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SALT LAKE CITY -- Not long ago, I watched a professional game of football with a friend. He's a die-hard Broncos fan. Having no particular ties to either team, I was a neutral spectator — along for the ride.
As the game wore on, however, he-who-shall-not-be-named started to display a level of indifference one would not expect from a "fan."
After the Broncos conceded an early touchdown, a surprising amount of air remained in the room. "That's okay," my buddy chirped, pointing to the scorer. "He's on my fantasy team," he added with a boyish grin.
He's on your fantasy team?
That's right. Even though the Broncos went on to lose the game, all was well in fantasy land. In fact, the Chargers winning effort might even help my buddy win his office pool. There was no, "Dang it!" or "You can't win ‘em all." Not even a "We'll get ‘em next time."
In the age of fantasy leagues, I asked myself, was team loyalty now on the losing side? Amid the explosion of fantasy leagues over the last decade — which let fans compete with fake teams using real player stats — had the letter "i" been inserted somewhere in the spelling of team?
Not at all, says fantasy sports writer Scott Engel. "It actually doubles your interactive pleasure versus rooting for only a single team." he says. "There are no downsides."
As Engel puts it, fantasy leagues help fans enjoy the game in new ways, including more appreciation for individual players and positions, less heartache, and the ability to live vicariously as a coach or general manager.
"For example, I am a Seahawks fan," Engel explains. "I want them to win first and foremost. But I know the odds of them shutting out the other team are high. So when they give up a touch down to the 49ers, I want Frank Gore to score it if he is on my team. It eases the pain a bit."
At the same time, you don't have to sacrifice your allegiances, Engel adds. "I am not going to root against Seahawks' quarterback if the fantasy team I am facing has him. My opponent has other players who can tank and help me. Or, I can simply pull for Seattle to score on a running play or on defense as often as possible."
If it sounds complex, it's because it is. When participating in a fantasy league, conflicts of interests unavoidably present themselves in cheering situations, as described above. In many cases, rooting for team — including everyone on it — might take a back seat to winning your fantasy league.
Consequently, fantasy sports have their critics, even ones that use to participate. "I found myself caring for teams and sports that I never had interest in before," says sports junkie Tim Ormond. "It sucked some of the fun out of it."
Not only that, but Ormond says he started watching an excessive amount of games as a result — an unintended side affect of having more reasons to watch. "I took stock and realized how much time I was wasting so I quit. A year later, I don't miss it at all."
As a 10 year veteran of various fantasy leagues, Ryan Bullock proudly flies the Team Fantasy Sports flag. "I think it adds to the already enjoyable time of watching sports," he says. "That and I like to win."
What's more, fantasy sports enhance camaraderie, Bullock says. "It's fun to trash talk with friends and family about how our fantasy teams are competing."
In other words, fantasy players can still enjoy and participate in traditional game and rivalry banter, but they also get to participate in a second layer of bragging rights. "It really is the best of both worlds," says Engel. "You can be both a successful fan and fantasy player."
Whatever your opinion on fantasy sports, there's no denying they've changed the way we spectate and cheer over the last decade — whether you're numbered among the estimated 30 million participates or merely rub elbows with them. And since valued at more than $5 billion a year now, fantasy sports are certainly here to stay.
Still, it's hard not to imagine Ted Williams rolling in his grave (i.e. cryogenic freezer) at the thought of a Red Sox fan cheering for a Yankee player solely for the sake of fantasy.
That would be sports blasphemy.
About the author: Blake Snow has written for MSNBC, Fox, CNN and Wired Magazine among others. He dabbled in fantasy sports once, but mostly roots for the home team now. Fan (or hate) mail can be sent to blakesnow.com. This article first appeared in the Seattle Times.