Illustration: Steven Moore
I’m a fantasy football obsessive. Which means I am obsessed with selecting a dream footy team of elite players, and competing with friends in our own fantasy league. Our matches are decided by the real-life statistical performances of our chosen players, week to week. We have our own ladder. We have our own finals series. It’s sports nerd heaven.
I stare at the phone every weekend, looking at a list of footballers’ names, praying that my chosen fantasy players ping with +3s (a kick or mark) or +4s (a tackle), and not my opponents’ players. If I see a +12 (mark, kick, goal!), I might punch the air, or interrupt a family meal with a squealed ‘yeeeees!’. For me, it’s more exciting than a ball dancing on a roulette wheel or coins rattling into the tray of a poker machine.
AFL footy is my native sporting language. Fantasy football provides an endless stream of tiny wins and losses, across every game.
I play against 17 friends and we meet once a month at the pub to complain about bad fantasy football luck, face to face. There’s no money at stake, but we are obsessive about our league’s history, and winning or losing materially alters my mood.
Fantasy football provides an endless stream of tiny wins and losses, across every game.
Once, in real life, I met two players in my dream team and asked them to kick more (+3) and handball less (+2). It would have been sporting corruption of the lowest order. ‘AFL STARS PUT GUY IN NORTHCOTE’S INTERESTS FIRST FOR NO REASON!’, the newspapers would have screamed.
It was all good fun, because nothing, in essence, was at stake. Of course in today’s gambling climate, it couldn’t last, and it didn’t.
Here comes the money
I often say I love fantasy football because it exercises the gambling bit of my brain, without actually losing money.
Unsurprisingly, gambling companies noticed this phenomenon, and wondered to themselves: What if we could exercise the gambling bits of their brains, with people losing money?
And so daily fantasy sports were born. Participants pay to play, and then the top performers win prizes, and the operators take commission. Whereas traditional fantasy football is a season-long statistical grind, punters on daily fantasy sports win or lose over a single game or round of games.
The lure is to beat friends, or out-coach an ex-AFL star like Barry Hall, or generally outscore the playing public. It is possible to win. One of Australia’s biggest operators boasts it handed over $6 million last AFL season, with $250,000 up for grabs every week this year. Their website is less clear on how much players lost last year.
Is it gambling?
In the United States, there has been widespread debate about whether playing daily fantasy sports is gambling. Sports betting is much more tightly regulated there, and daily fantasy sports operators have dodged internet gambling bans by promoting it as a game of skill, not chance.
In Australia, the sports betting genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Daily fantasy sports is defined and regulated as gambling, because the regulator in the Northern Territory, where the operators are registered, has licenced it as legal for betting. And the football codes have agreed.
In Australia, the sports betting genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
Participants have to be over 18 to register, of course, and, as we all know, that’s a stumbling block that no fantasy-football-obsessed young teen could ever work around.
Fruit elixir wine coolers
I’m not accusing daily fantasy sports operators of breaching Australian law and catering to under 18s.
What I do know is that this is a gambling tinderbox. The game my friends play – the glorious, season-long league competition that builds friendships while pinging every punting receptacle in our sports-obsessed brains, is loved by kids. I know, because I’m sad enough, at age 45, to sit on fantasy football sites to watch the scores light up. I see the chat posts. There’s no way Stuballs05 is a day over 14.
And Stuballs05 is one of the more mature voices in the box.
Kids are encouraged to join up for the free versions. The AFL and NRL seem to want everyone to play fantasy sports because it increases interest and makes literally every moment of every game watchable. But daily sports fantasy advertising and traditional sports betting looms everywhere. From ads in the sidebars to invitations within websites to play the daily versions.
I love fantasy football because it exercises the gambling bit of my brain, without actually losing money.
My concern is that the free, all-ages versions become the fruit elixir wine coolers for daily fantasy sports betting. ‘I’m king in my league, why don’t I try to make a bit of pocket money?’
I’ve promised myself to never play the daily stuff. I might like it a little too much.
I’ve been playing the free version long enough to understand the psychological illusion. When the Mustangs are going well, it’s because I’m a great coach, pulling the right rein, making the right trade. When the Mustangs are losing, it’s because of bad luck. In truth, so, so much of it is about luck.
My concern is that the free, all-ages versions become the fruit elixir wine coolers for daily fantasy sports betting.
I’m disappointed that punting had to grab hold of my beloved fantasy football. It’s just another weed in the unholy tangle of loosely regulated sports betting in this country – ‘a bit of fun on the side’ to complicate something that was already a lot of fun on the side. And then there’s the corruption issue. The very nature of fantasy sports means every act in every game is relevant. Do we want to allow betting on every act in every game?
The answer is we already have.
Tony co-founded his fantasy league with his best friend, Chris Daffey. Chris created an amazing website for their Cartel Football League, complete with team and coach profiles, results and statistics. He assigned theme songs and club shields. Chris died in 2013. The league is now dedicated to him.
Talking to teens about gambling
Research tells us most young people think gambling is a normal part of sport. The Foundation has online resources for parents, including conversation starters for ‘the talk’ about gambling.