I wrote this piece last season, but I wanted to reproduce it here. There have been a few slight modifications to the original work, but nothing substantive was changed.
Fantasy Baseball is at a crossroads. Each year, interest in the game seems to wane. Take it from one of the few people who has been in this industry for nearly two decades working full-time… we have a problem with fantasy baseball.
In 2018, for the first time in 15-years, MLB attendance dropped below 70 million. That number reflects more than half the league, seventeen teams in fact, that saw an attendance decline last year. In 2019, the overall numbers dropped even further below the 2018 rate, though baseball’s revenue was actually up.
It’s not just Major League Baseball that is dealing with something potentially profound.
Fantasy baseball is dying.
I know people think that statement is nonsense, but hear me out before you tune me out.
1 – Kids aren’t playing baseball like they used to. Seems like every kid in the world loves basketball. Every time I talk to my nephew, it’s all hoops. I know that Jeff Mans’ son loves basketball. Ted Schuster coaches his kids in hoops. I go to the playground and I never see anyone playing baseball, but there are always kids dribbling a ball on the sidelines of the court waiting to get into the next game. You can play a game of 1-on-1 with two of you and a $20 ball. To play a game of baseball, you need at least 10 kids to fake it, and you need a $100 bat, a $75 glove, a $50 pair of cleats and $50 worth of baseballs, not to mention a field which takes up a massive amount of space, while a hoop can be erected virtually anywhere. It’s more expensive and more difficult to play baseball. It’s also a game that can take two plus hours to play a game, whereas a game of hoops can be played in an hour. The details suggest stagnation at best when it comes to the growth of the game of baseball. With less kids playing and following the game, it’s obvious that in coming years the game of fantasy baseball could struggle to attract gamers.
2 – Folks are playing other fantasy sports, taking time away from the planning/execution needed to win in fantasy baseball. Ergo, many have simply started to fade away to take up other sports. Fantasy Golf and Fantasy Nascar are growing. Ten years ago, folks wouldn’t have thought that would be the case. We have Fantasy Olympics, Fantasy Movies, Fantasy Bachelor and Bachelorette etc. The fantasy game is stronger than ever, and everywhere it seems (there is even Fantasy Hallmark Christmas movies for goodness sakes), but the plethora of options could be draining the life out of fantasy baseball.
3 – The onset of legalized gambling has turned some folks attention to other arenas of sport. I know they aren’t directly related, you should be able to do participate in gambling and fantasy, but both sides of the coin take a tremendous amount of dedication if one hopes to be successful. Most people don’t have the time to compete in multiple hobbies or multiple sources of side income. You don’t have to choose one side of course, but many are forced to due to a time crunch. Further, some folks play fantasy baseball to make money. If that’s how you view the game, not just as a fun recreational affair, then why wouldn’t you lean toward gambling where you can undoubtedly have access to bigger monitory gains?
4 – The emergence of the DFS game has shifted folks focus, giving them an option to avoid having to wait six months for a resolution. That daily action appeals to so many people that it’s truly amazing that it took so long for DFS to become a thing. Further, the time investment aspect is huge. You can play DFS once a week, twice, five times, take a week or two off if you’re traveling etc. In seasonal fantasy baseball you can’t take that time off – that is if you expect to win you can’t. Of course, there’s also the ability to win oodles of cash in the DFS game. So much of this is pie-in-the-sky nonsense as taking down large-scale GPP Tournaments is something that no one should plan on (kinda like buying a lottery ticket – you can buy one, but don’t do so thinking you’re gonna be the one who wins the $100 million jackpot), but get rich schemes/plans are as old as modern man.
5 – People are all about immediate gratification these days. In the old days, it used to take like 20-30 seconds to download an email without attachments on that 28.8 modem (truth). Now if your computer takes 2-3 seconds to open up an email, or for that matter a web page, you get flustered. No way in hell are we gonna put up with that nonsense, right? Worse yet, or better if you’re a techno drive person, our cell phones are ever-present in our lives. To think, my cell phone is about a gazillion times more powerful/useful than my first computer, a VIC-20. Honestly, gazillion might be a big enough number. How about it’s a million times better than my first “real computer,” a Compaq portable. The fact is, that phone in your hand, the one you might be reading this article on, blows away computers we depended on for our livelihoods a decade ago. With the ability to access virtually anything in the world with a tool that’s constantly in your hand/pocket, well, you can see how patience is a lost art.
6 – Folks are aging out of fantasy baseball. I’m not looking at any data here, just speaking off the cuff from my personal experience. It sure seems like the game is filled with a lot of 40+ year old’s and fewer 20 year old’s than ever before. I get the real sense that folks look at seasonal as a game for old folks whereas youngster lean to the DFS game. I can tell you that when I was in Vegas for the NFBC Main Event in March 2019, that the median age had to be 40+. There’s a strong group in this age bracket, the folks that grew up with the game who love it and will play it until they no longer can, but they just aren’t being replaced by a younger generation. It’s not happening, at least according to my anecdotal take.
