Baerg 2009: Just a Fantasy? Exploring Fantasy Sports
Volume 19 Numbers 3 & 4, 2009
Just a Fantasy?
Exploring Fantasy Sports
University of Houston-Victoria
Abstract: Even as fantasy sports have developed into an increasingly lucrative and popular segment of the sports-media complex, sport communication scholars and others in the academy have been slow to study this phenomenon. This essay aims to encourage greater research attention to fantasy sports by surveying the literature in order to describe fantasy sports and its history, to address the fantasy sports industry, and to discuss the existing participant studies. The essay concludes by presenting potential directions for future research in this under-examined area.
It would seem that very few activities could bring together as diverse a group of people as Meatloaf, Vince Vaughn, Dan Marino, Jennie Finch and Curt Schilling. Yet, these five celebrities and approximately 19 to 30 million other North Americans are reported to participate in fantasy sports (Ballard, 2004; Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 2008; Fisher, 2008). Given the considerable number of people involved with fantasy sports, it is no surprise that the fantasy sports industry generates anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion each year with some estimates suggesting the economic impact of fantasy sports may reach upwards of $3 to $4 billion (Beason, 2008). This annual economic impact is realized through sales of team and player-related commodities, revenues from pay-per-view television subscriptions that enable fans to witness every game played in
a given league, and capital gained from fees paid to websites that run fantasy sports leagues and offer specialized fantasy sports information.
Media outlets also are increasingly devoting attention to fantasy sports. Television broadcasts have rendered statistical information ubiquitous as player performances are constantly updated via scrolling marquees and sidebars. Conventional over-the-air radio programs and their online counterparts devoted entirely to fantasy sports have emerged. The Internet’s numerous websites and its allowance of synchronous access to sports statistics also has played a major part in enabling this activity to explode. Fantasy sports have developed into an increasingly important part of sports culture.
In spite of the immense popularity of fantasy sports and the capital poured into the activity, scholars have been slow to study its significance and impact. This essay examines the existing academic literature on fantasy sports from a media studies perspective through the lenses of industry, audience, and text. This essay describes the activity, explains its history, and reviews existing work related to the fantasy sports industry and fantasy sports participants. The manuscript concludes by offering some directions for future research in the area.
Defining and Describing Fantasy Sports
At a basic level, fantasy sports involves a group of people who choose a set of individual athletes for a fantasy team from a given sport, aggregate the statistical performances of these athletes, and then compete with one another to see whose team generates the highest point totals. How fantasy sports teams are constructed varies depending on the participants’ preferences. One of the most popular formats involves a draft. These drafts typically occur face-to-face in smaller leagues or, in larger online leagues, by having participants set a series of player selection preferences for an automated draft. A second type of player selection process invokes an auction format in which participants are allocated a specific amount of capital used to bid on players for their teams. In Kaplan’s (1990) baseball example, the teams in his league are allotted $260 they can use to buy “9 pitchers, 5 outfielders, 3 cornermen (first and third b
ase), 3 middle infielders (shortstop and second base), 2 catchers and 1 designated hitter” (p. 12). Deciding how much to spend on a given athlete becomes an exercise in strategic resource allocation. Large online leagues employ a third format that functions via a salary cap. Participants are given a set amount of virtual finances that they use to “buy” a team of athletes who have been given a price tag according to the level of their past performances. These salary cap leagues typically allow more than one fantasy team participant to “buy” a player in order to maximize the possible number of participants.
After the athlete selection process is complete, participants are given points in sport-specific statistical categories like home runs, touchdowns, or goals, based on how well their chosen athletes perform in real-world contests. Scoring systems are as varied as the fantasy leagues and the sports on which these leagues are based, but are typically oriented around the conventional statistics tracked by mainstream sports media sources. These scores are then tallied over the course of a real-world sports season, and a winner emerges.
The many sports that have been adapted to the fantasy format include football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf and auto racing. Some fantasy leagues step outside the boundaries of the most popular professional sports with competitions based on fishing (Tedeschi, 2008) and professional wrestling (Ballard, 2004). Others leave the formal world of sport altogether as with fantasy Congress in which participants receive points when their selected politicians pass legislation, receive news coverage and vote (Fantasy Congress, n.d.).
Apart from this conventional understanding of fantasy sports, Lomax (2006) suggests that computer and home video game console sports games can be designated as fantasy sports. By this taxonomy, popular digital sports games like the Madden Football and FIFA Soccer series function as part of the fantasy sports paradigm. Lomax argues that these games enable the creation of fictional athletes that function much like the actual, real world athletes on which the game is based. The experience of playing the digital sports game becomes akin to a variation on fantasy sports. Whether using this software constitutes fantasy sports remains a question that needs to be addressed, however, it would seem that the popular understanding of the activity does not include digital sports games.
History of Fantasy Sports
The origins of fantasy sports have yet to be formally investigated by academics. Lomax (2006) situates one of the roots of fantasy sports in the sports board games arising in the 1950s. Some examples of these games include the Strat-O-Matic series of baseball, hockey, football and basketball board games in which players would roll dice and then refer to charts on individual player cards to determine a given play’s outcome. These board games only would allow for single games to be played, but enterprising players could repeat the process and tally the results to enact entire seasons running alongside the real world counterparts.
