March Madness has ended and baseball season has just begun, prompting plenty of trash-talking about brackets and fantasy teams. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Duke basketball (relatives live near there) and Boston Red Sox (family grew up here) fan. You can imagine my chagrin, then, when I objectively picked the University of North Carolina to win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament rather than my beloved Duke. It’s the same feeling that I had last year when several groups of my friends asked me to join their fantasy baseball leagues, and I ended up with several Yankees players, including Alex Rodriguez.
“Wait,” you say. “If you picked UNC to win, you probably did pretty well in your bracket—they did get to the Final Four. You should want players like Alex Rodriguez on your team, since they have fantastic individual statistics.” Well, both are true: my bracket was decent up until Kansas throttled UNC, and I won one of my fantasy leagues. But I found it unnatural to root for a team that I have cheered against for years, both during regular season games and the tournament itself, for the sake of winning a bracket. As for hoping that Alex Rodriguez performed at a high level for a whole season, just so I could do well in my fantasy leagues? Yeah, not so much. That ship sailed a long time ago, right around the time he put on pinstripes.
This dilemma intensified during the UNC-Kansas game. My bracket said that I should root for UNC, but my heart told me to cheer for Kansas. Ultimately, I settled on a passive-aggressive middle-ground of being frustrated that a team I normally despise for playing so well was playing so poorly. (This just reinforces my hatred for UNC. The one time I am pseudo-cheering for them is also the time they decide to play a streaky, sloppy game.) It really should have been a win-win situation: whether UNC won (bracket = happy) or UNC lost (Duke fan = happy), the key feeling was supposed to be happiness. And even though I realized this, the situation still felt odd.
So the question remains, is it disloyal to cheer for individual players or teams other than your own for the purpose of winning an arbitrary bracket or league?
More broadly, do brackets and fantasy leagues taint the purity of affiliating yourself with a team?
In general, I say no on both counts. Filling out a bracket usually involves reading up on teams, checking out their statistics and head-to-head records, and so forth. The same goes for fantasy teams; people read up on players from teams that they normally would ignore. “Whatever, he plays for the Royals, why should I care what his name is?” becomes “Alex Gordon is such a hot prospect. He may have started off slowly last year, but he has so much upside! He could be the next George Brett!”
Superior athletes on small-market teams, whether college or professional, are hidden from the casual fan until they receive major media exposure. In recent years, “bracketology” and fantasy updates have become integral parts of sports coverage, and so it is the case that March Madness and fantasy leagues have increased the popularity of college basketball and pro baseball. Look at Davidson College, the media darling and Cinderella team of the 2008 tournament. Can you honestly say that you knew who Stephen Curry was before March Madness rolled around and Davidson became a bracket-buster?
Brackets and fantasy leagues not only give players exposure, but they also encourage casual fans to pay attention to results and even watch games. Friends who normally tease me for being abnormally attached to my scoreboards and transaction pages also start checking the results and statistics lines. So long as they are interested, why should the reason for their interest matter?
Finally, one thing I have not yet addressed is the direct conflict of a favorite team versus a bracket team. To me, this is an obvious decision: if I have to choose between my bracket/league and my favorite team winning, I will always choose the latter. Is this monetarily foolish? Perhaps, (sorry, Dad) but the joy in watching my favorite teams win far exceeds the amount of pride derived from winning a bracket pool or fantasy league.
Well, that, and the fact that I know that my cheering has no effect on the outcome.