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Pelting The Redheaded Stepchild With Candy
A Parable for Marty the TV Executive in Charge of Fantasy Football Programming

Fantasy football is the redheaded stepchild of the sports media community. Perhaps more importantly, media executives have conducted their own research and reviewed their data and have soberly determined that the aforementioned redheaded stepchild has money in his pocket.

Strangely, just as Marty the TV executive is about to strike the redheaded stepchild with a cane and demand his wallet, Bryce the accountant gently snatches the cane from him and points to all the red-headed stepchildren gathered around. “Do you not see,” asks the peacemaker, “that it will be far easier to let them give us their money than to take it from them?”

A smile suffuses Marty’s face: “Ah, and think of the savings on canes! But how do we get them to give us their money?”

“We need to sell them something.”

“Bunnies? Everybody likes bunnies.”

“No, not bunnies. Bunnies take time to breed and money to raise.”

“Which are we trying to skimp on, time or money?”

“Both, obviously.”

“Hmmm. . . I guess that means newborn, undernourished bunnies then?”

“Well, but even that solution would cost a little money and take a little time.”

“You’re saying you have something even cheaper and more desirable than newborn, undernourished bunnies? You astound me, sir. Do tell. Do tell.”

“We have to sell them information.”

“If you’ll pardon me, Bryce, I daresay I prefer the bunny plan. The delivery of information is very expensive and time-consuming in my experience.”

“That’s because you’ve spent your life covering sports. A sporting event is a real thing, and you’re a real person trying to convey the relevant drama of sports to other real people. You know what you want to convey and that you have to get a camera crew to the game if you want to broadcast it to an audience. It’s only expensive because you have a real product that has to correspond to certain fixed expectations. These redheaded stepchildren, however, are not exactly fixed on the real world—if you take my meaning.”

“Are you saying these rapscallions are delusional? Return my cane, sir, so that I may defend myself!”

“No, they aren’t delusional. They’re just kind of . . . ‘spacey.’ They don’t really follow sports; they follow something they call ‘fantasy sports,’ which is just their coded way of saying that they like to pretend about things.”

“If what you say is true, then shouldn’t we be selling them action figures? They can make sound effects for the tackles as they play with their dolls. Can’t you hear them? ‘Kapooooooohhhhh!’ ‘My eye! My eye!’ We can whip up an ad for a whole line of dolls in no time! There’s a capital idea, Bryce.”

“Stay on point, Marty. We’re in the broadcasting business—not the doll-making business or the bunny-raising business. The product has to be information because that is the only thing we sell, but I figure that if we cut all the right corners, the information will cost us nothing and take less time for us to produce than it does for the redheaded stepchildren to consume.”

“But how can we give them information if we don’t understand the football fantasies they’re having?”

“That’s just it; they’re only doing pretend things, so we give them pretend information.”

“But what kind of pretend information?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just cover it in enough sugar, and they’ll beg you for it.”

“But what if they don’t?”

“They will.”

“Right, but what if they don’t?”

“The point is you add more sugar until they do come, but if they don’t come for it no matter how much you sweeten the deal, well then you’ve no alternative but to throw it at them.”

“Throw this pretend information at them . . . like what? Like monkey feces?”

“No, like candy. Like candy at a parade. It doesn’t have to make any sense or be sanitary if you throw in a few clowns in small cars.”

“I see what you’re driving at, but if I don’t understand the rules of their pretend world, how do I know what stands for candy and what stands for monkey feces?”

“You’re a smart fellow. Take a freaking guess!”


As most football fans know very well, there has been a tremendous shakeup in the NFL’s broadcasting arrangements. I won’t review those changes here, as Michael Hiestand has already covered them in a succinct (but nevertheless comprehensive) article for USA Today.

In light of the these new arrangements for the televising of games, it seems safe to assume that a programming executive or two has decided that one way to distinguish his/her network from the others that cover football is to emerge as the favorite of the fantasy football community.

We’ve seen glimmerings of this tendency in recent years in segments with such predictable titles as “Fantasy Focus” or “Fantasy Studs and Duds,” etc. The tendency appears in print media as well as on television. It’s maybe a bit funny and maybe a bit sad to watch brilliant sportswriters such as Peter King struggle with assignments to compile lists of sleeper running backs in an attempt to attract the attention of fantasy enthusiasts.

The editors who impose such tasks on King are exactly like the producers who encourage Trey Wingo, Sean Salisbury, and Mark Schlereth to play their pointless (though amusing) “Fantasy Five” segment on NFL Live. The only thing that such productions make clear to me is that the people involved have absolutely no idea what sort of information to give the audience they are attempting to reach—most likely because they don’t understand how fantasy football is played. There is clearly an assumption, however, that the key ingredient to success is to throw the word “fantasy” around as much as possible.

I can’t deny that some fantasy enthusiasts are vacuous enough to watch, read, or listen to any program that simply claims to be about fantasy football. At the same time, I doubt that many editors or producers will deny that the best way to capture the rest of the fantasy audience is to deliver on that claim. But what makes delivering on that claim so difficult is that fantasy football is played in an unlimited number of ways.

