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Monday, June 05, 2006
Are Fantasy Leagues Bad for Baseball?

In January, Greg reported on a brewing dispute between Major League Baseball and CBC Distribution & Marketing, a supplier of player names and statistics to fantasy leagues. This dispute is now in court: CBC has sued baseball, claiming a first amendment violation. The plaintiff's complaint is here; trial is scheduled for September 5.

In last Sunday's New York Times, George Vecsey suggested that MLB's "boobs" should "stop trying to gouge these ersatz leagues and instead worry about its abandonment of its traditional working class fan base." Along the way, he took a number of swipes at fantasy leagues:
I've never understood the appeal of fantasy sports leagues . . . .

I find fantasy leagues to be as empty as reality shows on the tube or as the brief poker fad (it's over now, isn’t it?) . . . .

[F]antasy leagues are a sure sign somebody has way too much spare time.

[F]antasy league types ought to get a life.
Rising in defense of fantasy leagues, letterer-to-the-editor Todd Hemphill of Trinity, Florida, offers an explanation for the success of fantasy baseball this Sunday,
There was a time when rooting for the local teams made sense. With few exceptions there was continuity from year to year. The players were part of your community. When they succeeded, there was a sense of pride and accomplishment. Now players are hired guns, spinning through a revolving door of multimillion dollar offers, living in mansions far removed from the cities they supposedly represent. Owners are businessmen, period.

Is it better to be a Florida Marlins fan and watch your team marched off to auction block after every winning season? No thanks.

Instead, we create virtual teams. We make decisions about our teams. We vie with other owners with pride and genuine rewards at stake. It keeps our interest in sports alive and frees us from meaningless attachments to teams that no longer have anything to do with us.
The interesting thing about this defense of fantasy leagues is that it does seem to provide a sensible business reason for baseball to try to make life difficult for fantasy leagues. If fantasy and roto-baseball replace come to replace team allegiances, this may cut into MLB’s profits over the long-run. Roto-players certainly don’t have any reason to attend a game live. I would also suspect that they have little reason, unlike participants in an NCAA tournament pool, to watch baseball games on TV. Instead, they watch highlights or, more likely, simply check box scores for their players on the internet. Is it so wrong for MLB to want a piece of the action, to the extent that it is taking away viewers (and thus hurting ad sales) and cutting in to live attendance?


The question would be, is there a significant amount of fans who pay attention solely to fantasy leagues and do not follow "real baseball?" My guess is that the vast majority of fantasy-league players play the fantasy leagues in addition to watching baseball and rooting for a team as usual, rather than in replacement. It's hard for me to see fantasy leagues taking a hit on ticket sales.

Anonymous Adam -- 6/05/2006 12:16 PM  

(For full disclosure, I play in 5-7 fantasy leagues per sport (NBA, MLB, NFL) each year and am an self-described addict.)
The idea that participation in fantasy sports negatively impacts attendance or viewership could not be further from the truth. As for attendance, I don’t see it having any impact in any sport. You go to a game because you enjoy the sport or for the experience. I don’t see how fantasy sports would act as a replacement for either; there’s some word for that I vaguely remember from econ but it is slipping my mind.
As for live viewing on television, I think there is a difference between the NFL/NBA and MLB. With the former you can get instant gratification and I think fantasy sports have driven ratings up, not down. You turn on the game and can instantly see whether Lebron is in the game or whether the Colts are on offense. What then? You go into fan mode and root. You get frustrated when Gooden missed another bunny costing your team an assist; you yell at Peyton for throwing to Harrison instead of Wayne. And you don’t get those same experiences from checking a boxscore or watching highlights. I’m willing to bet that a large chunk of NFL Sunday Ticket purchases in particular are driven by guys who are NFL fans, yes, but who want to be able to monitor all of their players on Sunday. The networks have also taken notice and now include some type of “fantasy” feature in all of their football broadcasts.
With MLB, I just don’t think it makes any difference. I tuned into to the Sunday night game last night because Lackey was pitching, but in general, unless you have a SP in the game, watching baseball doesn’t add a lot to the fantasy experience. But I’ve never heard from people that they watch fewer games on TV because of fantasy baseball, so again, I just don’t think you are dealing with substitute products.
In general, my experience—and that of everyone I know and have played with—is that fantasy leagues supplement our interest in the real game, rather than replace it.

