Another simple happiness hack: fantasy sports

Speaking of happiness hacks, few are as simple for sports fans as joining a fantasy league. I'm reminded of this on the inaugural day of the NFL season after having finished two fantasy football drafts.

The quantity of MLB and NFL games is largely unchanged from my youth, but my enjoyment of that set of games has increased by a non-trivial margin thanks to fantasy sports. With the same volume of games, I now can enjoy multiple narratives of suspense, not just that of my home team's fortunes. You can start a fantasy league for very low cost, have everyone throw in some small amount to create a pot, and the level of your enjoyment per game will increase quite a bit. It's the same reason I force myself to fill out a March Madness bracket each year, even though I really don't follow college basketball. It raises the emotional stakes of each game which I'd otherwise care little about, usually for the cost of a lunch.

Fantasy football is the game to choose if you want a low level of commitment as the league can be set up so you really only need to make decisions once or twice a week. It's become somewhat of an expensive habit, though, as it spurred me to subscribe to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket. I'd love to see a survey of what percentage of NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers play fantasy football, but I'd suspect a healthy portion of that subscriber base signed up for more real time tracking of their fantasy roster.

MLB has been somewhat hostile to fantasy sports players in the past, bringing a lawsuit against fantasy baseball websites claiming that the names and statistics of its players were intellectual property and needed to be licensed. They lost that case. The NFL, on the other hand, has seemed more hip to the fact that fantasy football players are more engaged NFL fans, and NFL's Sunday Ticket channels even include the option to create a custom list of your fantasy team players so you can receive alerts as to significant performance milestones onscreen while you're watching other games. Rather than fight the trend, as MLB did, the NFL has embraced it and even started to collect additional revenue through NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers.

Fantasy baseball can be more of a commitment given the 162 game season, but my friend Arne created a fantasy baseball simulation called Mendoza Baseball that reduces the volume of work required over rotisserie baseball. Beyond increasing my enjoyment of poring through each night's box scores, it's made me a more educated MLB fan.

Mendoza Baseball is more of a simulation of being a real-life general manager in MLB than rotisserie baseball. As an owner of a team in Mendoza, you're subject to most of MLB's rules in terms of luxury tax, arbitration, free agency, roster sizes, etc. You draft and maintain a roster of minor league players as well. Over the years it's taught me a ton about the complexities of MLB's payroll rules and of roster construction. In the same way baseball cards helped me commit the statistics of MLB players to memory, playing Mendoza Baseball has implanted the names of most MLB team's top minor league players in my head.

It's not a stretch to think that more realistic simulations like this might allow young fans to become extremely well-versed in the intricacies of roster construction in the same way that online poker and chess have allowed young prodigies to develop their games more quickly than in generations past just by the sheer volume of exposure to high level competition at an early age.