Their relatively low value, even when they had proven their worth, was mainly caused by their modest initial prices, which corresponded to low pre-season expectations.

<23> Among those not anticipating the pair’s success was the CIES Football Observatory, which released a list of the most valuable players in world football before the 2015/16 season. These rankings were an attempt to assess player value according to the current state of the market, taking into account factors such as age, ability, club, nationality, length of contract, agent, marketability, etc. Actual statistics were only one of the factors in these rankings. By contrast, FPL valuations (i.e., prices) reflect a player’s past performance, club situation, and prospects for the season. Hence, while FPL prices may never be entirely accurate, as they are to some extent predictions, they are intended to moderate the number of participants that choose to buy players for their fantasy squads. Of the top ten highest scoring FPL players that season, only half made the top of the CIES list: Kane, Aguero, Romelu Lukaku, Mesut Özil, and Christian Eriksen. Players from Leicester City, Swansea, West Ham, and Watford were omitted. Prominent names near the top of the rankings included: Eden Hazard (104 Fantasy Points), Raheem Sterling (96 FP), Anthony Martial (136 FP), and Philippe Coutinho (129 FP). Hazard was first, while Sterling held third place on the CIES list among Premier League players. Based on their performance the previous season, they should not have been ranked that high, but their and their club’s reputations heavily influenced the evaluation (Poli et al). Such was the case with other players as well, including Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (44th—£5.5m, 44 FP), Santi Cazorla (45th—£7.8m, 44 FP), and Danny Welbeck (47th—£6.9m, 48 FP), and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson (48th—£6.5, 57 FP).

Case Study #4: ESPN Fantasy Basketball

<24> Unlike in FPL, ESPN Fantasy Basketball participants do not have equal access to every player, nor are they supposed to buy them using a limited budget of virtual money. Instead, participants join a league before the season starts and take part in a draft. During each round of the draft, they select a player for their team from all those that are still available. The site randomly generates the draft order. In the 2015/16 season, Stephen Curry was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. He was also the best player according to the ESPN Player Rater. This tool calculates the average total in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and three point shots made, as well as rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and points per game. The ESPN Player Rater evaluates players by how far above or below the league average they are in each category. Points from each category are added up to create a player rating. Curry was rated at 23.63, almost 5 points above runner-up James Harden, who was essential to the Houston Rockets’ late season run to make the playoffs. Curry’s season was one of the most dominant in NBA history and so was his team’s, as the Warriors finished with 73 wins, an NBA record. One might, therefore, say that the rating, just as the gap between Curry and the rest of the league, was accurate.

<25> The top ten fantasy players, according to the ESPN Player Rater, were some of the most recognizable names in the league, such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also included lesser-known players, like Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Paul George. James was considered by some to be the best player during that regular season, even though Curry won his second straight MVP title, yet James was only 8th in the league according to the player rater. Because James is such a big name, he was in the MVP conversation throughout the season, but his team lost 25 games, and he was in the NBA’s top ten in only two statistical categories (5th in points and 8th in assists). Kawhi Leonard, who was among the top three in MVP voting—along with Curry and James—was 9th. Statistically speaking, Curry was the best NBA player during the regular season, which supports my contention concerning fantasy’s unbiased approach toward players. The second ten on the CIES list furthers this argument, as it includes a lot of players who may not be familiar to a casual basketball fan, players from teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, and Charlotte Hornets. These players make small-market teams better and are well compensated for it, but are rarely in the spotlight. Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, fifteenth on the list, was not even selected to the All-Star team. The twentieth ranked player, Isaiah Thomas, is rated at 10.70 and, just like Lillard, was a big reason why his team made the playoffs. In comparison, Kobe Bryant was rated at 1.30 and was 168th in the NBA, yet he was in the spotlight throughout the season and was an All-Star starter. Players whose performances most directly led to wins—whose importance to their teams’ success is statistically undeniable—like Lillard or Thomas were not as popular among All-Star voters as a big name like Bryant. This happens very often: for example, DeAndre Jordan was named to the All-NBA First Team without becoming an All Star this season, while Serge Ibaka and Michael Conley have never made the All-Star team. Thus, I argue that fantasy sports successfully separates impactful players from bigger name players who are held in higher regard because of their image or reputation.

