The Social Impact of Fantasy Sport Becomes an Academic Reality

Brody Ruihley

James M. Loy, Miami University's College of Education, Health, and Society

As a social phenomenon and a burgeoning industry, fantasy sport is clearly on the rise. From informal matchups among friends and co-workers, to the more competitive online realm of highly involved professional players, fantasy sport has entered the collective consciousness of a growing mainstream audience, and it appears to be enjoying its stay.

For many players, fantasy sport is simply a way to further indulge a passion for sports, while also providing an entertaining and immersive form of social interaction. For others, it is an emerging industry and a lucrative business, as well as a compelling means to engage fans in ways that are attracting the attention of bigtime sports media and communication outlets.

But for Brody Ruihley, Assistant Professor in Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society (EHS), fantasy sport has become the conduit that combines innovative academic work and valuable public scholarship. By studying the significance of a rapidly evolving sports media landscape through the lens of fantasy sport, Ruihley is exploring the impact this new pastime is having on sports, culture, and even on society at large.

And he is also one of the very first academics to do so.

“It is a truly unique industry to look at,” Ruihley explained. “We see different things as to why people compete, and the motivations change. Self-esteem is involved, competition, socializing, comradery. And we even look at some of the more traditional motivations like consumption, online consumption, and why we watch media. Some of the knocks that fantasy sport receives in some of our research is that it is not real. But we argue right away that it is very real.”

Fantasy sport is now reverberating across all corners of the sports stratosphere, encompassing everything from football, baseball, and hockey to golf, rugby, soccer, and even auto racing.

But to say that fantasy sport is simply becoming “popular” would be an understatement. In fact, Ruihley uses the term “legitimized,” which more accurately reflects the impactful nature of both their social appeal and long-term transformative potential.

According to Ruihley, approximately 57.4 million people currently play fantasy sport. That number is large enough to put fantasy sport in league with many of the major social media channels. It is also a number that is quickly growing, and it is just as quickly attracting the attention of many sports and media juggernauts interested in attracting this expanding audience.

But beyond just sheer numbers, fantasy sport has become the focal point for a complex study of cultural interactions that are redefining how people watch and consume sporting events all over the world. In the book, “The Fantasy Sport Industry,” which is the first academic text of its kind, Ruihley and his co-author Andrew Billings, a professor at the University of Alabama, describe fantasy sport as nothing less than a total “game changer.”

A few short years ago, fantasy sport was written off as just a “Dungeons & Dragons” for sports-obsessed geeks. More recently, however, it has been wholly embraced by ESPN, Fox Sports, Yahoo, and more. Sirius XM now features a dedicated fantasy sport satellite radio station and FX launched a sitcom called “The League,” which ran for seven seasons. Other professionals, such as ESPN on-air personality Mathew Berry, have even based their entire careers around the activity, as have legions of writers, producers, and statistical analysts.

Ruihley’s work has been to track and measure the rise of this phenomenon throughout various demographic subsets and across numerous areas of cultural impact. He’s studied the differences between traditional and fantasy sport fans, between men and women, and between numerous categorical segments. He’s also explored players’ respective motivations for continued engagement, reasons for their initial interest, numerous identity-related concepts, diversity issues, the growing business behind the game, and more.

So far, much of the data has shown that typical fantasy sport users consume two to three times more content from sports media outlets than traditional fans do. Furthermore, unlike the typical reasons generally espoused for enjoying more conventional types of media such as movies, for example, escapism is not one of the primary motivators for playing, which means that fantasy sport inherently takes a much more active, integral, and immersive role in the daily lives of its participants.

“Fantasy sport users are the real deal, and they are a consumer you want,” said Ruihley. “They are constantly looking. Their eyeballs are constantly on screens. You’ve got websites that are dedicated to the term called “stickiness,” which is how long people go to a site and stay there. They want the news there, they want the weather report there, they want the stats, the projections. These are amazing sports fans.”

Ruihley’s work could have tremendous implications for a sports and media industry that is - like most industries across the contemporary landscape - struggling to find new and effective ways to connect to an increasingly fractured and diversified audience-base.

And by turning an empirical focus toward the emergence and importance of this increasingly dominant subculture, he is also helping to advance public scholarship in exciting new ways. It is allowing Ruihley to bridge the gap between the often isolated halls of academia and the larger outside world, which is typically more interested in practical application over arcane knowledge building.

“It is absolutely brilliant for sports media, to keep people involved and interested,” he said. “And that is still evolving.”

There is no denying the cultural ubiquity and importance associated with traditional sports, and their underlying significance has already been well documented. The competition and teamwork involved, as well as the communal comradery, social bonding, and entertainment-related aspects of sports all speak to very fundamental aspects of human nature.

But now it appears as if fantasy sport is poised to add another dynamic to this cultural heritage. One that is successfully, and rapidly, impacting the overarching social framework in which it exists, while simultaneously continuing to build a unique community-minded momentum all of its own.

“Studying fantasy sport, it being so young, is innovative,” said Ruihley. “It is something that has created this immense passion and culture around sports. And so studying this, advancing this, seeing the importance of it, I believe is innovative in and of itself. We are tackling a topic area that is not out there yet. We are looking at this new ‘wild west’ of sports where there is incredible activity.”