September 18, 2009
Guest post today from RealGM's Alex Kennedy on the plight and future of fantasy basketball ...
The general managers file into a large room and sit at their assigned tables. Notes, laptops and scouting reports are sprawled across each team's headquarters and a draft board sits at the front of the room next to a large championship trophy. Everyone does some last minute planning and the room is silent. That is, until the waitress comes over and takes drink orders.
Buffalo Wild Wings and many other restaurants now offer fantasy football draft packages that include everything mentioned above for hardcore general managers.
Fantasy football has become more than just a trend and has taken a seat alongside March Madness and the Super Bowl in pop culture. Casual fans play it, following teams and players who they never would have recognized prior to their league's draft. Many people have multiple teams and entire television shows, websites, and magazines are produced to detail strategies and tips that will help players win their league. Fantasy football is huge and that likely won't be changing anytime soon.
But why hasn't fantasy basketball had the same success?
For one, there are too many games to follow. Unlike in football, basketball is played each night, which means a general manager must be more active. Often times, a league's champion is the guy who simply logged on the most and kept track of his lineup night in and night out. Baseball also has this problem, but their fan base is overflowing with stat heads who love micromanaging rosters.
One solution to this problem, which some fantasy league commissioners already do, is for teams to set their lineups each Sunday and then freeze the roster for the week. This requires less work for the manager and still puts an emphasis on the week's matchups and how many games are played. It also allows analysts to dissect strategies like they do with fantasy football because everyone would be setting their team on Sunday's, not randomly throughout the week.
Also, fantasy basketball lineups need to be altered so that they're more realistic. Rather than having guards, forwards, and centers we need all five positions to be separate. Force each team start a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center and a sixth man (which is fantasy basketball's flex position). Otherwise, Kobe Bryant(notes) and Kevin Durant(notes) are a team's starting guards. Let's save the dual shooting guard backcourts for the All-Star Game and reward the manager who takes Jose Calderon(notes).
One company that has focused on making fantasy basketball more realistic is PASPN. Ngozika Nwaneri, the company's founder, recognizes the need for realism in fantasy basketball.
"Fantasy basketball can't simply follow the model of fantasy football. We're doing that now and it's not working. It has the highest drop-off rate of all fantasy sports so we're having to come up with a new format, level the playing field, and get people more engaged with it," he says.
In their realism packed fantasy leagues, users inherit one of the thirty NBA teams stocked with all of their players and salary information during the off-season. Players become mock general managers (Ed. note: Just like Dunleavy!) and are more involved in the game. Others can participate as agents, spending the summer negotiating with general managers and getting your clients the best deals possible. Similar games have existed for years, but the seasons were simulated through video games or other mediums. PASPN offers the first mock off-season that merges traditional elements of fantasy basketball into the mix.
"We're adding realism to the game so it's more reality than fantasy. It makes the game more intriguing. It's real. It's like you're playing in a real league and users get more involved. We wanted to capture the realism of the NBA and get users to appreciate the league and how they conduct their business and understand how they're doing it," says Nwaneri.
Unlike in traditional leagues, where a general manager simply drafts a team and then is forced to endure the long season, PASPN keep users active by getting them more involved. "You start building the team over summer. Evaluating talent, working out your rotation, and acquiring guys. You're going to want to see how you do after investing so much into the team," adds Nwaneri.
PASPN is currently working on a deal with SBNation.com that would offer leagues to specific blog communities. The company has also contacted Yahoo! about a future collaboration.
But why does fantasy basketball need a new formula to attract and keep casual fans?
While many casual fans can name the league's superstars, how many recognize the role players or even lesser known stars like the previously mentioned Calderon? Most readers of this blog are very knowledgeable when it comes to the NBA, but fantasy basketball won't catch up to fantasy football unless the highlight-watching, moderate fans join in. While basketball is the only major professional sport that doesn't cover its players faces with a helmet or hat, many of the game's top players still fly under the radar. In a fantasy football league, every starter is pretty well known. But in a fifteen-player fantasy basketball league with two starting guards per team, players like John Salmons(notes) and Francisco Garcia(notes) are suddenly being drafted. How many casual fans can tell you anything about their skill set?
This is a vicious cycle that's tough to break. With football, people know the lesser players because of their fantasy leagues. Would Donnie Avery have many followers outside of St. Louis without fantasy football? Probably not, but he's owned in 82% of Yahoo! leagues.
So how can fantasy basketball make itself more casual fan friendly?
Websites that offer the game need to profile players, continue offering daily updates of their performances, highlight players poised for a breakout season, and talk about more than just the LeBron James(notes), Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard's(notes) of the world. People know about players like Avery in football because his stats and promising match ups are shoved down our throat by the media.
Fantasy football started out as a small game that hardcore football fans played to feel closer to the game. Word of mouth allowed it to grow, but it wasn't until the media picked up on it that it started to boom. This needs to happen with fantasy basketball and different variations of the game, such as the one PASPN offers, will help that happen.
"I think fantasy basketball will someday reach the level of popularity that football has achieved. This is the next generation of fantasy basketball," said Nwaneri. "We're trying to twist it and turn it upside down to attract people."
Time will tell if these changes to the game will help it expand, but for now, draft packages at restaurants and an excitement equal to that of football remains a fantasy.