Fantasy Football as cultural alchemy

Fantasy Football now entertains 27 million people, playing an average of 9 hours a week, in an industry valued at around $800 million.  (All numbers are pretty much surmise.  See references below.) 

It reminds me of the Dole plantation story. Apparently, Dole would create a lot of juice while canning pineapples, and then just throw the juice into the ocean. Someone had the wit to say, "er, could I have that?" Mixed drinks and the International House of Pancakes would never be the same.  

Professional football was throwing off lots of numbers.  At the end of any given Sunday, it was possible to discover not just the points scored by every team, but the yards gained by every back, the number of interceptions thrown by every quarterback, the number of sacks recorded by every defensive end.  (In American sports, everything gets counted.)

These numbers were being tossed into the ocean, as it were.  Someone (Bob Winkenbach, to be precise) said, "could I have those numbers?" and he turned one real league into a virtual league…and an industry worth $800 million.  

Fantasy football fractures league play into individual player stats and these are welded into new bundles to be "owned" and managed by the sports fan.  It is a little like an exercise in string theory.  It asks what if these 30 players played not for their respective teams but together on one of these limitless Fantasy teams.  There are many, many thousands of teams in Fantasy football.  There are many alternate realities there.  We are effectively testing the alternate Sundays of a Randy Moss or a Brett Favre.  

This is how ferociously inventive our culture is.  We can recycle the "waste products" of existing cultural productions into the stuff of entirely new cultural productions.  (Thus did Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel make theater out of people reading the autobiographies of celebrities.)  We know practice a kind of cultural alchemy, creating one thing from another, and extracting new value in the process. 

We know that this is driven by a deeper culture trend, our wish, in this case, not merely to be passive sports fan but actually to act as owners and managers.  Ours is an expansionary individualism.  Now province of experience can be denied us.  Nothing we find curious or engaging anyhow.  And we get the usual tensions as noted in the Fringe post of a couple of days ago.  Fans now find themselves torn between rooting for Favre as a Viking and against him because he is owned by a Fantasy league competitor.  

It’s astounding that Winkenbach thought of Fantasy football.  To fracture one reality and to build many other realities out of the pieces.  Genius, really.  


Anonymous.  n.d., Fantasy Football.  Wikipedia.

Bulmash, Greg.  2010.  Fantasy Sports: The original social network.  A Powerpoint deck on Slideshare. Aug. 19.

McCracken, Grant. 2010.  Something out of nothing.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. May 17.

Shontell, Alyson. 2010. “Fantasy Football Is An $800 Million Industry, But Who’s Profiting?.” Business Insider. (Accessed October 18, 2010).

9 thoughts on “Fantasy Football as cultural alchemy

  1. peter spear

    and what of baby carrots? i had to go to to confirm this and it appears true that their arrival into our consciousness was inspired by the possibility of waste. originally only wasted carrots were used, but now baby carrots are grown sweetened – for the kids.

    can’t say I have an opinion on crispin’s efforts to manifest this fractured reality . . . but it does beg the question : did they acknowledge the reality enough or hold their tongue in their cheek far too aggressively?

  2. Pingback: Grant McCracken: Fantasy Football as Cultural Alchemy - PSFK

    1. Grant Post author

      Peter, The derivative of the category becomes a category. Nice. But I’m not following the Crispin question. What do you mean? Grant

      1. peter spear

        carrots perhaps not as cultural as fantasy football? got my CPG head on.
        as for crispin I was wondering about their efforts to ‘re-brand’ baby carrots as a junk food for kids. it all seems so tongue in cheek, so ironic and detached, so mocking to make a sincere consideration of this new category (fractured reality) almost impossible.

  3. Sharlene Sones

    It is amazing, isn’t it, the time & effort that people put into the fantasy leagues? I think the monday morning quarterbacking and desire to be manager/coach is fascinating, too. I used to take a top women’s tennis player out to do promotional clinics at clubs and was always amazed at the number of average playing men who thought “I could beat her” and seriously wanted to play a match! So, I realize that story throws some other issues into the mix, but I’m just so intrigued by all the average joes who think they can “do it better.” I guess it is called fantasy for a reason, but I wonder about how this kind of, uh, arrogance, reflects our culture as a whole.

  4. Sunil

    Thanks for sharing.

    Bruns’ idea of produsage comes to mind. Taking content, in this case discarded from the major stuff, and converting it into something else entirely.

  5. Rick Liebling

    Great insights Grant. So now, what do me make of this: The League is a Sit-Com on FX that uses Fantasy Football as the backdrop for the show

    I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m intrigued. I wonder, could this show have been made with Fantasy Baseball as the platform? Or sports videos games (Madden)? Or is there something unique to Fantasy Football that makes it usable as a TV series?

    A look at how football shapes our current culture, or at least the culture of a desirable target demo (men, 18-34) would reveal all sorts of good stuff.

  6. GeneE

    It is amazing how the American culture can turn one thing like NFL Football into a means of seeing who has the best numbers and making it into an actual league. Most fans are now rooting for there player on there fantasy team rather than players on the actual team. It is a twisted way of being a fan but its what keeps people watching and gives them a sense of leadership and ownership over players. There is even strategy and different means of trades that go on between each league to gain that spot at the top. It can become real cut throat almost like the real world of sports. The fan base has evolved into a totally different animal and is now completely different then it was 20 years ago when fans rooted for players on a team based on the team they were from instead of some made up online league that is some imaginary team for a random person.

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