The Premier League has bigger problems than Grealish’s Fantasy Football injury leak

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If Fantasy Football seems more intrusive than ever in the Premier League, it’s because it is.

Once an amusing prelude to the latest Premier League season as league codes are shared and heads are scratched over which expensive players to invest in, which promoted players might be the undervalued bargain in your side or who could be the differential to get you ahead of the pack in the opening weeks, it’s become a huge part of the weekly process of being a Premier League football fan and has become more and more intertwined with the real life game.

Before that was the case, depending on how things went, despite a wildcard dash in week three or four, oftentimes by Christmas you’d forget to check your team one Friday in work and by mid-January you’d be well out of the running anyway.

A construct of the sport’s emergence in the digital age, the rise of data analytics and a propulsion by lockdown boredom has fantasy football having a boom year. It’s no longer something you put a meagre amount of research into in a given week like in the early days. It’s become big business where cash is exchanged between friends and work colleagues and annual subscriptions are paid to websites that will do the analysis for you and guide you through getting ahead of Brian in the Tax department. Experts are popping up all over the place to provide advice and recommendations, excel sheets are blazoned with data and numbers and hours of analysis is devoted to ‘double gameweeks’ – where a player has two real life games within the one fantasy week, offering fantasy managers a chance to cash in on double the points.

Although the classic fantasy game provided by the official Premier League site hasn’t been monetised, there are alternatives out there where you can try your hand at winning cash in addition to some pride in your friend group league. In America, the emergence of sites like DraftKings and other daily fantasy providers has turned the fantasy sports sector into a multi-million-dollar business.

DraftKings has become one of the biggest gambling companies in the world, offering a new spin on sports betting in America which was once restricted to betting windows in Las Vegas. As laws are eased across states, DraftKings has catapulted into a worldwide corporation where you essentially make a bet on what players you expect to perform on any given day, earning winnings based on their return of fantasy points. It’s only a matter of time until Saturday’s €5 accumulators are replaced with this sort of betting format in English football.

Indeed, Paddy Power are already offering daily fantasy markets, allowing you to cash in on your fantasy expertise without the need for a season-long commitment.

The recent story of Jack Grealish’s injury, leaking on social media after an eagle-eyed fantasy player noted teammates of his at Aston Villa and other professionals had dropped him from their teams, has sparked an inevitable conversation as to the ethics and impact of fantasy football in the real-life game.

Fantasy football aside, the fact teams can keep injuries a secret right up until kick-off is questionable in itself – as a comparison, NFL teams are required by the league to divulge all type of knocks and injuries on a daily basis or fear punishment in the form of fines. In effect, this offers fantasy players and gamblers a clearer picture of what they’re investing their time and money into come game day.

The intertwining of fantasy and American football is a common occurrence in the States, where a player may not score on purpose to draw down the clock, much to the fury of avid digital managers or gamblers who have big money riding on the game.

This is now starting to creep into the English Premier League. Patrick Bamford recently joked that he regretted passing to teammate Jack Harrison rather than shooting because he had himself in his own fantasy line-up. Although it was taken in jest after a game Leeds won impressively, it does provide a small glimmer behind the curtain that fantasy implications may be more on the mind of players than we might realise. It is now pretty common for players to have their own leagues and easily-accessible information on the site. Armchair fantasy managers are no doubt keeping a beady eye on players’ teams and seeing who they’re buying, selling, benching, or what opponents they have in their line-ups.

The news of Grealish’s injury – which has resulted in the Aston Villa players getting banned from the game by the club – has shown how tactics in the digital game can impact the real-life concerns of players and managers. Pep Guardiola has called it ‘unethical and unprofessional’. But it is, ultimately, a free-to-play game and a small amusement for players, no doubt easing some lockdown boredom. Until it impacts the actual goings-on on the pitch or the money-making element becomes a wider issue with player involvement, it should be of little concern to the Premier League.

The Premier League should have more pressing concerns on how it promotes and accepts gambling in football. The league has done nothing to stem the chokehold gambling firms have in the sport, and the rise of daily fantasy games is just another way these companies will cash in on followers of the league.

Clubs are littered with gambling sponsorship and huge revenue is earned on both sides of the relationship. But when Kieran Trippier tells his friends about his imminent transfer to Atletico Madrid, he is the one who is slapped with a multi-game suspension in defence of the insanely wealthy betting corporations who were done out of a few quid.

SkyBet routinely rackets transfer rumours in tow with a market on the player signing for that club and that seems to be ok by the Premier League’s standards.

And now players who are innocently partaking in a free fantasy game, along with over seven million people worldwide, face the brunt of the anger and punishment from the powers in charge. Will professional players be banned entirely from joining in future? If the league and managers believe this is an unethical instep into the sanctity of the dressing room, then that’s the logical next step.

But don’t expect the league to be as quick to stop the gambling companies that are continuing to profit on the players who just wanted to play a bit of fantasy football.

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Kevin Coleman

Founder and co-editor of Back Page Football.

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