h2h Corner ~ On why “fantasy” sports produce better champions than real sports

Why has interest in fantasy sports risen?

At the same time why have some people grown to devalue a “championship?”

I think the two questions are linked somewhat.

This whole article started when I told my girlfriend that I wanted to watch the Capitols play the Tampa Bay Lightening on a random would-be-nice-Sunday (it turned out to be blech weather). She asked “why.” A reasonable question given I haven’t watched a non-Olympic hockey game since we started dating almost three years ago.

I told her it was because of the play-offs. She asked what the play-offs are.

I was kind of surprised by the question, but I said it’s a tournament at the end of the season that crowns the best team. She then said, what’s the point of the season. I said to seed the teams in the tournament. She seemed to think this was an inadequate response – why spend months and a multitude of games seeding for a tournament that might be 20% the length of a full season.

I had no answer other than dollar dollar bills, y’all.

Maybe because none of my teams have ever won a championship – I’m not counting the ’83 Orioles (I was barely one-year-old) or the 2001 Maryland Terrapins – but I find myself consistently thinking that the post-season in most sports do not crown the best team from the season but the best team at a certain point in time.

In my favorite sport, baseball, this recently became a topic of conversation when Commissioner Bud talked about expanding the play-offs. In my opinion, there is no right or wrong answer on this debate, just a matter of preference.

Either you want the MLB post-season to most likely crown the team that had the best season or you want to enjoy as much baseball as possible. If the former, we should go back to four teams at most making the play-offs. If the later, sure add some teams.

More teams means more games means more goats means more innings. I don’t worry about “inferior” teams getting in – heck every year the Division-III NCAA Lacrosse championship is more interesting than the D-I game. You know why? Because they aren’t as good, there are more errant passes, more ground balls and more hitting. It’s an up and down frenetic pace compared to the methodical, no-turnover D-I game.

But this has been one long tangent. I’ve grown to believe that the team that is crowned the champion most years possibly didn’t have the best year. The Packers were a six-seed, a good team with great players who finally hit their stride, sure, but they lost to the Redskins. The Giants beat the undefeated Patriots. The Giants were not a great team for half the year.

I’m generally okay with this – it adds drama and intrigue. However, I think it, in a small way, has contributed to the continued fascination with fantasy sports.

In my h2h league, we give more prizes to the champion of the regular season because we know that person did better than whoever wins a four-week play-off. We have similar prizes for regular season and play-off champion in football.

Maybe I’ve grown cynical, jealous and jaded, but I really prefer fantasy sports – it’s a game where I generally know who was the best. When it comes down to the major sports, it seems the team with the best regular season doesn’t win the championship enough.

Like I said, I’m okay with this because it makes for a better product, but it makes me a little less in awe of teams that win and a little less disappointed in teams that “can’t quite get there.” I’m no Washington Capitols fan – I don’t understand or follow hockey. However, they were clearly one of the best teams and they got swept out of the play-offs rather quickly. That happens all the time, every year in every sport.

In fantasy, if my team ends the regular season on top, it wins. It doesn’t have to play a play-off during which Ben Zobrist could hit 4 HRs, post 14 RBIs and three SBs in one week.

There are a multitude of other reasons why fantasy sports continue to gain traction (prizes, up-to-the-minute stats, rampant free agency, competition amongst friends, etc.).

However, at least for me, fantasy sports does a better job of crowning who had the best team, whether it be 5×5, roto, 10×10, run prevention leagues, etc. After you’ve accumulated 10 victory points in Settlers of Catan, you don’t then clear the board and reseed the competitors and play for the championship. No, the winner is crowned.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Eduardo Nunes, not Nunez on May 18, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Been meaning to comment on this for a while. Great column.

    So, the whole thing is whether you believe that sustained performance actually determines which team was best, right? I agree that it’s just a matter of preference, and that both positions still require a leap of faith: either you’re saying, “how a team played in April should matter in September,” or you’re saying, “the only thing that matters is whether a team performs well in September.”

    Personally, I hate anything in sports that makes it more likely that a team’s previous performance will give them a future advantage. Or any attempt to minimize the influence of extraneous variables – like those who think the Super Bowl is “too important” to be played in a city where that might be snow. Why not extend that logic to the games that determine who’s in the Super Bowl then? And to the games prior to the conference championship games?

    A lot of soccer-loving countries actually have two national championships: one is the league play, where each team plays every other team in their division twice (home and away), and whoever has the most points after the final round wins. No playoffs – just a “you were better for longer than anyone else” award. And it’s amazing how often this type of league play still comes down to a combination of scores on the last day, with more than a couple of teams having a chance to win it all.

    Then, they’ll have a cup-style tournament, where it’s sort of like the NCAA – you get randomly seeded, and whoever is left standing at the end wins the cup. In Brazil, at least, the league is more prestigious than the tournament, but both will get you a ticket to the South American continental tournament, which is all anyone cares about anyway…

    I think it’s worth noting that most fans are inconsistent across different sports and probably don’t even realize it: they may love the possibility of a cinderella in NCAA bball but hate the wild card in MLB, or they may love the NFL playoffs and defend the BCS at the same time.

    Reply

  2. Darn, I wish this was the heir apparent to AROD, no Jeter…anyway.

    I think you said what I tried to get across. And your soccer analogy is perfect. I really think this is what fantasy sports does. Like I said, winning the regular season is more prestigious in my leagues, but you still get cred for winning the play-offs – either way both get prizes. if you win both, so much more gravy.

    It’s just weird to reconcile the concept. If I’m pressed, I would say that I would like the team who had the best year to be the champion – how you get to awarding that, I dont know. Plus I’d hate to see play-offs disappear. I just have learned to enjoy great regular season teams and post-season teams – and realize that excelling in one instance might not be better/worse than excelling in another.

    Reply

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