Case Study #5: Fantasy Football

<26> Fantasy football has a much longer tradition in America than fantasy basketball. Its scoring system awards players six points per running or defensive touchdown and four per passing touchdown, three points per an interception or a fumble, etc. According to this system, Cam Newton was the league’s highest-scoring player, accumulating 389 fantasy points, with 45 touchdowns, 35 passing and 10 running. Newton was named the NFL’s MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, leading the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record and an appearance in the Super Bowl. J. J. Watt was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, with a league-leading 17.5 sacks. He was the best defensive end as well with 144 fantasy points. However, only Watt was equally appreciated by the society of the spectacle, as he was 6th in jersey sales. Newton was not even in the top twenty (Lisk). The top three spots consisted of quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers—established names, who had good but not remarkable seasons. In jersey sales, Newton was also behind Dez Bryant (4th in jersey sales and 282nd in fantasy points) and Jason Witten (9th and 388th) of the Dallas Cowboys, and Colin Kaepernick (10th and 54th, although he appeared in just nine games), who was so frustrated with his position on the San Francisco 49ers that he asked to be traded to the Cleveland Browns, considered one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NFL (Magary). Furthermore, the Dallas Cowboys won just four games that season, yet three of their key players—the third being quarterback Tony Romo—managed to reach the top twenty in jersey sales.

<27> J. J. Watt was also highly compensated for his efforts on the field, as he was among the top ten highest paid NFL players of the 2015-16 season. Newton again did not make the list, having been surpassed by quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. They earned $48.9 million and $23.7 million respectively, though they ranked 16th and 14th among NFL quarterbacks. Both led their teams to two Super Bowl wins, which explains their high pay. Still, Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle of the Miami Dolphins, was also among the ten most highly paid players in the league. Suh made $38.6 million, while scoring just 78 fantasy points and ranking 459th. Even though Suh plays at a position that does not allow players to earn many fantasy points, his pay still does not reflect his impact, or rather lack thereof, on his team. This is not the case with fantasy sports, which, as I have tried to prove with these three separate cases from the 2015-16 season, reflects player value more accurately than any other tool available to the casual fan. While admittedly flawed in some ways, fantasy sports actively deemphasize the importance of image and thus may be the beginning of a discussion concerning the real value of players to their teams or serve as a basis for a tool that will be even better at determining their true worth.


<28> The spectacle creates among sports fans expectations and standards regarding athletes whose thoroughly commodified images are designed to reinforce its own dominance. When the spectacle elevates an individual to a privileged position, it is an investment. In order for the investment to yield, the image of the individual must become imprinted on the imagination of the fans. They must become so accustomed to a player’s greatness that eventually they may even take it for granted. Then, and only then, is he or she fully incorporated into the society of the spectacle. Still, in a rather fluid sports world, everything changes from season to season. Marketing contracts are signed for the duration of just a couple of seasons, though some athletes, such as LeBron James with Nike, sign lifetime deals. But, this means that it is both in their and the spectacle’s best interest to uphold their image and, in doing so, a particular form of capitalistic logic. In opposition to this logic stand fantasy sports, which can more accurately quantify a player’s impact on the court or field. Granted, statistics are far from comprehensive or absolute, but they are the best tool fans have to evaluate players with any degree of objectivity. Each year surprising players emerge who are statistically better than those held in higher regard by fans. High fantasy prices or expectations put pressure on the most famous athletes who are expected to perform on a daily or nightly basis to justify their value. Often the most recognizable players are the best fantasy players as well, though there are exceptions, which, every season, put into question the images fabricated by the spectacle. Fantasy sports encourage their participants to be the first to notice these exceptions—these unexpected performers—and to take advantage of them by adding them to their teams as low-risk/high-reward investments. Whether intentional or not, fantasy participants, by valuing lesser-known players, resist the spectacle of modern sports.


[1] It must be stressed that this article will not deal with daily fantasy sports, because it is a relatively new phenomenon, plus its legal status is not yet set—its creators claim that it is a “game of skill,” while the predominant opinion is that it is gambling (see Oliver as well as “The Fantasy Sports Gamble”). Season-long fantasy sports is either free or played for relatively small amounts of money, and it has more to do with satisfaction than with making a real profit.

[2] For further reference, see Mitch Lawrence (2011) as well as Ken Rosenthal (2011).


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