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Fantasy football may distort fan experience

By Jack Reyering, columnist

We've all seen the commercials.

"Joe Blow just won $1 million dollars in this week's fantasy challenge. You could be the next winner."

Admittedly, they're intriguing. Companies like FanDuel and DraftKings are capitalizing on a rapidly expanding market. Fantasy sports hooked more than an estimated 40 million players in 2014. That number is up from 35 million players in 2013 and has doubled in size in the past seven years.

Nowadays, to be considered a true fan of football, it's essential to participate in fantasy football in one or more of its forms.

It's obvious that fantasy football has changed the way we view the NFL and how we watch the games. A Washington Redskins fan can be found cheering on Tony Romo in a fourth quarter drive, begging him to throw just one more touchdown.

Half of pre-game analysis on the networks revolves around "expert" fantasy advice. You don't even get a break from it during the commercials (see top of page).

That's all well and good. There's nothing wrong with admiring players from all around the league for their skills and abilities. If they are on your fantasy team, of course you want them to put up points for you.

I'm as guilty as anyone else in this.

For the first time, I bought into the hype and joined a fantasy football league this year. I have almost no clue what I'm doing, but just a week and a half into the season, I found myself sneaking peaks at my ESPN Fantasy app to see if I got the player I claimed off waivers.

It's hard to snap back to reality and focus on an international studies course when there are free agents afoot.

But obsession with fantasy football does have a dark side.

There are several noticeable and troubling signs fantasy players exude as they watch the games with computers in laps, phones in hands and fantasy scoreboards in focus.

First off, fans lose a level of dedication to their favorite team. Winning the matchup in your fantasy league depends almost exclusively on individual performances, and whether or not your favorite team wins often takes a backseat.

Here's a scenario that many fantasy players have probably encountered before:

You are an Indianapolis Colts fan. In your matchup for week one, your opponent has Andrew Luck as his starting quarterback. The Colts are playing on Monday Night Football, and you're up by 20 points. Nobody from your team is playing that night. Luck has thrown two TDs, but the Colts are down six with one minute to go. If he throws one more, you lose your matchup for that week. If he doesn't, your favorite team adds a notch in the loss column.

After years of playing fantasy football, many players have learned to look at scenarios like this as a win-win. If the Colts win, great. If they lose, at least I won my fantasy matchup. For some, its hard to understand how you could ever find satisfaction in a loss either way.

Another troublesome aspect of fantasy football is the injury situations.

Here's another hypothetical:

Roddy White is on your fantasy team - the second option to Julio Jones in most passing scenarios. You know you are going to need a lot of production from White in order to win your matchup. In the first quarter on a crossing route, Jones takes a huge hit. He's slow to get up. Whether you vocalize it or not, you are probably hoping that he's hurt and won't be able to play for the rest of the game. Then White, by default, becomes the number one receiver and is in a better situation to put up points.

That's a cynical approach, but in the heat of competition, everyone is looking for that competitive edge, even if we don't admit it. (Just ask Tom Brady.)

These are unique scenarios, sure. Many fans would rather choose to have their hometown team win over their fantasy team, and we assume nobody is hoping that players suffer injuries.

But these types of situations present themselves to fantasy players on a weekly basis. Throw in the fact that there could be significant money on the line and you find yourself in limbo.

There are many great things about fantasy sports. They are a great way to stay in touch with friends.

One-week leagues have made fantasy sports more convenient and lucrative. They restore the sense of competition that many people have been longing for ever since they played that final down. It keeps fans aware of what's happening.

But it's a chicken before the egg situation.

Fantasy football wouldn't exist if there were no football. This isn't a news flash, but it's important to keep in mind. People loved football before fantasy, because they loved the game and their team. Remember that fantasy football is a supplement to the game. It's not real.

Pardon the pun, but it's just a fantasy.