Popular sources locate the founding of fantasy football in the early 1960s and fantasy baseball in the early 1980s. Although the adjective ”fantasy” would not be attached to the activity until years later, Esser (1994) attributes fantasy football to limited part owner of the Oakland Raiders, Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach, in the early 1960s. A decade earlier, Winkenbach invented fantasy golf in which participants drafted a team of professional golfers on a weekly basis and then tallied up the golfers’ scores to see which fantasy player’s team won. Similarly, Winkenbach also created an early version of fantasy baseball in which participants drafted pitchers and home run hitters. Esser reports that in 1962, Winkenbach discussed the football version of his idea with two journalists from the Oakland Tribune, Scotty Stirling and George Ross. The three men collaborated on a formalized version of the activity r
eplete with a set of rules that would enable sports fans to choose their own teams. Winkenbach, Stirling and Ross went on to create the first fantasy football league, the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL). The GOPPPL credited its teams “fifty points for a rushing TD, twenty-five points for a thrown or caught TD, twenty five points for a field goal, ten points for an extra point, and 200 points for a kick or interception returned for a TD” (Esser, para. 18). Fantasy football quickly spread around the Northern California Bay Area by word of mouth in bars and offices. Interestingly, although Stirling and Ross were journalists by trade, they never wrote publicly about their invention.
By contrast, those taking credit for the origin of fantasy baseball did use their media connections to further their creation. Author and editor, Daniel Okrent, was the key member of a group who met at New York’s Rotisserie Francaise restaurant. In 1980, this group would stake a claim to the invention of fantasy baseball. The restaurant’s moniker was subsequently attached to their activity to provide fantasy baseball with another name, rotisserie league baseball (Kaplan, 1990; Walker, 2006). The group decided to allocate $260 to each member of the league which could be used to bid on 22 players. The league’s teams would then be given points over the course of the season depending on how well their purchased players performed. Included in the categories they counted were “batting average, home runs, rbi [runs batted in], stolen bases, era [earned run average], wins, saves and ratio” (Colston, 1996b, para. 36). Okrent and his colleagues went on to use their publishing positions to bring fantasy baseball to a broader public (Lomax, 2006). Okrent would become known, in rotisserie culture as “the Beloved Founder and Former Commissioner for Life” (Kaplan, 1990, p. 13; see also Colston, 1996a).
Okrent likely could never have envisioned the influence of the computer upon his invention, but Kaplan (1990) argued for the place of digital media as an important element in fantasy sports’ recent popularity. Prior to the ubiquity of the computer and the Internet, sports statistics had to be gleaned from newspapers or other print sources and laboriously tabulated by a fantasy league commissioner. The computer enables fantasy sports participants to aggregate statistics on a daily or weekly basis and more importantly, allows them to generate potentially winning strategies. More recently, the Internet has facilitated the rapid transmission of statistical information to be nearly instantaneous with the action on the field while also broadening the types of fantasy sports available for participants (Massari, 2006).
The Internet has not only fostered the swift diffusion of statistics, but also has enabled the explosion of what might be deemed the fantasy sports industry. A definition of what constitutes this industry has yet to be formalized; however, fantasy sports have been increasingly commercialized since their inception in the 1960s. Prior to the advent of the Internet, the fantasy sports industry primarily involved those writing and producing stories for sports magazines and/or those creating annual publications prognosticating athletes’ performances ahead of the impending season. Consumers would purchase these forms of print media in bookstores or via mail-order to learn about potential players to select or avoid in their fantasy league drafts. Writers like baseball’s Bill James and Ron Shandler forged careers from their statistically-based work. Fantasy baseball participants purchased their books and newsletters and used them as resources to gain an advantage ove
r fellow competitors.
With the popularization of the Internet in the mid to late 1990s, these niche market media producers shifted some, if not all, of their work online. Subsequently, the fantasy sports industry has exploded. Although print media devoted to fantasy sports can still be found at newsstands around the country, the vast majority of fantasy sports content is now found online. Niche market production has been superseded as larger media firms have begun to take an interest in fantasy sports as a way to generate increasing advertising revenue from their websites. Over the course of the last decade, these companies have absorbed a considerable segment of online fantasy sports activity and rendered fantasy sports information nearly ubiquitous. Prominent media firms owning popular fantasy sports websites include Yahoo.com, ESPN, CBS Sports and Fantasy Sports Ventures, a company running a portal fantasy sports site to several sport-specific sites located under its corporate umbrella. T
he Fantasy Sports Association’s (FSA) 2007 study reported that Yahoo.com had the greatest number of unique users in fantasy football, baseball, golf, NASCAR and basketball. During the 2007 NFL season, Yahoo.com boasted of 11.7 million unique fantasy football participants alone (Fantasy Sports Association, 2008). As stated above, the rapid growth of fantasy sports online has moved it beyond being a niche activity.
As professional sports leagues have awoken to the profits that might be gained from fantasy sports, questions have been raised about the legality of freely using player names and statistics in fantasy leagues without a license. In fact, much of the recent academic focus on the fantasy sports industry has revolved around the issue of statistics and intellectual property brought about by a particular court case (Grady, 2007; Massari, 2006). The case was filed by a fantasy baseball provider, C.B.C Distribution, against a company representing Major League Baseball, Major League Advanced Media(MLAM). The critical issue at stake related to the question of who owned the commercial rights to professional athletes’ names and to the statistics they produce. C.B.C. was a small fantasy sports service provider seeking a license from MLAM. Upon being denied a license, C.B.C. filed a lawsuit that they hoped would allow them t
o use player names and statistics without legal difficulty. The plaintiffs argued that player statistics were part of the public domain and as such, could be freely used and distributed. The defendants argued that Major League Baseball players possessed either the exclusive right to the commercial use of their identities or a copyright claim to their statistics (Grady, 2007; Massari, 2006).
