March madness is fantasy baseball

There is madness all around this time of year, absolute madness. Millions of work hours are lost. Productivity bogs down as people sneak televisions into the office or watch college basketball games streaming online on company computers. IT departments respond by having your company’s version of Nick Burns clog up the internet tubes in an effort to make viewing live-streaming video feeds nigh impossible. Millions of vacation days are used up as people spend a Thursday and Friday at the local sports bar.

True madness is epitomized by urology centers, which absurdly roll out commercials this time of year promoting the benefits of scheduling a vasectomy during the first rounds of the tournament, so recovery can be spent on the couch in front of the television while keeping a bag of frozen peas on your lap and those vacation days in the bank.

It’s the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, and it’s one of the most popular sporting events in the world. The first two days feature games starting around noon (EST), with a schedule that runs nearly continuously, right up until midnight (again, EST). It is affectionately known as “March Madness,” and it draws in even the most casual of sports fans. But it doesn’t draw all those fans just because of the games on the court.

Are all the lost hours of productivity and untold amount of monies wagered tied to people tracking their alma maters as they play in the NCAA tournament?

Nope.

Okay, maybe some people are—if they graduated from a basketball powerhouse like Kentucky, for example.

But the main reason the hours lost are colossal and the dollars wagered are so great is due to people tracking the results of their picks in tournament bracket contests. Sometimes the contest involves gambling, and the prizes can range from a fistful of dollars to paltry sums that only amount to milk money. Millions of dollars change hands in office pools and NCAA bracket wagers across the country. But, there’s not always a cash reward, as some contests are set up just for fun.

To give an idea of how many people fill out brackets, consider that millions will fill one out on ESPN.com, which is just one (albeit probably the largest) of thousands of contests held online. Besides, we all probably know at least one or two office pools we could enter.

But there’s more to gain from filling out the brackets than just winning a hundred bucks from your co-workers. People can gain a lot of satisfaction by making the right picks, proving they are better prognosticators than their peers. And, as the drama unfolds on the courts—the last-second shots, the upsets and the romps—the drama unfolds for each person as hir or her brackets either boom or bust.

Most of the country stresses for three weeks over their basketball bracket every March. Some might make their picks with almost no research involved but will still cling to the hope for a perfect bracket. That hope is inevitably dashed, whereupon most contestants modify their goals a bit, or simply begin to root for carnage in the form of any upset that will ruin their rival’s day.

Some may use anecdotal evidence alone, picking certain teams if they saw them play well in conference tournaments a week before. Some might make their picks dependant on which team’s mascot may be better than the other’s.

But some people put in hours of research. Some people check the RPI ratings, the Pomeroy Ratings, or the Bilas Index. Some read up on teams who play on the opposite coast and try to figure out who has favorable matchups. They may look for experienced teams or may put their stock in those who have the most talent.

No matter what type of research they put in or how many hours they spend doing it, nearly all of them follow the games religiously. When it comes down to it, these people are playing fantasy sports, picking “their” teams for their brackets. But most probably don’t make that connection, even if they find themselves pulling for some team they’ve never seen play to send Kansas home early in what’s become a nearly annual upset in round two.

All the while, a smaller portion of sports fans study copious notes and put in hours of research toward a different kind of contest, one that starts right around the time March Madness ends but will last all summer.

A portion of the public derides fantasy baseball players as a bunch of nerds placing importance in the results of their fantasy team over those on the field itself. To that portion of the public, men (and it’s mostly men who make up fantasy leagues) who play fantasy sports are essentially first cousins of men who still dress up and play Dungeons and Dragons.

Interestingly, a few of those people who hold such a negative opinion of fantasy baseball players might be the same people who would do something as embarassing as cheer for the Duke Blue Devils, even if they never had a single class there, only because they have them making the championship game in their bracket.

However, in spite of such derision, fantasy baseball nerds play their own form of “bracketology” in March. They study players, trends, and strategies, doing it all so they can win. Just like in the bracket contests, there could be significant prize money at stake, or just a makeshift trophy and the satisfaction of outplaying 13 of their friends.

But whereas bracket contestants are more commonplace and fantasy baseball players considered geeky, the latter is often a better fan of the game itself. The garden-variety fantasy baseball player would seldom throw together a team without at least a little research. In fact, many spend an incredible amount of time studying before the drafts and auctions that take place in March.

Even those who possess limited computer acumen are still able to cull statistics and projections from multiple baseball sites to produce a substantial data set. Players may use a projection system, such as THT Forecasts, so they can research projections specific to their league’s parameters. Some guys even purchase programs that can shift values and roll out statistics as the draft takes place.

Of course, there are public fantasy leagues set to auto-draft, where the participants are not quite as knowledgeable about the game as most fans. These are the NCAA-bracket version of people who simply pick the higher seed in every matchup.

But where a large portion of bracket contestants might make their picks willy-nilly, that type of fantasy player is in the minority. Fantasy sports is a huge industry. Football and baseball lead the way, but there are leagues for nearly every sport, and some things that really shouldn’t be considered sport, like bass fishing.

With the industry growing, players, especially in football and baseball, are becoming more and more sophisticated. They are also becoming more and more knowledgeable about whatever sport they base their game on.

Successful fantasy baseball owners can not only tell you who the closer is on every team in Major League Baseball, but they can also tell you the guy next in line for saves for that particular team should the closer lose his job. The winner of your local bracket pool may not be able to name a starter for Michigan State but may very well pencil them into the “Elite Eight” without a moment’s hesitation.

Serious fantasy baseball owners might be able to tell you that Dan Uggla played his college ball at the University of Memphis, even if they live 3,000 miles from Graceland. Not many people living outside of the Memphis area, even those who will fill out a bracket next week, could tell you who coaches the Tigers’ basketball team.

Fantasy baseball players don’t just memorize depth charts or trivia, though. Many will use any analytical tools they can find to help them better understand the real game in order to better compete at their “silly little game.” They can tell you what hitters are ready to rebound from an abnormally low BABIP last season or, conversely, the pitchers who may have gotten lucky in 2011 and are therefore more likely to disappoint.

And it’s that level of interest that makes fantasy baseball players the good fans that they are. Talking heads on ESPN may discount them, saying they are a joke because they often put the fortunes of their fantasy team ahead of those of their local professional franchise. But those same talking heads would be best served keeping quiet since their salaries are subsidized by fantasy sports players and their thirst for information from the networks they work for.

With local franchises losing players to free agency, it seems naive now to think loyalties to any particular club will run as deep as they used to. As Jerry Seinfeld might say, when you support your local pro team, you are basically “…cheering for their clothes.” Is it any sillier, then, to cheer for players on your fantasy team?

When you run a fantasy baseball team, you can cheer for your players, just like you cheer for your bracket in an NCAA pool. Those of you who come to this site regularly already know this.

But, there may be some time in the next week, while you are sifting through projections from multiple websites and are in the process of building the world’s biggest spreadsheet for your fantasy baseball auction, that someone may belittle you for spending so much time preparing for something as silly as a fantasy baseball league.

If that happens, just ask the offender if he or she filled out a bracket for this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. If they say they have, you may want to paraphrase Eddie Felson and explain that those brackets are for bangers. They draw people in because they are easy to fill out, easy to understand, and good for television. But fantasy baseball, well, you gotta be a real surgeon to play that game.

Oh, well, what the hell. Checkers sells more than chess, and March Madness is more popular than fantasy baseball. But don’t let someone tell you you’re not a real fan of baseball while they go crazy for the Davidson Wildcats in Round One.

Good luck in whatever league or bracket you’re competing in this year.

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