7 – The baseball season is too long. This is a complaint I hear a lot from folks who don’t play fantasy baseball, and I totally get it. The baseball season is 10 times longer than the football season in terms of games played, and doubles the hockey and basketball seasons in terms of games. I’ve always personally felt that was one of the great appeals of fantasy football. Until recently, we had SUN/MON to worry about in the NFL. Now we’ve got Thursday each week, Saturday’s come into play late in the year, but the fact is you could play an entire season of fantasy football by only paying attention three days a week for four months. Even if you gave the same time commitment to baseball in terms of days a week, you would still need to pay attention two extra months for the baseball season. Baseball is long and drawn out. It’s the beauty of the game, but that beauty has turned ugly for some folks who think of baseball as a gargantuan task to complete, versus an intriguing competition played out over months. Again, the world has changed to immediacy, and season long fantasy baseball is starting to look like an outmoded model for the majority of the world in 2020.
8 – Injuries are too numerous, and they just kill your chances to win in the fantasy game. Why are you going to invest all your time, energy and money in a hobby that can just crush your soul almost immediately? Trea Turner, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Corey Kluber, James Paxton, Jameson Taillon, Mike Clevinger, Luis Severino, Miguel Andujar, Justin Upton, Matt Olson etc. Year after year guys go down with injury, and it’s so damn difficult to handle those absences while keeping your team competitive. The 10-day injury list has also made things damn near impossible to figure out as some teams, many, maybe most, have no issue dumping a guy onto the list for just 10 days versus the previous 15. Moreover, why would they, especially with pitchers? It’s possible to place a starting pitcher on the IL now and have him only miss one start. There’s very little incentive for teams to push their multi-million-dollar investments given the way the IL is currently set up.
9 – Some teams don’t seem to have a clue with how they are handling bullpens anymore making figuring out how to draft relievers a near impossible task. I’ve tried for years to get leagues to adopt Solds, but I’ve been unable to convince folks. Still, I simply cannot imagine anyone loves the game of hide-and-seek that we play with bullpens each year. How have we not changed this? I mean, if someone who is new to the game thinks they had the ninth inning on lockdown with Cody Allen, Craig Kimbrel and Jose Leclerc on draft day 2019… they likely fell to the bottom of the saves column once the season was complete. Are situations like this going to encourage people to play fantasy baseball next year? Can’t see how it would.
A new setup/system is needed or seasonal fantasy baseball is going to die.
I don’t say this lightly. I’m completely serious.
Unless we devise a new way for season long fantasy baseball to remain relevant, I fear it will slowly fade away.
Some potential options for change.
- We need to do a better job of listening to what is relevant to people playing the game. Being stuck in 2003 with rules/setup etc. isn’t helping anyone. We need to do a better job as an industry of evolving. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but I’ve started to change the last couple of years. I might want the game to be played one way. You might want it to be played in another way. The fact is – there should be space for both of us. We should also listen more closely to what folks are saying to us about the game. To that end…
- We could move from seasonal roto to season head-to-head. I’ve written and talked about why I dislike H2H for years, with a passion really, but there is no denying that people seem to prefer it in ever increasing numbers. This setup keeps folks more interested in playing because they feel like they always have the chance to comeback. When folks see that they are in 12th place out of 15 teams on May 13th they mentally start to give up realizing their odds of winning are extremely small. However, a 2-5 team in a H2H setup could go on a winning streak, still make the playoffs, and win the league. If that’s what folks want, we should move to it as an industry.
- What about changing the setup itself? Ron Shandler put forth an innovative idea that didn’t take hold, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a terrific attempt to speak to the world in the 21st century. Folks like drafting. They seem to have varying views on playing a 162-game season. So, Ron suggested we do six, one-month long periods in a league. You get to redraft each month, so injuries don’t kill you. You get to redraft each month so you can move on from the Joey Votto’s and Travis Shaw’s of the world who are killing you. You get to redraft each month with more data at your disposal to decide how to put your team together. I don’t know how many folks would have the time to sit down and do a 3-hour draft six times so we would probably have to hybrid this thing up a bit (a player salary cap could be used, as Ron’s system did, to cut down the time investment a bit though this setup would allow every team to own Mike Trout or Max Scherzer, and that might appeal to folks). I’m intrigued by this idea as I see it as a mixture of seasonal/DFS/H2H.
- Maybe we could do half season baseball leagues instead of monthly. This setup would allow two drafts to take place. It would crown two winners. It would allow folks to pivot toward football after the first half of the year, because we all know that some owners go MIA in the second half of baseball, while allowing hardcore baseball folks to keep on playing. Perhaps this setup could pit the first and second half teams against one another with a late season playoff? Maybe two 10-week regular seasons, and then six weeks of playoffs? Just a thought.
- We could standardize the scoring systems used. Are we playing 4×4, 5×5, 6×6? Points leagues? Football doesn’t need this though, so I doubt this would help much.
- Maybe we need to take the lead from fantasy football. What is the best part about fantasy sports? Most would say the draft. So, let’s start adding more of the draft and let it be formats in fantasy baseball. You can draft your team, put your best foot forward, and then sit back and see how it does. You could do this five, 20, 50 times a season, get a whole boatload of teams drafted, and see how they play out. The one and done format is certainly growing in use. Often termed “Best Ball,” this format has been adopted by the NFBC in the Cutline Event with a couple of FAAB periods to keep you interested in season but clearly not so many as to overwhelm anyone.
As you can tell, I’m worried for the future of the game I love. I’m fearful that if we don’t find a better way to contact each other, and by extension with the game, that this wonderful game that we’ve created over the last couple of decades will die a slow death. It’s already happening if you look close enough. Unless we find a way to plug the dam, to stop the loss of folks from the season long game of fantasy baseball, it might just be me and you talking about fantasy baseball in a few years.