This suit would prove vital to the online segment of the fantasy sports industry. If professional leagues and their athletes could demand compensation for any commercial use of names and/or numbers, a considerable chunk of the industry’s profits would be lost. Additionally, the online component of the industry might be severely curtailed leaving only the largest media firms with the capital to purchase licenses for fantasy sports from professional leagues. The worst case scenario for fantasy sports participants would mean the end of fantasy sports altogether (Bolitho, 2006-2007). After an appeal, the courts ruled in favor of C.B.C., freeing fantasy sports websites to publish player names and statistics without fear of prosecution (Gelchinsky, 2008; Mead, 2007). On June 2, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court denied MLAM’s appeal upholding the lower court’s ruling in favor of C
.B.C. (Stohr, 2008).
Whereas legal scholars have devoted attention to the battles over intellectual property in the fantasy sports industry, other academic work on this area remains sparse. To this point, only one study has attempted to address the fantasy sports industry. Woodward’s (2005) unpublished masters thesis began to examine how mainstream sports media dealt with fantasy sports by presenting a qualitative analysis of detailed interviews he conducted with select online, print, radio and television fantasy sports columnists and broadcasters. Woodward was interested in how mainstream media have increasingly integrated fantasy sports content into their regular sports reporting.
Seven themes emerged from Woodward’s interview data. First, since the late 1990s, interviewees developed a growing awareness of fantasy sports as defined by their knowledge of the activity. These members of the sports media became increasingly cognizant of fantasy sports formally on the job and informally in their broader social networks. Second, the interviewees reported a desire to use fantasy sports information as content to attract larger and broader audiences. In becoming more aware of fantasy sports and integrating its content into their content, the respondents sought to leverage fantasy sports to improve their media outlets’ revenue streams. Third, fantasy sports served as a way to better identify their respective media markets. If potential audiences were interested in fantasy sports content, media outlets were more likely to embrace it in their sports reporting. However, the interviewees also related how some of their audiences, especially local au
diences, were not enticed by fantasy content as it apparently detracted from interest in the local teams. Fourth, those interviewees whose media outlets did embrace fantasy sports content discussed the need to produce larger and larger amounts of said content to retain audiences. This perceived need did not come from fantasy sports participants themselves, but from pressure for media outlets to keep up with the competition’s rate and publication of sports information. Fifth, interviewees noted fantasy sports’ influence on sports media content including greater attention to statistics, injury reports, and predictions about player performances and possible playing time.
In addition to the aforementioned considerations, respondents discussed the development of the fantasy sports journalist, a sports reporter devoted entirely to covering fantasy sports. Even as they recognized the popularity of fantasy sports content, the interviewees were careful to state that coverage of fantasy sports would only occur if it fit neatly within a plan for delivering all-encompassing sports content. Woodward’s data also revealed the benefits media outlets received from presenting fantasy sports content. Including fantasy sports content often meant larger audiences were retained for greater lengths of time, producing positive effects on a given media outlet’s bottom line. Finally, the study demonstrated how fantasy sports shaped the coverage of sport in the mass media by pushing sports content producers to publish information as quickly as possible.
Based on his data, Woodward argued that fantasy sports in the mass media have passed through Rogers’ (2004) five stages of diffusion of innovations. Rogers’ theory has been deployed in a variety of disciplines including biology, sociology, and communication. The five stages in the theory of diffusion of innovations involve: (a) initial cognizance of the innovation; (b) developing a positive or negative attitude towards the innovation; (c) accepting or rejecting the innovation; (d) adopting the innovation; and (e) evaluating the decision to adopt the innovation. Woodward argued that the majority of mass media adopted the innovation of fantasy sports in their sports reporting by: (a) initially becoming aware of and learning about fantasy sports through their informal social networks ; (b) developing a positive attitude toward fantasy sports; (c) testing the idea of using fantasy sports in their coverage by seeing how much their adopti
on of fantasy sports related content attracted audiences; (d) adopting the innovation of fantasy sports by regularly employing fantasy sports content as part of their sports coverage; and (e) evaluating their decision to adopt fantasy sports as a vital part of their sports coverage. Woodward’s interviewees had ultimately decided to accept the innovation of fantasy sports for the considerable benefits it accrued to their media outlets.
Given the dearth of studies examining the fantasy sports industry, this aspect of fantasy sports appears ripe for exploration. With only the question of intellectual property and a single study of mainstream media’s response to fantasy sports having been completed, a wealth of research avenues exists for communication scholars interested in this area.
Whereas studies of the fantasy sports industry remain meager, increasing numbers of participant studies have begun to appear in recent years. These studies primarily fall into two categories: (a) market-oriented studies designed to identify the fantasy sports demographic and (b) academic studies designed to understand the motivations for fantasy sports participation and the potential social consequences of participation.
Market-based demographic studies of the fantasy sports participant have been motivated by a desire to publicize and grow the industry. These studies remain somewhat limited. However, as of 2007, the Fantasy Sports Association (FSA), an industry advocacy group, in partnership with Nielsen Online reported that the primary fantasy sports participant is an 18-49 year old male who has above average income and education. This person typically spends roughly five hours weekly tweaking lineups, making trades and doing research on his fantasy squad(s). The normative participant is more likely than the general population to purchase consumer electronics, to make online purchases and to consume alcohol. The study also found that participants are more likely to visit online dating, wedding planning and parenting websites and to read sports, men’s interest and car magazines (Fantasy Sports Association, 2008). Perhaps most striking is the
data on the race of the primary fantasy sports participant. Smith (2008) references this study in noting that 93 percent of participants are white with only 2.3 percent being Latino, 1.6 percent being African-American and 1.1 percent being Asian-American.