The “Fantasy Five” segment on NFL Live is just one example of a way to play fantasy football—a very unusual way. It’s a contest designed for three participants who choose 5 NFL players each week. The participants have to meet certain goals at each position in order to earn points (such as by having a running back rush for more than 100 yards). The participant who chooses a marquee rusher such as Shaun Alexander for Week 2 may or may not have him again in Week 3. But since there are only three people involved in the contest, no one will have to bother with digging deep for such backs as Reuben Droughns or Kevan Barlow.

Wingo, Salisbury, and Schlereth seem to have a great deal of fun with their so-called fantasy segment, but their game is in no way relevant to a traditional fantasy football league, in which 8 or more participants draw on fixed rosters of more than a dozen players to submit lineups with multiple running backs and wide receivers. So what if Schlereth is going to bank on Chad Johnson breaking the century mark in receiving yardage this week? In most leagues, the person who has Chad Johnson will have him for the entire season and will start him every week he plays whether Schlereth’s prediction this week comes true or not. Johnson (like Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald) is simply too talented a receiver to stay on any fantasy bench, so it does the average fantasy enthusiast no good at all to know that Wingo likes Smith, Salisbury likes Fitzgerald, and Schlereth likes Johnson.

But wait. I’m not suggesting that fantasy segments should be pitched to the “average” fantasy league because I don’t believe there is any such thing. As a quick example, let’s look at 2 wildly different running backs: Clinton Portis and Brian Westbrook. To the trained football scout, Portis is the more dangerous back. It follows that knowledgeable and well-meaning analysts who are trying to provide some insights to fantasy enthusiasts will say, “Portis will be much more productive than Westbrook.” What seems obvious to an ex-NFL linebacker who is telling you which RB he would be more comfortable playing against is not necessarily relevant in fantasy football, since scoring systems vary so drastically from one league to the next. In a league that values rushing yardage more highly than receiving yardage and awards bonuses for breaking the century mark on the ground, Portis is the better back. But in a league that treats all yardage equally, adds no such yardage bonus, and throws in one point per reception, Westbrook becomes more attractive. I’ll illustrate this point by looking at the way the backs performed in Week One of 2005 according to 2 different scoring systems.

League 1 awards 1 point per 10 yards rushing, 1 point per 15 yards receiving, no points for receptions, 5 points for a 100-yard rushing day, 6 points per rushing TD, and 4 points per receiving TD. Portis rushed for 121 yards (12.1 points), had no catches (0 points), cracked the century mark (5 points), and had no scores for a total of 17.1 points. Westbrook had only 47 yards rushing (4.7 points), 64 yards receiving (4.3 points), and scored one receiving TD (4 points) for a total of 13 points.

League 2 awards 1 point per 10 rushing or receiving yards, 1 point for each reception, no bonuses for cracking the century mark, 6 points per rushing TD, and 4 points per receiving TD. Portis still gets 12.1 points for his rushing performance, but that’s it. Westbrook, on the other hand, gets 11.1 points for yardage, 7 points for 7 catches, and 4 points for his receiving TD for a total of 22.1 points.

Unfortunately for those who would like to keep fantasy football simple, differences in scoring are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of distinctions between leagues. Player values differ dramatically depending upon whether one is in a redrafter league or a keeper league, a league with an early trading deadline or one with no such deadline, a league with flex positions and one without, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

In other words, the answer to most of the fantasy questions that fantasy segments pretend to address is: “It depends.” The problem is that no fantasy segment I have ever seen is at all interested in addressing such questions in their complexity—probably because television simply doesn’t lend itself to that sort of analysis. No matter how fond some of us are of fantasy football, we probably aren’t going to watch Terry Bradshaw work his way through the mathematical exercises in the foregoing paragraphs.

Nevertheless, the fantasy segments that fail to acknowledge that this complexity exists are going to have a very difficult time retaining the attention of most fantasy enthusiasts. So what is a television executive like Marty supposed to do? Should he drive the fantasy audience away by delivering oversimplified misinformation or by dwelling tediously on the minute differences in scoring between leagues?


I suggest that Marty take a page from the DIY Network on this one. As I moved into my new house over the summer, I watched a lot of how-to programming on DIY—programming that frequently oversimplified the projects I was attempting to tackle. However, the hosts of these programs were very good about directing their viewers to the DIY Website for further details and expanded explanations of what the shows were about.

In the opinion of one writer who presumes to speak on behalf of the fantasy football community, that model is the future of effective fantasy football programming. Instead of having fantasy analysts spend their entire segments pretending that the way they play fantasy football is the only way it is played or endlessly debating the value of various players in various scoring systems, producers should simply hire analysts who are aware of such differences and can acknowledge them quickly in the context of broader discussions of player value.

Scratch the surface on the show, but give us substance on the related website. Throw in some analysis of the headway that rookies are making from a worthy NFL scout (such as Mike Mayock), and you’ll have the rapt attention of the fantasy community in no time. Then your advertisers can educate us about the importance of consuming Budweiser and dousing ourselves with some kind of body spray—and all will be right with the world.


My apologies to those who were looking forward to the column I promised concerning kickers in fantasy leagues. I received lots of great responses to my July column on that subject, and I look forward to sharing those responses in my first column of the 2006 regular season.

For responses to this fantasy question please email Mike Davis. Readers who want to have their fantasy questions answered live, on the air, by Mike Davis are invited to tune into FFEXradio on Friday afternoons at 5:00 p.m. EST. Archived programs are also available.