It used to be that football season started when cricket season finished. Those were simpler times, when there wasn’t a 24/7 media cycle and you seldom heard about winter sports from October until March. But those days are long gone and part of the reason for a thirst on all things AFL (and this equally applies to our Canadian friends north of the Murray for rugby league) is the phenomenon that is fantasy football which opened for the 2012 season last Wednesday.

Once, you were engrossed in the preseason issues that concerned YOUR team: who your club drafted, how they are training, etc. Now, the preseason fortunes of particular players from teams you usually couldn’t stand become ridiculously important. Why does the average fantasy football fan spend more time on their phones, checking scores, than they do calling their mums? When will the ABS release data on — what I can only assume, with no scientific basis — the high number of marriage and relationship breakdowns due to fantasy footy?

Why indeed?

Les Wales, who writes at TooSerious — the AFL fantasy football site he created in 2006 — says that the biggest reason would have to be the rivalry factor and “whether it’s against colleagues at work, or just your mates, the built-up rivalry is fantastic.”

“Another big reason is that it adds spice to all games of football, not just when your team is playing.”

TooSerious is a sign of just how big this business has become. Wales started TooSerious as a way for his office competition to get an edge up on other fantasy football users. He released the software to the public a year later and then set up the website so that articles and other content could be published.

“We now have quite a vibrant community with eight writers, over 6000 registered users and 10s of thousands who stop by every day to read what’s said, or use the tools.”

For the sandgropers, the croweaters and the Victorians — and to AFL fans all around this great country and the world — fantasy football means either the AFL’s Dreamteam or News Limited’s Supercoach — and often both. They are cousins, slightly different, yet competing for the same share of a lucrative market that has experienced unprecedented growth.

“Fantasy sports is massive in this country. I have yet to walk into an office that hasn’t had a solid fantasy rivalry, whether in Supercoach or Dreamteam,” says Wales.

“Then there’s the amount of penetration it’s got in schools, it’s simply growing at a rate of knots. That said though, in the US, fantasy sports is a $5 billion dollar industry which grows by 7-10% each year, so I reckon it’s still got a long way to go!”

Adrian Appleyard, Community Manager of Australia’s most popular AFL news and forums website BigFooty, recalls when “Kildonan”, one of BigFooty’s many moderators, came to him with the proposal of setting up more forum boards to cater for the growing popularity of fantasy footy.

“Thankfully Kildonan was adamant about the need to get this going and he was clear about what he wanted to do, so I set up the boards and said go for it.”

“We have literally hundreds and hundreds of members in leagues organised through BigFooty, each with 16 players each. One or more of our leagues are constantly in the top 10 best performed leagues of each year.”

In a sign of how far it’s come, BigFooty now has four moderators running their Supercoach and Dreamteam boards.

Whilst the Australian fantasy football industry is in its relative infancy, the US industry is a behemoth.

In a press release in June 2010 by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which represents the fantasy sports industry in the US and Canada, it provided research conducted by IPSOS to conclude:

“Fantasy sports participation has grown over 60 percent the past four years as over 32 million people now actively playing in the U.S. and Canada, new research conducted by Ipsos for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) shows. This finding shows the highest participation numbers in the history of fantasy sports. One in five males played fantasy sports in the last year.”

The participation rate for AFL fantasy football in Australia may have grown even quicker, as the graph below attests:

The difference between Supercoach and Dreamteam comes down to the scoring.

The statistics for both games are provided by Champion Data, who provide a statistical service to AFL clubs, to the AFL media and to the fans. For footy nuts, its just-released 2012 AFL Prospectus is the bible of AFL analysis.

Champion Data’s Glenn Luff, the publisher of the AFL Prospectus, believes it’s the best measure out there for crunching AFL statistics. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

“For Dreamteam, the scoring system is derived from our stats. Dreamteam is a very basic formula,” explains Luff.

“Supercoach is more involved from a Champion Data point of view because Supercoach take our Champion Data player rankings — which we’ve been doing for over 10 years now, a collation of all the stats that we do, there could be up to a hundred of those — and it brings that back to one number.”

“It’s a serious footy measure.”

The formula for coming up with the Champion Data player ranking is tightly guarded — it’s a bit like KFC’s secret spices or Coca-Cola’s secret ingredient “7X”. But if Champion Data’s secret ranking system is the result of a complex mathematical calculation, Champion Data’s involvement in the lucrative fantasy football in this country was far from planned.

“We fell into it”, recalls Luff, “it’s a byproduct of what we do.”

“When we started in the late 1990s we weren’t out there to hit the fantasy footy market. I don’t think anyone in Australia knew where it would head.”

“It was big in the States at the time but I don’t think we would have thought it would take off like this.”

However, Luff believes that Dreamteam and Supercoach have hit their peak because they “haven’t seen any significant growth in the last two years. I could be wrong, but that’s my gut feeling.”

If the ceiling has been hit, it is still a website traffic cash cow for the Herald Sun and for the AFL website — with fans still flocking to both destinations as the footy season quickly reaches us for 2012.

For the record, I’m a Supercoach man. So is Wales, although, he says, “I love Dreamteam as well. But the scoring system in Supercoach and the way it rewards efficiency in play really separates it from the pack.”

For Luff, as you’d expect, every second person on the street he knows asks him who they should bring into their team. Asked if gets tired of that, Luff responds, with a laugh, “a little.”

Appleyard hasn’t tried Supercoach or Dreamteam yet but its popularity, from his experience, cannot be questioned.

“Fantasy footy is not the biggest part of BigFooty, but it has become one of the events of the year that I will now call the Great Wall of China.

“These are events that you can see from outer space,  like the AFL grand final, trade week deadline and draft day, you can almost spot the exact date Dreamteam and Supercoach start and end from just looking at spikes and troughs on BigFooty’s traffic graph.”

And, like the Great Wall of China, fantasy footy is here for a long time to come.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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