Blogger RPS -- 6/05/2006 2:03 PM  

Fantasy Baseball is the most misunderstood phenomenon in all of sports.

I'm a lawyer, member of my local municipal legislative board, husband and father of two--and I participate in two FBLs. A sportswriter suggesting that I need a life (or that I have time on my hands--how's the soccer in Germany, eh George?) is absurd and insulting.

What is fantasy baseball, then? Its not gambling (the greatest difference between fantasy baseball and fantasy football is that FF is really for gamblers)--its a way to do three things:

1--keep in touch with college or grad school friends in distant places. My leagues include members from all four US time zones and England.

2--enjoy baseball. I know more about, and care more about, baseball as a whole than ever before because I now take 15-20 minutes of each day and review news on all 26 teams and some minor league players. I would not follow the Yankees any more or less than I do now if there was no FB, but I would certainly have no interest at all in the a triple-A 2B for the Angels. Instead, I not only know who Howie Kendrick is, I'm looking forward to his rookie season.

3--have something to think about other than family and work. Like too many Americans, I have too much of a life--I'm so buried in commitments and obligations and responsibilities, I barely get an hour a day to myself. Rather than imperil my hobby, MLB should be thrilled I choose to use my precious free time on baseball. Time and money spent on sports is hard to justify for a busy, working adult--MLB should follow the NFL lead and do everything it can to keep my interest.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/05/2006 2:31 PM  

Maybe in a minority of fantasy bseball leagues, there is no money at stake. For all the others, it is indeed a form of gambling - competition whereby the winners gain money and the losers lose money.

And to return to the substance of the article here, it is indeed more important for MLB to focus its energies on reclaiming the part of its fan base that it has lost than it is for MLB to engage in some economically driven legal contest with fantasy league participants.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 6/05/2006 2:53 PM  

MLB is a business, and it is a business' job to generate revenue for iyts stakeholders. That is what MLB is protecting here when it requires fantasy leagues to buy a license if they want to commercially exploit MLB's product. It's no different than the movie and music industries cracking down on pirated products.

Anonymous john -- 6/05/2006 3:47 PM  

"It's no different than the movie and music industries cracking down on pirated products." Uh, John, it is very different. We are talking statistics here, not audio, not video, not broadcasting. We are talking names and numbers and that's it. We are not talking about produced sound or recorded performances.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/05/2006 4:20 PM  

Sub issues in this case include freedom of speech, public benefit, use of celebrity names, property ownership among others.

If Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) wins this case could it create a monopolistic situation?

Probhibiting individuals from participating in fantasy leagues by using player statistics (available daily in almost all newspaper, on TV and the radio)by charging a much larger fee now paid by most fantasy players (some games are even free)could have a chilling effect on the "every day fans" ability to participate.

I think the courts will rule in the publics favor and the fact that player statistics have been in the public domain for so long.

My neck is out on this one.

Anonymous Richard Mock -- 6/05/2006 10:31 PM  

"I think the courts will rule in the publics favor and the fact that player statistics have been in the public domain for so long." Are you kidding me? Of course the courts will. Claims of intellectual property here are simply euphemisms for greed and the public's "right to know" shall prevail in the end.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/05/2006 10:36 PM  

Greed has trumped the public's right to know many times.

My concern is if these parties decide to mediate this issue then the public's "right to participate" may be lost.

Anonymous Richard Mock -- 6/05/2006 11:08 PM  

The rise of fantasy baseball has been one of the major reasons for the sport's surge during the 1980s and 1990s through today. The growth in fastasy sports in general has coincided with the huge sports boom during the past 25 years, but having covered sports in some form for most of my adult life, no sport has benefitted from "fantasy" games the way baseball has. It has helped generate year-round coverage of the sport and encouraged fans to follow players on teams other than their own (and young players that in previous eras wouldn't have drawn attention from anyone not related to them).

Baseball owners (like all sports owners) are greedy. If they see someone with two nickels to rub together, they want at least one of them. However, as long as stats are freely distributed to/via the media, it will be hard for the owners to make a case (though they may be able to control team names/logos, the names and numbers are freely available. Should they succeed, they may kill the golden goose.

