Almanack: Anoraks galore aboard the fantasy bandwagon

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The Independent Online
IT ALL seemed so innocent at first. But look what monsters the Fantasy Football League has spawned: the inanities of Baddiel and Skinner; Fantasy Cricket in the Times; Fantasy Racing in the Sporting Life; Fantasy F1, Fantasy Formula One and Fantasy Grand Prix in Carweek, Top Gear and Autosport respectively. Non-sportspersons are not safe: the London Evening Standard's media pages last week launched Fantasy Advertising, surely the saddest manifestation yet.

The Daily Telegraph must take the blame for starting the epidemic with their Fantasy Football promotion. David Welch, the newspaper's sports editor, is pragmatic in its defence. 'I don't disapprove of the idea,' he says, 'because anything that attracts interest from 300,000 readers is a fairly popular exercise.' He points out that the weekly promotion isn't on the sports pages. 'If it took space away from genuine sports coverage, you would get a different response.'

Autosport is the latest publication on the bandwagon. According to Bruce Jones, the editor, Fantasy Grand Prix addresses a particular readership problem. 'Some people buy the magazine simply to read about the grands prix,' Jones says, 'but won't buy it in the intervening weeks. So our sales go up, down, up, down from March to November.'

Fantasy Grand Prix, he hopes, will 'smooth out' the readership by hooking readers for non-grand prix weeks. But doesn't it trivialise the sport? 'No, not at all,' Jones says. 'We think it encourages people to think at a rather more complex level.'

This is the most frequent justification for fantasy games: that they increase interest in a sport. But all they really do is increase interest in results. Fantasists don't care how stylishly their sportsmen perform, as long as they qualify for points under the complex rules of fantasy competitions.

Where will it all end? The genre is already beyond parody. It would be no surprise at all to open, say, Country Life and find a spread devoted to Fantasy Foxhunting, to discover Dream Darts in the Morning Advertiser or Fantasy Politics in the Spectator.

Stan Hey, the television scriptwriter who created the worthwhile sporting fantasies The Manageress and All In the Game, is not a fan of dream leagues. 'It appeals to statistic freaks, anoraks, really,' Hey says . 'The patron saint is John Motson. I link it to pub quizzes as well - the cult of knowledge for its own sake.' Other critics point out that because the 'values' of competitors are decreed by league organisers the pastime amounts to doing the pools when every result is decided by the pools panel.

'Why hasn't anyone come up with a Fantasy Football Association?' Stan Hey asks. 'Whereby you get a bunch of competent officials to run the game, and you pick your own FA Council, like, Sir John Harvey-Jones, Gary Lineker . . .' One can but dream.