Another recent study has corroborated these earlier findings. In 2008, poll research of 1,200 fantasy sports participants commissioned by the FSA and Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) reported that participants appear to be wealthier than the typical American household, declaring “an average household income of more than $94,000” (Fisher, 2008, para. 3). Given this income level, it is hardly surprising that this study affirmed the aforementioned data on participant spending patterns. FSA president, Greg Ambrosius, responded to the study saying that fantasy sports participants should no longer be regarded as a niche market, but as “really big-time consumers” (Fisher, 2008, para. 8).
As part of this desire to better understand its primary user base, the FSA has not only been interested in its participants’ demographic profiles, but also in examining why participants continue to enjoy the activity. Their 2007 survey revealed that the most common motivations for playing fantasy sports to be: (a) fun; (b) competition with others; (c) because others in the participant’s social network played fantasy sports; (d) participation made real sports that much more exciting; (e) financial rewards for winning; and (f) lended interest to boring games (Walker, 2006).
Although these studies may not directly serve the interests of communication scholars, they do provide a demographic frame within which questions can begin to be asked about the nature of fantasy sports participants. Based on the data provided, one can surmise that the majority of participants are middle to upper class, technologically-savvy, heteronormative white men who likely possess professional, technical or executive positions. Davis and Carlisle Duncan (2006) argue that this group exists as the most privileged in contemporary culture. As such, studying this group and why they participate in fantasy sports may provide increased insight into power structures linked to capital, whiteness and masculinity. Examining what attracts this demographic to fantasy sports and keeps them playing could potentially challenge and/or affirm how power operates in and through sport and society more broadly.
A growing body of academic research has begun to address questions about participation in fantasy sports. The most extensive scholarly work on fantasy sports participants derives from mass media audience studies. In keeping with some of the earliest qualitative ethnographic and interview-based cultural studies audience research (Ang, 1993; Jenkins, 1992; Radway, 1993), this work has focused primarily on what participants gain from the activity and why they continue to play. Researchers examining fan motivation and team identification (Wann & Branscombe, 1990, 1993) have applied uses and gratifications theory to understand what motivates fantasy sports participants to keep coming back for additional seasons. Thus, both qualitative and quantitative participant studies have utilized fantasy sports as sites for examining ho
w active audience members or active fans participate in this activity through the Internet (Real, 2006).
Hiltner and Walker (1996) used fantasy baseball as the locus for examining the rhetoric of electronic communication in the early stages of the Internet’s popularization. They examined a June 1992 Prodigy Internet server crash that meant fantasy baseball players had no access to their teams for a 19 hour period. Hiltner and Walker explored the effects of media deprivation by looking at the rhetorical play invoked when participants were faced with a sudden inability to play fantasy baseball. Given that the crash occurred in 1992, the authors also had the opportunity to analyze the creation of an early Internet-based electronic community and the communication problems that occurred in what was then a new medium. The text produced by the fantasy baseball participants was characterized by what the authors deemed “post modern” literary techniques in its collective, self-reflexive authorship.
The data revealed the formation of a tripartite community composed of those who complained about the crash (the whiners), those who sympathized with the Prodigy employees trying to fix the problem (the philosophers), and those who watched the spirited clash between the two groups (the fans). Hiltner and Walker argued that, within this electronic community, the formation of these groups simulated sport linguistically, as two of the groups positioned themselves in opposition to one another while the third group looked on as spectators. Much like the confrontation between pitcher and batter, the whiners and the philosophers would often square off in dialogue, with the whiners personalizing the event and the philosophers treating the crash as representative of broader human experience. The researchers examined how different rhetorical tropes like sarcasm and satire characterized the discussion and how the participants themselves used the discussion to make explicit the par
ameters of expected community behavior. Prior to this point, these expectations about decorum had been implied, but left unstated. Hiltner and Walker also noted the middle-upper class, male, older and educated nature of Prodigy’s user base and baseball as an inherently conservative sport. The authors linked this information to the rhetoric of the bulletin board posts to argue that the posters’ rhetoric reflected a conservative ideological position privileging authority, adherence to rules, and censorship.
Kaplan’s (1990) qualitative work on rotisserie league baseball participants served as the first glimpse into the motivations of those involved in the activity. It may be slightly disingenuous to call his piece on fantasy sports a participant study in the strictest sense of the term, given the highly informal nature of Kaplan’s interviews; however his respondents did provide useful insights into their motivations for participating in fantasy baseball. These included the personalization of one’s team name, the ability to “own” one’s players and demonstrate superiority over real world sports management, the emphasis on individual athletic performance, the sense of competition with other participants, personal empowerment, and the excitement that came from doing something akin to gambling.
Kaplan (1990) also questioned his interviewees about the potential effects of their fantasy baseball participation on their lives. Some reported that they suffered from addiction to obsessively checking statistics at every opportunity while others spoke of the divided loyalties they experienced when their fantasy players played against their favorite real world teams. Still others related how fantasy baseball played a positive role in their lives by becoming the glue allowing them to remain in contact with distant friends and family members.
