Fantasy Footy with The Boys

I understand that the Footy Almanac isn’t really a place for Fantasy Footy. But so many footy stories – and by that I mean the real footy stories – are the stories about how the game brings us together. They’re about families, about everlasting friendships, and about communicating in a way that we wouldn’t without the common language that is our chosen sport.



These are the stories that matter, of course. On their death beds, members of the footy community aren’t reminiscing about trade weeks and sponsorship rows and television rights. They’re remembering the people. The tradition. The joy. The connection.



And that, for me, is where fantasy footy begins and ends.



Last year, a Boston Globe headline warned us that “the biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Those of us in our fantasy footy comp aren’t worried, though. Sure, I don’t see ‘The Boys’ as often as I’d like – there are, as the Globe article stated, jobs and kids and houses to look after in ways that didn’t exist once upon a time. But our league, and its inherent camaraderie masquerading as competition, goes on. For it predates all of those kids and houses. It predates all of our wives, for that matter. It predates some of us leaving our fair hometown only to eventually return. But wherever we’ve been, we’ve always been together while the footy’s on.



The Boys and I have looked on in surprise and wonder over the years as Fantasy Footy has taken its place in the mainstream. It still strikes us as peculiar that various versions of fantasy scores are projected onto screens at halftime, let alone the Melbourne dailies and the AFL website having specific fantasy commentary. As a mob who’ve been at this caper for a while, we’ve always lived by the age-old adage that no-one outside of your fantasy league cares about your fantasy league. To a great extent, with the exception of our wives and a few jealous mates who’d love to be in a comp like ours, we still maintain such a belief. But please, indulge me for a moment, and allow me to explain.



“Dynasty” or “Keeper” fantasy leagues like ours aren’t created in the same vein as those that have traditionally been run by the AFL or the Herald Sun. Rather, they involve an annual, AFL-style draft, meaning that you can’t own players that others in your league also have. There are no salary caps, and you can’t just pick up and drop players as you like mid-season – if one of your guys is in a slump, you do what real AFL clubs do and send them back to the reserves. We have 40 players on our lists and keep 20 from year to year, releasing the others back into our draft pool during the off-season trading period. We build teams just like they do in the real competition, with one eye on this year and another on the future.



In 1996, well before we realised that our competition was going to last for the remainder of our lives, the first pick in our inaugural draft was Gary Ablett Senior. He was well past his prime, and had we actually thought about the strategy of building a fantasy team designed for consecutive years of success, we might have drafted in a more nuanced “looking towards the future” fashion. It’s fun, though, to throw his name around as our first pick. He seems worthy of the distinction. Tony Lockett won the Fantasy Brownlow that year. He joined Loewe, Hird, Voss, Carey, Kelly, Buckley, Burke, Roos and others in our Fantasy All-Australian team. Jim Stynes was in it too. 20 years later, at our 2016 Draft, all of our usual Draft Night banter stopped for a moment when we reached the 6th pick. It was time to toast the Irishman who had been selected in that spot 20 years earlier. Actually, we paused for more than a moment. Everyone wanted to talk about Jimmy. We repeated the act again prior to pick 75. That was Paul Couch.



In a league like ours, our relationships with individual players can become beautifully, ridiculously, intensely personal. When Brent Harvey retired, he had played 310 fantasy games for my brother. Dustin Martin has played 190 AFL games, and 172 of those have been fantasy games for one of my competitors. Own a player for a few years, let alone a decade, in a fantasy footy competition and just try not to become attached to them.



Fantasy footy is often credited with enhancing its players’ interest in games that they might otherwise see as fairly meaningless. It certainly serves us that way. But we all know that at its heart, it’s not really about our love for individual players, or our need for some investment in the Sunday twilight fixture between the Dockers and Suns. Rather, this is our version of my father’s book club, or my father-in-law’s time on the golf course with his equivalent of ‘The Boys’. It naturally keeps us all together, embroiled in a shared experience that over time has developed its own marvellously daft folklore.



One day, somewhere off in what we hope will be the distant future, one of us won’t be able to join in the fantasy fun anymore. Maybe we won’t be able to keep up with the statistics and tactics, or we’ll realise we’re watching the teams run through their banners and we can’t remember which players are ours, or some other fate that awaits us will arrive. I know it’s pathetic to think of such a time when it’s so far away, but there’s something strangely life-affirming about it feeling like the only possible progression in our lives of which we can be certain. And it’s not that crazy to think about, of course. We’re already drafting kids who weren’t born when we started this competition. I was in Year 12 then. It was more than half a lifetime ago.



For now, we’ll just continue to soak up fantasy footy and all of its fun. We’ll all be together every year on Draft Night and Brownlow Night. And we’ll all be talking crap throughout the season via phone or email or text or whatever technology will exist, even when we’re in our seventies and drafting kids who are fifty-odd-years younger than us and we’re toasting Stynes and Couch and more of their peers once another 10 years pass since their entry into our league last century.



So much has changed.



But this – if only this – stays the same.



Next month, The Boys will hold their first AFL Fantasy Draft Hall of Fame induction ceremony. While it will surely be an honour for those players who are inducted, The Boys readily admit it’s a fairly transparent excuse to spend a third night each year drinking red, talking footy, and revelling in each other’s company.


About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.

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