Anonymous jkreiser7 -- 6/06/2006 1:03 AM  

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Blogger Sports Gambling -- 6/06/2006 5:01 AM  

Baeball is a much harder sport to follow. I do not have the time to follow all the teams for 166 games each year. Where football you can follow the teams week by week instead of everyday

Anonymous Sports Gambling -- 6/06/2006 5:03 AM  

People just have to complain about something. Fantasy Sports are just for fun and a great way to follow players. If your buddies put a league together and you guys all play against each other, how could there be anything wrong with that? Fantasy Sports get complained about more than actual gambling, how does that make any sense?

Anonymous Sports Overload -- 6/06/2006 8:09 AM  

This isn't about MLB wanting to shut out fantasy leagues, it's simply whether MLB gets to share in the profits. The claim here involves misappropriation of players' names used in combination with their individual statistics (not MLB's intellectual property rights in team names, logos, game stats, etc.). MLB is asserting this claim through a license it received from the MLBPA, which assigned to MLB the rights to use the players' names for this purpose. So MLB is really stepping into the shoes of the players and asserting a claim of misappropriation of name and likeness.

Some courts hold that in order to establish such a claim, the defendant (here the fantasy league) must be using the plaintiff's name or likeness without consent in an "endorsement" capacity. Here, the fantasy league is going to argue that there is nothing that can be construed as the players' endorsing one fantasy league over another (i.e. if Nike used a player's name without consent, that would cause confusion to the public as to whether the player is saying that Nike is better than Adidas and the player would have a claim against Nike).

MLB is going to argue that the use of the names and stats is not being used for a newsworthy purpose and that fantasy leagues are profiting off the players' investment without their consent and without paying for it. For example, there is precedent holding that baseball card companies must pay a fee for the use of the players' names, pictures and stats. On the one hand, these card companies are clearly profiting and it doesn't have a newsworthy purpose, but on the other hand, there is no confusion to the public as to whether players are endorsing topps over fleer. There are other cases outside of the sports/celebrity context as well, in which plaintiffs have been successful without having to prove an "endorsement" element when the defendant is profiting off the plaintiff's name and likeness and there is not a newsworthy component involved.

This is an interesting case because it has a huge impact on lots of things (baseball cards, board games, etc.).

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 6/06/2006 8:50 AM  

I received the original "Rotisserie League Baseball" book as a Christmas gift in the early 80s. The next baseball season the neighborhood had established a Roto league. That continued through high school, college, etc. Sometimes there are modest amounts of money involved, sometimes not.

Even when money is involved, it is NEVER the issue. You join to enjoy the game (both fantasy and real) and to prove that you can best your friends. Getting $250 for winning your league pales in comparison to the pride you feel when you win and the rights you gain to trash talk your best friends until they threaten to never talk to you least not until the next season starts when they will try to gain those same rights for themselves.

As Rick said, MLB has never objected to the existence of fantasy leagues. It just has a problem with ESPN, Yahoo (etc.) capitalizing on them. Those services are not new...simply more accessible. In the late 80s a number of fantasy stat providers would compile a rotisserie league's stats. The commish would send in the raw data and the service would compile the stats and send back the standings, etc.

That was by snail mail and it wasn't a booming business, so MLB does not care.

MLB's complaint is really in the same vein as their purported ownership of player statistics. ESPN and Yahoo already have the stats...they are really just compiling them and providing a computer framework for the fantasy product.

I don't see how this is anything other than greed by the owners. Fantasy baseball promotes major league baseball...period. Anyone who says otherwise either doesn't like baseball (like some of the MLB owners) or has never played fantasy baseball. Believe me, if Pujols is on your fantasy team, you are much more likely to buy his MLB-licensed jersey at the local sporting goods store than if you see 24 Pujols plate appearances per season on ESPN.

If MLB succeeds, the Yahoos and ESPNs will pay for the rights and pass those on to consumers. Most consumers will be annoyed at MLB. Some consumers will view it as cost-prohibitive and simply not play.

Those who stop playing fantasy baseball will not immediately rush out and buy season tickets. Hell, most of them don't live in a major league city anyway.

Being rich and being smart are two uncorrelated concepts, and MLB has always been the "poster sport" for that concept.

Blogger ChapelHeel -- 6/06/2006 10:43 AM  

1. Because I have a fantasy team in all three major sports, I have the DirectTv package in all three sports. I spend more money and time on sports than I did before. Like betting, but better, it makes every game interesting; not just your home town team.