One of Kaplan’s (1990) respondents linked the thrill of fantasy sports to the thrill of gambling. Bernhard and Eade (2005) argued that fantasy sports exist, for many, as part of a gambling culture. Based on both their qualitative content analysis of Internet message boards devoted to fantasy sports over a five month period and on their own participant observation, these scholars argued for several parallels between gamblers and fantasy sports participants and the respective social worlds they inhabit. The authors suggested that both groups feature subsets of casual players, those who play for recreation, and serious players, those whose lives are conspicuously shaped by their participation. Both the gamblers and the fantasy sports participants also employed linguistic symbols to establish and reinforce values and standards of fairness. In addition, like their gambling cousins, fantasy sports participant
s were engaged in an ongoing project of detecting more effective metrics, of which other participants would be ignorant. Serious fantasy sports participants would exhaust themselves searching for new ways to measure athletic performance in the hopes of gaining an advantage over their competitors, just like gamblers attempting to discern novel ways of beating the house and their fellow gamblers.
The authors used their data to argue for the benefits of fantasy sports participation, benefits that also accrue for gamblers. For instance, the quest for new metrics improved the cognitive and analytic skills of those involved in fantasy sports. In keeping with Kaplan’s (1990) findings, Bernhard and Eade (2005) also observed the positive value of fantasy sports in building and maintaining social relationships. The relationship-building potential of fantasy sports was found to be enhanced by the Internet. This medium enabled participants to forge connections with those they might never have otherwise encountered, thereby enhancing their social capital and extending their social networks.
In spite of the benefits accruing to fantasy sports participants from their involvement, Bernhard and Eade (2005) also addressed some of the potentially negative outcomes that could derive from fantasy sports participation. They drew on the gambling studies literature to suggest that the fantasy sports participants in their data set possessed several characteristics often linked to pathological gambling. The message board posts the authors examined revealed potentially problematic behaviors including: (a) an unhealthy preoccupation with fantasy sports; (b) an increasing need to own more and more fantasy teams; (c) an inability to quit fantasy sports; (d) a restlessness that occurred while participants were away from fantasy sports; (e) fantasy sports becoming a means of escape from the real world; and (f) frequent fantasy sports participation creating problems at home, work or at school. Although careful to say that most fantasy sport
s players do not demonstrate a destructive gambling pathology, these researchers implied a potential word of warning to participant studies that engaged their subject(s) uncritically.
Davis and Carlisle Duncan (2006) also examined fantasy sports participants and discovered additional problematic aspects. By critically employing personal observations, qualitatively studying fantasy sports texts and focus group data, all triangulated through a feminist lens, the authors found that fantasy sports reinforces dominant hegemonic masculinity. This ideology manifested itself in their data when respondents expressed a desire for control and authority over athletes, aggressively displayed knowledge about sport, engaged in competitive verbal jousting, and focused exclusively on male-dominated sports. This ideology was further reinforced as participants related how fantasy sports offered opportunities for male bonding. The authors linked this ideology to the most prominent segment of the demographic of fantasy sports suggesting that this hegemonic masculinity can be tied to the predominantly white, educated and affluent
characteristics of the typical fantasy sports participant. Davis and Duncan’s work provides the beginning of a critical explanation of how fantasy sports cultivate certain forms of power and stands as the only discussion of how gender operates within it.
A final recent qualitative study of fantasy sports participants focused on how subjects made decisions within the game itself. Like Bernhard and Eade (2005), Smith, Sharma, and Hooper (2006) analyzed discourse posted to an online fantasy sports discussion board. They examined fantasy basketball participants’ postings to research how different types of knowledge were employed to make decisions about the construction of fantasy teams. Their data revealed that expert participants informally deployed numbers to justify their resource allocation, but more frequently used experience-based basketball knowledge about player and team tendencies to select their squads. By contrast, novice participants chose players based on their recognition of individual athletes and loyalty to their favorite teams. This study proves useful in providing an example of how different types of fantasy sports participants
communicate with one another in an anonymous online environment.
Just as qualitative fantasy sports participant studies remain limited, quantitative participant studies are sparse as well. The existing studies that have taken an empirical approach to participants have paid the greatest attention to motivations for play, how participation shapes participants’ media use and how it influences the participant’s identification with his/her favorite team. Undergirding the following studies sits a uses and gratifications media effects paradigm (Katz, Blumler, Gurevitch, 1973-74). The uses and gratifications approach attempts to derive “the social and psychological origins of needs” (p. 510), needs that drive exposure to different mass media for the purpose of gratifying that need. For example, an individual may have a need for interpersonal relationships and use mass communication to gratify this need. This approach assumes:
(a) that audiences are active in using media; (b) that media rival other forms of needs gratification; (c) that people can adequately recognize their motives in consuming media; and (d) and that audiences are anything but passive and therefore must be examined on their terms rather than have a popular culture effects model imposed upon them. Katz et al. urged uses and gratifications researchers to either work forward from needs to gratifications or backwards from gratifications to needs in order to better understand how audiences employed mass media in their everyday lives. The following studies apply uses and gratifications theory to fantasy sports participants to discern the needs that participation gratifies.
Farquhar and Meeds (2007) employed a uses and gratifications approach based in Q‑methodology to ask about what motivated fantasy sports participants. They were particularly interested in discerning the types of participants given the possible combination of motivations. The authors chose the Q‑methodology because of its ability “to develop typologies of people” (p. 1211) rather than emphasizing correlations between specific variables. The authors found that fantasy sports participants were primarily driven by two prominent motivations: surveillance and arousal. Farquhar and Meeds defined surveillance as a respondent’s desire for collecting information and statistics about real-world sports and arousal as a respondent’s hunger for victory. Secondary motivations for fantasy sports participation included enjoyment of the activity, escape from the routine of work and
school and the social interaction that came from relationships fostered by fantasy sports involvement.
