Being the coach: the joys of fantasy football

3 June 2010

Written by: Matt de Neef

It’s Saturday night and there’s only one thing on my mind. Footy.

Collingwood are playing North Melbourne at the MCG in what is a vital game for both sides.

I park my car on Victoria Parade and go through the entrance gate into the awe-inspiring arena. I take a seat in the front row close to the interchange bench, a position which I have grown to love this year. Even though I can’t see much because the bench is too high, I want to be close to the action and close to the players when they come off for a rest.

Most people at the game are there to support their respective teams. Magpie fans are hoping Travis Cloke can finally step up and kick a bag of goals to win the game for his side. Kangaroo fans are hoping Daniel Wells can continue his great form and set the MCG alight with some blistering runs through the midfield.

I don’t support either side. So why am I there? I’m there to watch and focus on one player. His name is Scott Pendlebury.

The classy Collingwood midfielder is a key member of ‘GetTheBoysRoundMe’, an AFL fantasy team coached by yours truly. I need Pendlebury to gather a lot of the ball during the game if I am to have any chance of defeating ‘Seen DS Before’, another fantasy team coached by Stefan, my opponent for the round but also one of my close mates.

The siren sounds and the game is underway. Fans of both sides are going crazy because Collingwood and North Melbourne are going goal-for-goal in the opening few minutes. But I couldn’t care less. All I am concerned about is where Pendlebury is on the field, who his opponent is and where he is most likely to get his next possession.

Suddenly Pendlebury runs hard to find some open space and takes an uncontested mark right in front of me on the wing. He moves the ball on quickly and kicks long looking for Cloke on the half-forward line. Collingwood fans aren’t impressed with the mediocre kick because it did not favour Cloke at all. However I manage a wry smile and a soft clap because he has just earned me six points for my team, three for a mark and three for a kick.

The rise of online fantasy sport has taken AFL footy fans by storm. Fans who gave up the dream of playing or coaching sport at a professional level now have an opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of someone like Michael Malthouse or Mark Thompson by managing their own team.

Supporters have put their team allegiances to one side and now follow games of football purely to see how their own players in their fantasy team perform on the stat sheet.

Glenn Luff works for Champion Data, the company that provides all of the AFL’s official statistics and rankings to players, coaches, media and fans. He is the publisher of the ‘AFL Prospectus’, a 388-page book that has been described as the ‘bible’ for AFL fantasy coaches. Luff says that he isn’t surprised by the popularity of it all.

‘I think the attraction of it is that you can watch eight games of footy and have an interest in all of them,’ Luff says. ‘Ten years ago, you’d just watch the team that you support, but now there’s eight games of footy on the TV and you might have a player from each AFL club in your fantasy team that you can follow.’

The two main AFL fantasy competitions – AFL Dream Team and Herald Sun SuperCoach – are both played online on the AFL and Herald Sun websites respectively. Currently, the two competitions have a combined total of around 680,000 registered ‘coaches’, with SuperCoach having 55 per cent of those total users. They are both run by Virtual Sports and are very similar in terms of how you pick your side.

You have to choose 30 players to fill your team while staying inside a salary cap. Players are categorised into four different playing positions – defender, midfielder, ruckman or forward – and all are individually priced according to how well they have performed in the past.

This is when the fun begins. As games are played out, your players earn points for every stat that they earn. Every kick, handball, mark, tackle, hit-out and goal is crucial and the more stats your player receives, the more points they accumulate.

However, the scoring systems of Dream Team and SuperCoach are slightly different and Luff believes that while one competition rewards effectiveness, the other is a little easier to use and understand.

‘Dream Team is your more basic game with a set number of points for a kick, handball, tackle, etc.’, Luff says. ‘Whereas SuperCoach is a much more complex formula which takes effectiveness into account as well as all the statistics that (Champion Data) capture, which can add up to around 60 categories.’

‘SuperCoach is more based on quality not quantity whereas Dream Team is basically the exact opposite.’

The whole phenomenon of fantasy sport started with the development of the ‘Rotisserie League Baseball’ back in 1980. Daniel Okrendt, a magazine writer and editor, was sitting with a group of friends one night in a New York City restaurant called La Rotisserie Francasie.

Just for fun, he came up with the idea that ‘owners’ could draft 23 players from Major League Baseball’s (MLB) rosters and they would have to follow their statistics for the remainder of the season. Each MLB player would have their own value and owners had to pick players while working within the same salary cap. The competition gained a significant amount of media coverage and the rest, as they say, is history.

A survey conducted by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) back in 2008 found that the fantasy sport industry had grown to an $800 million business with 29.9 million people participating in at least one competition in the U.S. and Canada.

So why is fantasy sport so popular?

Lachlan Carter is a 19 year old Commerce student and a member of ‘No Passengers’, a private Dream Team sub-forum on the BigFooty website. He says that he purely loves the competition against his mates and is always striving to get better.

‘I love the strategic part of fantasy football and I love the competitive nature that comes with it,’ Carter says. ‘A few of the “No Passengers” boys always strive to make the top 10 or 20 coaches every year, so there’s massive competition there. And there are great prizes too.’

‘It’s very similar to poker in that it is a mind game. You have to do research for yourself and figure out your own strategies. But you also have to try and figure out what your opponent is thinking as well.’

Even sports journalists like Jon Ralph from the Herald Sun – who are supposed to do their job as objectively as they can – find themselves urging on their own players while watching games.

‘You certainly barrack hard when you are playing someone in the SuperLeague Herald Sun Competition knowing that your scores are going to be published in the newspaper,’ Ralph says. ‘That’s one of the great things about fantasy sport competitions is that you gain a greater general knowledge of the sport and learn things about teams you don’t support.’

‘The AFL would be thrilled with the broadened knowledge base of fans from across the country.’

Sam Edmund, another sports journalist from the Herald Sun, says that he enjoys venturing out of the media box occasionally and listening to some of the comments made by fantasy coaches at a match.

‘It’s actually far more amusing sitting out in the outer with the average Joe Blow than in the media box,’ Edmund says. ‘You hear them say before, during and after the game that they’ve got this player in their forward line or this player as their captain. You can hear people cursing or even cheering players that are tearing up their team that they support.’

The popularity of fantasy sport continues to grow across the world, particularly here in Australian with the AFL Dream Team and SuperCoach competitions. It is clear that fantasy football is of great importance to many footy followers around the country who now watch games they might not otherwise have an interest in.

And that includes me.

Ben Waterworth is a second year Bachelor of Journalism student and a regular contributor to upstart. You can read more of his work at his blog, A Short Sport Thought.