When “The Game” Becomes More Important Than the Game

nflattendanceLet me start by asking this question to everyone. How many of you have a fantasy football team? Okay, you can all put your hands down now. Fantasy football is fun, and this is not an attack on the game, but a look at what it means to the NFL.

Fantasy football has grown in popularity exponentially over the last five years. And the NFL has fully embraced that fact; drawing in non-traditional fans, bringing more women into the league, and increasing the league’s exposure. It’s been great business for the NFL as television viewership continues to grow, meaning more advertising money for the league. The league has further aligned themselves with the fantasy football craze, in case you couldn’t tell by the constant Fan Duel and Draft Kings commercials. But despite the increasing revenue streams not everything is right in the NFL world. Take a step back and you will see that the league may be selling its soul to the devil.

Although viewership continues to grow for NFL games this does not mean interest in the game itself is growing. In fact NFL attendance is down yet again this year. In 2011 the NFL drew just over 20-million fans to their games. (2011 Attendance) This year’s attendance numbers are on pace for just over 17.5-million. (2015 Attendance) In fact although 14 teams are currently averaging a higher attendance this year than last year, a whopping 10 teams are drawing at least 1,000 fewer fans; including some traditional power markets such as the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, and New England Patriots. And of those 10 teams, eight are drawing at least 2,000 fewer fans including one of the league’s undefeated teams in the Atlanta Falcons.

Football is a made for tv sport, with the quick bursts of action followed by built-in commercial breaks. It is much more comfortable to sit at home on your couch and see the game on your 42-inch high-definition tv than it is to squeeze into a seat and view the game through binoculars from the upper deck of a stadium. Not to mention with the average NFL ticket costing $80 (NFL Tickets) it is much more affordable. The comfort from home and the game day experience is not a new issue for professional leagues.

I think where the league is faltering is in the abandonment of focusing on the game of football itself and pushing their chips all-in on the fantasy football game. This particular thought crossed my mind when I was watching Sports Center the other day and during the game highlights the broadcasters inserted fantasy points scored rather than actual statistics for the player. So rather than saying Todd Gurley ran for 159 yards, it was Gurley went for 17.5 fantasy points today.

Now this may seem like a minuscule difference and heck fantasy football has drawn in a great number of new fans so how can that be bad, right? Well it may not hurt the NFL in the end in terms of business. But as a fan of the actual game of football I find it a dangerous slope. When a league begins to align themselves more with gambling or something outside of their sport, it can lead to other issues. We have already seen the league ease up on the defensive side of the ball, allowing receivers more freedom and increasing scoring. Does anyone think higher scoring games is not better for fantasy football? What is next? Say scoring stays stagnant for a couple of years, would the league look at changing more rules to increase scoring?

Combine the emphasis on fantasy football along with the fact that youth football numbers are down, NFL attendance is down, numerous NFL players retiring early and citing their health as the reason, the emergence of the NFL as a social talking point which in turn leads to public discussions in off the field issues (Patriots, Ray Rice, various criminal actions)…where does this leave the NFL in the future? The hope for any sport is that the benefits of the game will overshadow anything else and still speak to the fans, attract them solely on the game’s principles and foundation. What happens when off the field matters more than on the field? What happens when the league abandons their merits?

Fantasy football is great to play, the weekly bragging rights among friends and co-workers is fun. However it should simply be a game that is a spin-off of the football game itself. To me however fantasy football has become so intertwined into today’s social culture that it is now actually dictating the game of football. Sports has long tried to disassociate itself with gambling; although everyone knows it still goes on. Now we have a league openly aligning itself with gambling (which fantasy football is, despite the legal loopholes). I just wonder has the NFL sold it’s soul (the integrity of the game) to the devil for more money?

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