In assessing the constellation of motivations for participation, Farquhar and Meeds (2007) organized their data into five types of online fantasy sports participants: (a) casual players; (b) skilled players; (c) isolationist thrill-seekers; (d) trash-talkers and (e) formatives. Casual, inexperienced participants who did not spend an excessive amount of time or money on fantasy sports were most often motivated by entertainment and surveillance. For them, fantasy sports was primarily about having fun and learning more about sports. Skilled, more experienced participants who were more likely to expend time and money on fantasy sports were motivated primarily by surveillance. This group perceived their success or failure as a direct consequence of how much information they would be able to acquire. Isolationist thrill-seekers, the most experienced group, were driven primarily by escape from other aspects of life and by a desire to win at
the expense of any social interaction they might receive from their participation. Trash‑talkers were found to be motivated most by social interaction with others and by a drive for victory. Finally, formatives, characterized by possessing the least experience with fantasy sports among the five groups, were motivated by the two most prominent motivations revealed by the study, the desire for sports knowledge and the thrill of winning. Farquhar and Meeds concluded their study by arguing that its results affirmed the findings of previous work on motivations in online groups; however, they were surprised to see how little emphasis their set of respondents placed on social interaction. The authors suggested that further research might be done to examine how web-based communities, like those involved in fantasy sports, “may be non- or even anti-social” (p. 1224).
In similar work, Comeau (2007) also applied uses and gratifications theory to the study of fantasy sports participants. However, rather than concentrate strictly on motivations for play, his study explored fantasy football participants’ media use and gratifications by comparison to non-participants. Comeau drew upon three previous types of motivation scales as the basis for his study: (a) Wann’s (1995) sports fan motivation scale; (b) Milne and McDonald’s (1999) sports consumer motivation scale; and (c) Trail, Anderson and Fink’s (2000) sport consumption motivation scale. Comeau used these three motivation scales together to hypothesize about potential motivations for professional football media consumption. He surveyed respondents for motivation factors related to how much time they spent attending to NFL media, their kno
wledge about where and when to find NFL information, how intensely they were involved in thinking about games and player performances, and why they watched the NFL. These motivation factors included a need for positive stress, the excitement of taking risks, a desire to boost one’s self-esteem, escape from the everyday world, a hunger for sports information, enjoying the aesthetics of sport, and social interaction with others. The study then compared fantasy football participants to non-participants in the context of these motivation factors.
Comeau found some significant differences between the two groups. Fantasy football participants spent a greater amount of time seeking out NFL information via electronic media and were more deeply involved in thinking about teams and players. The data revealed that fantasy football participation was a significant factor in watching professional football for excitement for participants as opposed to non-participants. Finally, Comeau’s work demonstrated that watching football gratified the fantasy football participants’ needs for positive stress, self-esteem, sports knowledge and group membership by comparison to non-participants. The greatest difference between motivations of participants and non-participants appeared in the desire for sports knowledge with fantasy football participants expressing a much greater need for statistical information. Comeau concluded that fantasy football participation plays a significant role in the viewing context and encourag
ed researchers to consider the role of the viewing context in uses and gratifications research.
Another recent study also compared fantasy sport participants to non-participants (Corrigan, 2007). Corrigan’s comparative study began from the mass media’s oft-held assumption that those who play fantasy sports begin to lose their attachment to teams and instead become more attached to individuals. By working from existing studies of sports fans and team identification (Wann & Dolan, 1994; Wann & Pierce, 2003), Corrigan juxtaposed fantasy football participants to non-fantasy football participants giving consideration to whether these groups differed in their respective levels of identification with favorite NFL teams and players and with respect to points of alternative attachment to professional football (e.g., coaches, level of play).
To perform his analysis, Corrigan employed a series of Likert scales derived from Wann and Branscombe’s (1990, 1993) Sports Spectator Identification Scale and Trail, Robinson, et al.’s (2003) Points of Attachment Index. His survey data revealed that fantasy football participants identified much more closely with their favorite NFL teams than non-participants. The data also demonstrated no significant difference between participants and non-participants in their respective level of identification with favorite players. Finally, fantasy football participants had a greater level of attachment to the sport than non-participants. He found that contrary to popular media sources and to the findings of earlier work (Kaplan, 1990), which indicate that participants experience fractured rooting interests while playing fantasy sports, that fant
asy football players did not trade devotion to their favored teams for individuals on their fantasy teams. Instead, fantasy football participants remained just as committed to their favorite teams as non-fantasy football participants, if not to an even greater degree. The author argued that the results likely derive from fantasy football participants possessing a strong interest in professional football well before they begin to be involved in the activity. As such, their loyalties to teams and players remain unshaken when they draft fantasy football squads.
Directions for Future Research
The literature review above reveals both the incredible growth of fantasy sports and its steadily ascending influence within popular sports culture. As mass media outlets lend more direct attention to fantasy sports through fantasy-specific content and indirect attention by providing more and more statistical information and as professional sports institutions recognize its value in furthering interest in their respective leagues, it would seem that fantasy sports has the potential to occupy an increasingly important role in the sports-media complex (Jhally, 1989; Law, Harvey & Kemp, 2002) or what has more recently been deemed the sports media cultural complex (Phillips & Hutchins, 2003; Scherer, Falcous & Jackson, 2008). The research cited above would suggest that this burgeoning importance may be shaping how the mas
s media cover sport and how professional sports leagues approach interaction with their fans. For both the institutions of sport and the mass media, fantasy sports have become another aspect of the pursuit of capital.
