I've been running a fantasy baseball league and a fantasy football league for about 15 years. Each is a yearly re-draft league, no keepers, so every year is different and every year is a total restart. When you've run a league for that long -- and because I'm a Midwestern dope, we don't do it for money; it is merely for pride, because money ruins everything -- you have certain people who have been in the league for years, and certain people who pop in and out. People have families now, and shifting priorities and increasingly busy lives, and they don't have the time to follow fantasy sports the way they might have in 1999. It happens.
Here's the main thing I've noticed, though: No matter how busy you are, you're never too busy for fantasy football. You can be a foreign diplomat, or a White House correspondent, or a high-priced corporate lawyer, but you'll never give up your fantasy football team. All you have to do is show up for draft day, and the rest of the season is easy to follow along. It is low maintenance. My league never loses fantasy football players.
Fantasy baseball, though? Man, we have to replenish every year. It's right around this time of year when I start receiving the apologetic notes. "Sorry, Will, just gonna be a busy summer, just can't find the time to hang in with the league." This is always followed by: "It's just a lot of work, you know?"
And it is. Fantasy baseball and fantasy football are ostensibly connected because they are pursuits in which we use statistics to create artificial competitions amongst our peers. (And because they're becoming a rather consistent revenue stream for leagues and media companies.) But they're really not all that similar. Fantasy baseball requires a ton more work. Fantasy football is for casual observers; fantasy baseball is for diehards. It's not all that different than the sports themselves.
Just look at the analytics of both. There has been a movement toward deeper-dive, sabermetric-esque analysis of fantasy football in recent years, from NumberFire to Revolution Analytics to a tool SAP launched last year. These are still laughably crude -- Intel made a big show of a fantasy football play by boasting that they had sat down and talked with Jerry Rice, who I guarantee you has never played fantasy football in his life -- and this is still a pastime whose most high-profile advocate/expert is the noted sports scientist Dr. Matthew Berry. (And his research associate Tucker Max.) Suffice it to say, fantasy football is a casual pursuit, even among those who pursue it most avidly.
Fantasy baseball, though, is arguably the next phase of advanced baseball analytics. Ron Shandler, as documented in Sam Walker's terrific book Fantasyland, is basically the Bill James of the field, using deep-dive statistical trends to project fantasy trends in a similar way to sabermetricians in the real sport. (Shandler still writes for Baseball HQ, the site he started, but the site has moved beyond him to further fields of research.) You can lose yourself in fantasy baseball analysis, and learn a little about the game itself. Through fantasy baseball, I better understand contact rate, and isolated power, and dom rate and all sorts of other business. There are exceptions -- RBIs being the ideal example -- but on the whole, fantasy baseball and actual baseball are connected. Fantasy football has almost nothing to do with actual football; it just affects the way we watch it on television.
And to play fantasy baseball, you really have to pay attention. Your average fantasy baseball roster has a full 24 players on it, which means in a league of 12 members, you have to constantly be aware of roughly 400 players. (Considering the players on your roster and on the waiver wire.) In football, it's about 200, and that's only if you're counting kickers and team defenses. If you play in a daily league, the wire is constantly open to you, which means you have to know every team's rotation, starting lineup and potential prospects … just to have a chance. Damn right it's a lot of work.
This is what makes fantasy baseball so difficult, and what makes it so worth it. You can't coast in fantasy baseball, and if you do it right, it becomes a daily companion from March until September. You must be serious about it. It's a way to follow along with the sport, to know more. Fantasy football just teaches you about the skill position players; fantasy baseball teaches you about the game.
Fantasy baseball still has some improvements to make. Some of the advanced leagues have moved from batting average to on-base percentage to reflect a better understandings of what's important, and eventually you have to think RBIs will go by the wayside as well. (It's strange to have a statistic so valued in fantasy baseball so mocked by the decision makers within the game.) But that's sort of the point, too: Fantasy baseball is important and immersive enough to change with the times. Fantasy football is for funny TV shows and something to yell about during games that otherwise wouldn't matter to you.
It is fantasy baseball draft season, and I'm sure I'll lose a few more players from my league this year. That's fine. It'll be worth it. Fantasy baseball is only for those who care. It's supposed to be work. That's why it's so fun.