Today is March 25, 2015, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is less than two weeks away and, if you are like some 14 million other people in North America, you are probably preparing for your official fantasy baseball draft.
I should be doing the same; only I’m not, because the league I have been in for a decade – a standard, 8-team head-to-head affair with a name that was much funnier in 2005 – is stuck at 7 teams, and has been for several weeks now. At last count, I have sent out a dozen invites to potential recruits, and have been summarily rejected each time, for reasons that run the gamut from “I don’t have the time” to “My wife will kill me.”
I’m not really sure why this has become such an issue; fantasy baseball is, in my opinion, a noble endeavor, a crucible that tests skill and strategy, an enterprise that can trace its roots back to a French rotisserie restaurant in New York City, an IBM facility in Akron, Ohio and (no shit) the journals of Jack Kerouac. Managing a team is akin to steering a ship through rough seas – there will be ups and downs, terrifying moments (usually involving the dreaded “forearm tightness”) that try the soul; the key is to remain calm while the waves are crashing down upon you. In that regard, it is a demanding game, a genuine undertaking that rewards a player’s perseverance and diligence. At the very least, it’s better than the convergence of cruel fate and pure luck that is fantasy football.
So why won’t anyone join my league? At first, I thought it had something to do with me, as if the rejections were, in some way, an indictment of my life – 36, unmarried, with zero kids and enough disposable income (and free time) to dedicate to what, despite all my florid prose, is essentially a dumb game. But then I was forwarded an Onion article from May 12, titled “Fantasy Baseball Commissioner Plumbs Deepest Depths of Friend Circle to Find 12th Participant,” and I knew I was not alone. The problem was not limited to me; it was part of a troubling trend. The best comedy comes from tragedy after all, and in recent years, it seems things have become downright tragic for fantasy baseball.
“I’ve done 20 years in the industry, and I would say that things have gone progressively down,” Brandon Funston, who covers fantasy for Yahoo! Sports, says. “I don’t see it as an ebb and flow, I see it as a drain; as we go into the season, I don’t think there’s a ton of optimism that baseball is going to make a comeback.”
Funston estimates that, at least on Yahoo!, fantasy baseball trails football in total players by a margin of “5-to-1, maybe even 6-to-1,” and while things might not be that grim on a macro scale, the big picture of fantasy baseball certainly isn’t pretty, either. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, while the total number of fantasy players in North America has exploded over the past eight years – from just under 20 million in 2006 to more than 40 million last year – the percentage of those players who take on the task of managing a baseball team has actually dropped, from 40 percent in 2008 to just 33 percent in 2014.
And the percentage appears likely to continue trending down.
“I can’t say people don’t play fantasy baseball, but I can say it is by far the most labor-intensive fantasy sport, at a time when everything else in the industry is shifting to ‘Easy, simple, short,'” Paul Charchian, the president of the FTSA, says. “The season-long commitment automatically limits your pool of players, and then you compare how the NFL or the NBA have embraced fantasy – they have daily shows, their own leagues and administrators – to how MLB has treated it as little more than a dalliance, and you can see how it might be limited even further.”
Major League Baseball’s difficulty drawing younger demos has been well documented: In recent years, viewers aged 6-17 accounted for just 4.3 percent of the audience for the ALCS and NLCS – lower than the NFL, NBA, NHL and English Premier League – and, in January, a Harris Poll found that only 12 percent of millennials considered baseball to be their favorite sport (nearly half of that same demographic also considered dodgeball, kickball and “competitive dance” to be legitimate competition). Perhaps due to this, new commissioner Rob Manfred has made speeding up the game a top priority, and he is reportedly also investigating ways to reinvigorate scoring, which has fallen to its lowest level in a quarter century.
Those moves might be enough to eventually bring back younger players, as will increasingly popular daily leagues like DraftKings and FanDuel, which boast yearly paydays approaching $1 billion (Charchian says MLB is currently the third-most popular sport in daily fantasy, behind the NFL and the NBA). But purists, raised on rotisserie leagues and trained to pore over advanced stats, appear to be an endangered species: Manfred could turn MLB into a beer league, but baseball would remain baseball – infinitely complex and steadfast in its stoicism. Just like a certain segment of its fanbase.
“I think the easiest thing to say is that it’s definitely a checkers and chess comparison, the marathon and the sprint; there’s an ease of use and a gratification with football that I think appeals to a wider range of people,” Funston says. “My wife really enjoys fantasy football, but she’s not at all a sports fan. I could never imagine her playing fantasy baseball.
“When I first started in the industry, I would get my friends involved in fantasy baseball, and then we’d roll right over to fantasy football,” he continues. “I don’t have any friend leagues in fantasy baseball anymore; they’re all industry leagues – out of necessity. With my friends, it’s dwindled down to just a couple guys who would pay attention for most of the year, and everybody else would be out by the All-Star break.”
Is that a shame? Probably; it sort of depends on your definition of the term. Is it inevitable? Definitely. After all, as you get older, stuff like kids and mortgages and 401(k)s tend to take on more import than, say, finding the next José Altuve. Could all of my complaining be resolved by simply joining a daily league? Absolutely. But I love the grind, the work, the research and the reward that comes with uncovering waiver-wire gems. I love the camaraderie of the league, of shit-talking with the cousin of the college roommate of a guy I went to high school with and rabble-rousing after a particularly egregious trade. I love fantasy baseball. Why would I want to settle for anything less?
“Fantasy baseball is the purest fantasy sport, because you have to do your homework. In football, you can have a good draft and luck your way into the playoffs, and from there, anything can happen,” Funston says. “In baseball, you have to know the players, and you have to be able to recognize if a guy’s just going through a two-week slump or if he’s having a bad year. You apply a lot of your intuition that you’ve built up as a fan. It’s doctorate level, in terms of fantasy. It’s the advanced degree.”
Unless things change over the next week, like a psychology major, I’ll be alone with my advanced degree (and my sense of superiority). Without an eighth player, my decade-long relationship with fantasy baseball will more than likely come to an end. And though that sounds like a tragedy, perhaps it’s telling that Charchian – the president of an advocacy group for the fantasy industry – was in my shoes eight years ago, until he decided to give up fantasy baseball. And he hasn’t looked back since.
“I used to play, but I stopped for all the reasons people tend to,” he says. “I don’t miss it.”