Clearly, even as fantasy sports are affording new opportunities for these sports fans to part with their money, they are providing novel ways for them to become more deeply and actively involved in sport as well. The studies cited above demonstrate that the fantasy sports participant is anything but a passive audience member. Fantasy sports participants typically devote considerable amounts of time to seeking out and applying sports information, frequently use fantasy sports to communicate within existing and new social networks and often engage sports with greater intensity than non-fantasy sports participants. Even as this active fantasy sports participant may be cultivating some problematic psychological behaviors and ideologies, fantasy sports have the potential to improve the lives of those involved by sharpening their thinking skills and by providing increased social capital.
Although some studies have recognized the value of fantasy sports for the mass media and for participants, the existing work on fantasy sports leaves the area relatively uncharted. Based on the research discussed, communication scholars ought to continue to pursue work on fantasy sports in the following interrelated areas: (a) industry studies; (b) participant studies; and (c) textual studies. Focusing on these elements definitely does not exhaust avenues of potential research, but lays out a framework for additional questions that might be explored in the future.
First, given the immense amount of money devoted to the production of statistics and information by a variety of companies and websites, it would seem that more scholars should pay increased attention to the fantasy sports industry. Fantasy sports has come to sit at the nexus of sport and new media, so addressing how the industry works could provide greater insight into the relationship between the two; as well as speaking to broader questions about the intersection of sport and media itself.
There would certainly appear to be opportunities for critical research into the political economy (Garnham, 2006) of the fantasy sports industry as well. Woodward (2005) recognized the role fantasy sports plays in the mass media’s attraction and retention of audiences, but did not address the more abstract question of fantasy sports as a commodity itself. The flow of capital within the fantasy sports industry, its ownership structures, and the place of fantasy sports within larger corporate and global flows of capital needs to be examined to provide more knowledge about economic power structures in the sports media cultural complex (Jhally, 1989; Law et al., 2002; Phillips & Hutchins, 2003; Scherer et al., 2008).
Woodward (2005) also began to engage how members of the mainstream sports media understand the place of fantasy sports in their segment of the media industry. However, the wide-ranging nature of the media he explored left many questions unanswered. Although he reported that some of his respondents believed radio to be an unsuitable medium for fantasy sports, an explicit medium-specific discussion of fantasy sports content remained absent from Woodward’s work. Additional research into how fantasy sports fits or does not fit into the content delivery strategies of mainstream print, radio, television or Internet media could lend additional insight into how new forms of sports culture are engaged by older forms of media.
Woodward (2005) focused exclusively on how those in the mainstream media approached fantasy sports. Scholarly work on those directly involved in the fantasy sports industry is warranted. It could reveal how the industry functions, how its marketing practices work, who facilitates aspects of the industry, and how the industry shapes and influences the rest of the sports-media complex. Speaking with writers and reporters who have taken on the new position of the fantasy sports journalist could be fruitful in developing answers to these questions.
The recent legal interest in statistics as intellectual property appears to speak to this domain of potential communication research as well. Scholars studying the fantasy sports industry could examine the history of statistics in sport, their previous economic value and how they came to be commodified. This history might be discussed in the context of how quantification functions symbolically to shape perceptions of sport and athletic labor. Athletic performance has been commodified since the inception of professional sport (Guttmann, 1978), but it would appear that new questions might be asked about this commodification in light of the more recent development of fantasy sports. Is the commodification occurring here merely an extension of what has come before? Do fantasy sports represent new dimensions of this process? Or might this commodification be explained in terms of continuities and breaks from the past? This type of understa
nding of athletic performance might be extended and compared to the commodification of labor in other industries as well. Broader links between the social significance of the commodification of athletic labor and other forms of labor in those societies where fantasy sports are most popular need to be explored. This exploration would enable a more thorough contextualization of fantasy sports’ popularity in contemporary culture.
Second, considerable space remains to study fantasy sports participants. Existing participant studies have concentrated primarily on participants’ experience with the game itself in considering motivations for play and the kinds of enjoyment received. However, apart from research from Bernhard and Eade (2005) and Davis and Carlisle Duncan (2006), this participation is accepted uncritically. Even as fantasy sports may be perpetuating discourses aligned with hegemonic masculinity, additional critical questions might be asked about how fantasy sports influences subjects. In bridging communication with sociology, are participants aware of, for example, how the aforementioned commodification of labor might be shaping their experience of the everyday world of work? What might be some of the broader ideological consequences of participation in fantasy sports? What kinds of power configurations an
d structures might be affirmed by fantasy sports when it comes to race, class, and gender? The demographic data cited herein would suggest that the majority of fantasy sports participants occupy relatively privileged positions in society rendering questions about power that much more important. A critical gaze into fantasy sports and its participants could serve as a springboard into how power operates in sport and society at a more encompassing level.
In addition, continued empirical work on motivations for fantasy participation might build on recent scholarship addressing the motivations for consumption of sport online (Hur, Ko, & Valacich, 2007; Seo & Green, 2008). These sources could be adapted and applied to create a more specific motivation scale for fantasy sports. Given that the majority of fantasy sports participants use the Internet to keep track of their teams, measuring why people go online to participate could be valuable for learning about what specifically drives the experience of sport in new media and how these factors might be similar to or different from motivations for consumption of sport in older media.
