First, we gauged the average time frame for fandom and fantasy participation among followers of each franchise. Steeler Nation took top honors in terms of longevity: Pittsburgh fans typically followed their team for more than 24 years. Loyalty (or masochism) ran deep in Cleveland as well: Despite sustained struggles, Browns fans supported their team for 23.9 years on average. Interestingly, Browns fans had the most extensive record of fantasy participation as well, suggesting that fantasy leagues may have helped them through the worst of times with their team. Similarly, Bengals fans ranked second in average fantasy football experience; however, their team hasn't won a playoff game since 1990.
Of course, one might assume that teams with older fan bases would naturally have lengthier track records for both fandom and fantasy play – they've simply been around longer. That did hold true to some extent for real team support: Pittsburgh and Cleveland, for instance, had some of the NFL's oldest fans on average. But some of the oldest fan bases had relatively little fantasy experience, including the Bills and Cardinals. Age may not matter in this regard, because the massive popularity of fantasy sports is a relatively recent phenomenon. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of fantasy players in the U.S. and Canada doubled.
When asked to choose between squads, fans' primary loyalties remained with their real-life teams. On average, 3/4 of fans preferred seeing their favorite NFL franchise make the playoffs over their fantasy team. A similar percentage said they'd rather see their real team take home the title, despite the potential windfall associated with winning in fantasy leagues. Money did matter, though: Among those who prioritized postseason success for their fantasy teams, buy-ins tended to be much higher.
On the subject of key injuries, some teams' fans were pretty cutthroat in favor of their fantasy squads. In Arizona, where the current quarterback situation is anything but settled, 50% of fans said they preferred the Cardinals' starting quarterback get hurt before losing the top passer on their fantasy squads to injury. In fact, Arizona fans were particularly likely to throw the franchise under the bus to boost their fantasy fortunes. Cardinals fans ranked in the top five for preferring their fantasy teams to make the playoffs and win a championship.
Fantasy teams may not provoke more passionate fandoms than real franchises, but our data suggest they do require more time. This dynamic relates mainly to the details involved in successful fantasy management. While fans spent roughly equal amounts of time following general news related to their real-life and fantasy teams, our respondents spent about twice as much time each week investigating projected stats and starting lineups for their fantasy squads. They also spent seven more minutes, on average, following injury updates related to their fantasy players and nine more minutes watching the waiver wire.
Cumulatively, the contrast in time commitments between favorite and fantasy squads was striking: On average, fans spent nearly three hours each week following their fantasy teams, but just over two hours keeping up with their real ones. The intense emphasis placed on fantasy data isn't lost on real players, many of whom are frustrated by their stats being scrutinized. Stars from LeGarrette Blount to Odell Beckham Jr. and Martellus Bennett have taken to Twitter to assert how little they care about fans' fantasy outcomes.
Fantasy players are drawn to multiple leagues for a number of reasons, including matching up against different crews of competitors and experimenting with contrasting formats. Indeed, our findings indicated that players participated in two fantasy leagues per year on average. This held true across generational lines, an interesting finding given widespread concerns that the NFL is losing its grip on younger fans. With regard to fantasy participation, at least, millennials don't seem to be any less invested.
In fact, millennials paid more to participate in each league, on average, than their older peers. That's a particularly compelling finding given the monetary struggles that afflict this generation, including limited wage growth and student debt. Baby boomers typically paid $15 less than millennials to buy into their leagues, and Gen Xers paid the least at $53 on average.
Our findings suggest that fans typically invest more time and money in their fantasy leagues than real teams. However, despite their commitment to their fantasy squads, loyalty to real franchises comes first when it comes to important outcomes, such as injuries and postseason success. Perhaps fantasy leagues will never be able to mirror the shared experience of backing a real team. When our fantasy teams triumph, we enjoy bragging rights among our buddies. But when an NFL team is crowned champion, a whole fanbase can celebrate collectively.
Moreover, our results suggest that fans need not choose between fantasy and reality when indulging in their love of football. So long as you have time, feel free to enjoy each passion independently. Loving multiple teams simultaneously doesn't call your fandom into question – unless, of course, they play in the same league.
We collected responses from over 1,012 people using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. 30.4% of participants were female, and 69.6% were male. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 76 with a mean of 34.1 and a standard deviation of 9. Participants were excluded if they were not fans of an NFL team, did not participate in a fantasy football league, or were clearly not paying attention (failed an attention-check question or entered obviously inconsistent data). No statistical testing was performed.
Self-reported studies may suffer from certain disadvantages due to the way subjects respond while taking surveys. These disadvantages include but are not limited to the following: attribution, selective memory, telescoping, and exaggeration.
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