2. The allure is to prove you know more than others about something (anything). What difference does it make if its around the water cooler talking politics, in a pompous article, or in a fantasy sports game?

3. Even if MLB wins, how they intend to enforce it will be a mystery. Don't forget, fantasy sports existed long before the internet became popular. We crunched the numbers with pen and paper, and will do so again before paying absurd fees to MLB or their designees.

Anonymous smittybanton -- 6/06/2006 11:32 AM  

Just to clarify, the Yahoo's and ESPN's already pay for the right to use players names and statistics together. I really don;t see this as greed on the part of the league and the players. Why should these fantasy leagues (like, have the right to earn significant dollars using the names and identities of others? Why shouldn't the players share in the profits from the use of their names and statistics together? Rick's analogy is a good one -- the analogy to trading card companies having to pay the players for the right to use their name and likeness on a trading card.

Anonymous john -- 6/06/2006 11:36 AM  

I don't think the card companies are paying for the statistics on the back or the right to say "Chipper Jones, 3b, Atlanta Braves." No one would buy a card if that's all it said. The card companies are paying for the right to display player photos associated with team logos and such?

Haven't there been some cases where a player signed with a card company even though it didn't have an MLB license. I seem to recall that the player's photo appeared, but the team logos were airbrushed off.

I don't think it is a necessary component of a fantasy service that those things are involved. I see, however, that is using the team logos near a player's name. That is probably a problem. Sandbox is not, however, displaying player pages with photos.

If Sandbox removed the logo wouldn't MLB's case be weak, unless it claims a property interest in the stats (which hasn't worked in the past)? MLB will crumble its fan base if it wants to put a stranglehold on use of the statistics.

Maybe MLB ought to pay the fantasy services a marketing fee for promoting the sport.

Blogger ChapelHeel -- 6/06/2006 2:36 PM  

Obviously, there is a lot of confusion over this issue. The actual rights at issue here are the players' rights. The players' respective right of publicity. The MLB is involved because MLB Advanced Media, a separately-owned affiliate of MLB, licensed the rights from the Players Association, which had aggregated the players' rights (individual players assigned their rights in this area to the MLBPA).

The fact that the fantasy leagues only use the players names and statistics as opposed to their photographs doesn't mean the players have no rights. The right of publicity attaches to any characteristic that a reasonable person would identify with a player -- name, likeness, voice, etc. Simply put, third parties can't use an individual's name or identity for commercial purposes without such individual's consent.

Anonymous john -- 6/06/2006 3:00 PM  

Okay, let's try this, John. Then, according to you logic, newspapers cannot publish names and stats either, right? Newspapers are in it for business, right? How do fantasy leagues differ from newspapers or websites (which have advertising)?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/06/2006 3:12 PM  

I would argue that names and statistics are a matter of public domain and not licensible. Times have a changed.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/06/2006 3:19 PM  

Newspapers use the names and stats for legitimate editorial purposes. That has always been an exception to individuals' right of publicity. A newspaper can write an article that incidentally mentions that Brad Pitt was seen driving a Mercedes, but Mercedes can't advertise that Brad Pitt drives one of its cars.

Anonymous john -- 6/06/2006 3:43 PM  

I see. So really what needs to happen is we need a court to determine once and for all whether or not names and stats count as protectable property in the context of fantasy sports. I understand your point about editorial, but it would help if we had a court make a legal decision on this. Just so you know, I do not agree with your assertion that names and stats are protected under right of publicity, but I won't lose sleep if a court opines otherwise.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/06/2006 4:09 PM  


CBC's response is that they are not advertising "Albert Pujols plays fantasy baseball"; rather, they are incidentally mentioning that he went 2 for 4 last night. (At least that is my understanding of it).

It should be noted that MLB took almost the exact opposite position, i.e., CBC's current position, a few years ago when sued by several players. I don't purport to be familiar with that case, but from what I have read it would seem to be tough for MLB to reconcile why they have a 1st amendment right to present historical facts in merchandise which they are selling, but fantasy baseball operators do not have a right to present historical facts in the services in which they offer.

The case raises alot of interesting legal issues, but I would be very surprised if MLB is successful.

Blogger RPS -- 6/07/2006 1:54 AM  

An interesting joke I heard on television today: Fantasy football is basically Dungeons and Dragons for all the jocks who used to beat up the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons.

Anonymous Jason -- 6/07/2006 2:58 AM  

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