Not only do questions need to be asked about motivations for participation in fantasy sports more broadly, but also about the motivations for participation in specific types of sports within fantasy sports. Comeau (2007) focused exclusively on fantasy football participants in his study of participant media use, but this type of study could be replicated for other fantasy sports as well. The various ways in which different sports are organized could have an effect on how participants experience them in a fantasy sports context. The level of attention and involvement required to succeed in a fantasy football league where real-world games occur once per week would appear to be different that that required in a fantasy baseball league where real-world games occur almost daily. Recognizing sport-specific differences could reveal how participation in different kinds of fantasy sports leagues might be driven by different motivations and/or degrees of
There also appears to be room for research concentrated on the interpersonal aspect of the activity. Farquhar and Meeds (2007) call for additional work on how relationships are formed and maintained via participation in fantasy sports. This work might focus on how fantasy sports strengthens and/or reinforces relational bonds across distance. Such research could become increasingly important given the considerable degree to which fantasy sports occurs online. Studying how participants negotiate identity and community in an anonymous fantasy sports communities could be productive. More attention could be given to the gendered nature of fantasy sport with respect to these areas as well.
Additional research into how participation shapes communication with others outside the world of fantasy sports could supplement our understanding of how this activity moves beyond the culture of sport and media. Considering how fantasy sports may shape relationships between participants and non-participants could lend insight into how the sports-media complex influences those not particularly interested in it. This scholarship might build on Bernhard and Eade’s (2005) discussion of the positive and negative parallels between the discourses produced by fantasy sports participants and gamblers. Questions could be asked about how these discourses are expressed in participants’ interpersonal communication with family, friends and co-workers.
Although industry studies remain sparse and participant studies only slightly less so, conspicuously absent from the literature review above is any discussion of a third aspect of conventional communication and media studies research, the text. Only one article has claimed to be analyzing texts. Davis and Carlisle Duncan (2006) briefly examined how information and pictures posted on Yahoo’s Fantasy Sports portal website (http://sports.yahoo.com/fantasy) reproduced hegemonic masculinity. However, the overwhelming majority of evidence for their claims about the ideology of fantasy sports came from their focus group respondents rather than Yahoo’s website. As such, their analysis served as an examination of fantasy sports participants rather than of fantasy sports texts. As a result of the minimal attention paid to this area, studies of fantasy sports texts have yet to truly
In keeping with other forms of textually-based media research that attend to the content produced by one part of the media industries, so too would research focusing on the content produced by the fantasy sports industry. Textual analysis of this content could allow for a variety of methodological approaches including semiotics, critical cultural studies, and/or rhetorical criticism. This review reveals a dearth of research on the signs employed in fantasy sports and their potential consequences for power relations in society. In addition, work on the rhetoric of fantasy sports websites and the stories fantasy sports writers produce has yet to appear. The degree to which this rhetoric duplicates other forms of rhetoric in sports media or deviates from it in interesting ways needs to be examined. Questions could be asked about what characterizes this communication, what it tells us about the culture of fantasy sports, and more broadly what it suggests about the culture
in which this communication appears.
Along a slightly different trajectory, the fantasy sports text appears replete with numbers, yet a consideration of the significance of the quantitative emphasis of fantasy sports remains absent. Researchers might look at these heavily enumerated texts to begin to think about the consequences of translating athletic prowess into this symbolic form. Lomax (2006) began this discussion by urging researchers to consider optimal types of metrics, emphasizing the relative weight of statistical categories and which of these measures might be most accurate in assessing the players one might select in building a fantasy squad. However, he did not take a theoretical step back to consider the larger question of the relationship between communication and quantification or to consider the broader social and cultural consequences of such quantification. What kinds of rationalities does this quantification naturalize, from where do they come, and why might th
ey be significant? Addressing the rhetoric of quantification through the lens of fantasy sports may prove fruitful in contextualizing and understanding the popularity of this activity.
Much of the existing literature would appear to define fantasy sports in popular terms; however, Lomax (2006) extends this understanding to include the board games of the 1950s and more recent digital sports games. Investigating the degree to which these games might be included as part of a fantasy sports text and/or how they might share certain characteristics with fantasy sports could add to contemporary understandings of sport and new media. How does selecting one’s lineup in the home video game, Madden NFL 2009 (Electronic Arts Sports, 2008) compare to selecting one’s fantasy football lineup each week? The situation may become muddied even further by the recent announcement by prominent digital game producer, Electronic Arts, that Madden Football 2009 will partner with a fantasy football service, allowing users to play games of Madden with their fantasy rosters rat
her than being restricted to using NFL teams (Zuniga, 2008). At what point does fantasy sport begin and end in this kind of scenario? Answering these questions might mean stepping outside of fantasy sports research proper, but could allow for a clearer understanding of what constitutes the fantasy sports text. Defining the fantasy sports text theoretically would establish some analytic boundaries, qualify a scholar’s research, and acknowledge the potential for understanding digital sports games and fantasy sports as the distinct experiences popular culture would position them to be.
Given the aforementioned legal victory won by C.B.C. against Major League Baseball, the increasing attention being accorded it by the mainstream media, and its growing popularity, fantasy sports shows no sign of abating. This essay has surveyed the existing literature by describing fantasy sports, outlining its history, and presenting work on the fantasy sports industry and on those participants who take joy in following their chosen fantasy teams. Even as the research on fantasy sports has begun to take shape, much more scholarly attention could be focused on the area. For so many sports fans around the world, fantasy sports are anything but just fantasy.
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