October 14, 2020
BY Lance Cartelli

Fantasy Football During COVID-19

The NFL season might be in full swing, but nothing is as it was before. The newly-minted Las Vegas Raiders have officially opened the doors to their new stadium, and the Washington Football Team might not have a team moniker for the foreseeable future, but even those aren’t the biggest changes in the world of professional football. 

With COVID-19, nothing about 2020 is normal, and the NFL is no exception. In the first week of the regular season, five head coaches were fined a collective $1.7 million for violating the rules of wearing face masks on the sidelines. In September, the Tennessee Titans versus Pittsburgh Steelers became the first NFL game to be postponed after multiple Titans players and personnel members tested positive for COVID-19. The football experience has been different for fans, too. A majority of teams are playing games — possibly throughout the entire season —  without fans in attendance, and fantasy football players have different factors to consider as well. 

So exactly how much of an impact is the coronavirus having on fantasy football in 2020? To find out, we surveyed over 1,000 fantasy football players for a peek into the new normal for their leagues and the season ahead. Here we break down how many people are playing less fantasy football this season; how many are worried the season might still be canceled (and how that would impact their league plans); and how their drafting strategies have evolved as a result of the pandemic.

Are You Ready For Some (Fantasy) Football?

For millions of fans, fantasy football has become a game unto itself. In 2017, more than 59 million people in the U.S. played some form of fantasy sports and 80% of them played fantasy football. 

Among the more than 1,000 people polled, the average respondent reported playing in four different fantasy football leagues prior to the 2020 season. During the 2020 campaign, players reduced their participation to three fantasy football leagues, on average. Most notably, the biggest shift seemed to be among players participating in more than four fantasy football leagues. Prior to the 2020 NFL season, 38% of respondents indicated playing in four or more fantasy football leagues. During the 2020 NFL season, however, just 23% of respondents were involved in four or more leagues. 

Playing fantasy football successfully requires fans to pay special attention to individual players, tracking their progress and potential with near-mathematical precision. For fantasy football fans, the virtual experience doesn’t just create an opportunity to run their own — albeit, imaginary — teams or win money if they’re playing in a cash league, though. Fantasy football gives fans a different way to interact with friends or colleagues who are similarly invested in their favorite sports. While 61% of respondents reported drafting their fantasy teams in a virtual environment, 26% attended drafts in person, and 13% did some combination of both. 

Ready to Risk It All

While at one point it seemed that collegiate football would be completely canceled in 2020, all five of the major conferences about-faced on their original positions, postponing the start of NCAA football while amending their team schedules. As teams and the league navigate player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of fans (51%) are still worried the season could be canceled at some point as a result of the pandemic.

Fans surveyed were willing to go to extreme lengths if it meant they could play their fantasy leagues without the NFL season being canceled in 2020. Forty percent of respondents were willing to stop smoking cigarettes, and 39% said they would quit drinking alcohol if it meant they could play fantasy football uninterrupted. While generally less popular, some fans upped the ante in a personal way. Eighteen percent of fantasy football players would forgo their next paycheck to keep the season from being canceled, and 17% admitted they would give up sex for the rest of 2020. Not to be outdone, nearly 15% of fantasy football fans said they would contract COVID-19 in order to play fantasy football without the NFL season being canceled. 

It's All About the Benjamins

Over the years, fantasy football has grown to a $7 billion industry, with major companies like DraftKings and FanDuel getting in on the action and making money on entry fees for players and advertising revenue. Even if they don’t choose to play in cash leagues, players can win major cash prizes with small buy-in fees on platforms like DraftKings. 

While 44% of fantasy football players reported playing in free leagues, 37% of fans were playing in paid leagues for the 2020 season, and 20% were playing in both free and paid leagues. Among those paying to play fantasy football, the average spend was $255. Compared to seasons past, 45% of players reported paying the same amount to play fantasy football in 2020, though 28% were paying somewhat more, and 6% were paying much more to participate in their fantasy leagues. 

The Covid-19 Conundrum

Unlike the NBA or the NHL, where games were being played in a “bubble” to limit or eliminate travel between destinations or unnecessary exposure to COVID-19, the NFL is playing its normal schedule in teams’ stadiums. Essential players and personnel are tested daily for COVID-19, and any player who tests positive will be isolated and denied access to team facilities or direct contact with other players or coaches. Asymptomatic players will have to wait 10 days after a positive test in order to return to the game, and players with symptoms must wait at least 10 days from when symptoms first appear and 72 hours after symptoms dissipate before returning. 

Given that a positive coronavirus test would sideline a player for at least one game, 63% of fantasy football players indicated the pandemic played into their draft strategy. The most common protocols included making plans in the event that an NFL team was forced to forfeit a game if a player contracted COVID-19 and if a team expanded their overall roster due to the pandemic (64% each). 

Thirty-two percent of players drafted a running back with their first overall pick, while others initially opted for a quarterback (21%), a wide receiver (14%), or a tight end (10%). The least common first overall pick was for a kicker (8.1%).

Other Forms of Fantasy

Fantasy football might be the most popular variant of fantasy sports, but it isn’t the only type of fantasy league fans participate in. 

Thirty-six percent of fantasy football players also play fantasy leagues for the NBA, followed by the MLB (29%), NHL (25%), and tennis (20%). While less common, 8% of fantasy football players also participate in leagues based on the reality TV show The Bachelor. In these leagues, fans can score points based on various occurrences on the show, including rose ceremonies, group dates and confessions of love.

Get Your Sports Fix

There’s no way to predict what the 2020 NFL season will bring or how COVID-19 might impact the game. While some fantasy football players would go to great personal lengths to prevent the season from being canceled, a majority have created contingency plans in the event that their players or teams are negatively impacted by the pandemic. While many fantasy football players are participating in fewer leagues in 2020, some are putting more money on the line instead. 

No matter how many leagues you’re in, Lines has the sports news you need to stay up to date on your favorite players. From the NFL and the NBA to the NCAAF and NCAAB, Lines has all of the breaking news, fantasy statistics, and sports trends you’re looking for in one place. Explore scores, standings, future schedules, stats, and more by visiting today.

Methodology and Limitations

We collected responses from 1,011 sports fans using Amazon Mechanical Turk. To qualify for the survey, respondents had to indicate that they participated in fantasy football. Of the 1,011 fans surveyed, 30%were female, 69.9% were male, and less than 1% identified as nonbinary. Additionally, respondents ranged in age from 18 to 77 with an average of 36 and a standard deviation of nine years.

The main limitation of this study is the reliance on self-report, which is faced with several issues such as, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping. Data is solely representative of self-reported claims by fans, and no association with teams, venues, or cities should be inferred. This survey ran during September 2020.

Fair Use Statement

During the COVID-19 pandemic, fantasy football might just be one of the most normal things about life. Share the insights of this study with your readers for any noncommercial use by including a link back to this page so they have access to our full findings and methodology.