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Volume 22 No. 32
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Rise of fantasy football played big part in league’s growth

Research shows that fantasy sports players watch more live games.
Photo: getty images

An Oakland Raiders minority owner and two newspaper men cooked up the rules for the first version of fantasy football during a road trip in 1962. The Raiders went 1-13 that season, and the game provided a welcome distraction to the men. 

It took 40 more years, but once fantasy football finally emerged as a transformative force, the NFL was completely changed as the hobby-turned-obsession drove engagement in the league.

“I challenge anybody to come up with a single element in the history of football that has changed and progressed the game more than fantasy football has,” said Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association. “It has been a seismic shift in how the game is consumed and the level of interest. This created a whole new level of fandom that was never on the map before.” 

More than 59 million people played fantasy sports in 2017, according to the FSGA; 80% of those played fantasy football.

“Those fans engage with content and with programs and with live games, more than any other fan base,” said Raphael Poplock, a former vice president of interactive games and partnerships at ESPN and now a Bleacher Report executive. “I think everyone is realizing the direct impact and value this base of fans has.” 

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Bill Winkenbach was a Raiders limited partner with no input into the running of the NFL team. Over drinks in an 8th Avenue hotel in New York City, Winkenbach and the two journalists settled on fantasy football’s first rules.

Fantasy football developed into a niche hobby for thousands, but its popularity trailed the baseball version of the game for decades. The NFL regular season lasted only 16 weeks, so fantasy football required less investment of time and energy than other fantasy sports, baseball especially.

Ian Allan and Bruce Taylor produced the first national magazine — Fantasy Football Index — devoted solely to fantasy football in 1987, printing 5,000 copies and calling newsstand wholesalers one-by-one to explain fantasy football to them.

The publication’s popularity exploded within three years. Index became the topic’s national sales leader for the next two decades, and the half-dozen phones in Allan and Taylor’s office rang continually as readers called seeking updates on injuries or advice on starting lineups. 

The rise of the internet in the early ’90s completely revolutionized fantasy football. League scoring, once done by hand, was automated. And where fantasy players once called Allan’s war room frantically trying to get inside information, they now inundate him with emails, which he answers in a mailbag posted on his website almost daily.

“When the internet comes and it makes the ease of communication so much better, that really opens the floodgates because it’s a lower barrier to get your league going,” Allan said. 

Online games began to pop up around 1997, led by CBS SportsLine and Yahoo, and many providers had transitioned to free play by the turn of the century. Improved free online games and the emergence of the smartphone prompted another growth eruption around 2008. According to FSGA figures, the number of fantasy players jumped from 19 million to nearly 30 million in that year alone.

The NFL’s Red Zone channel, focused solely on capturing potential scoring plays, debuted in 2009. Programming specifically geared toward fantasy football increased and TV personalities including Matthew Berry, ESPN’s fantasy football guru, dramatically grew their profiles. 

“Turn on the TV on Sunday,” Charchian said. “Any time you’re looking at the bottom of your screen, we’re dedicating 15% of our screen to placating fantasy players.” 

It wasn’t a big leap to go from fantasy football to daily fantasy games, which first appeared on the scene with FanDuel in 2009. Charchian thinks that fantasy football helped normalize the conversation around daily fantasy — which allows players to play fantasy games for shorter durations and for cash prizes — in a way that undoubtedly helped daily fantasy survive its legal issues of the last four years.

DraftKings CEO Jason Robins said that one of the NFL’s primary objectives is getting people to care about every second of every game. Fantasy sports, whether traditional or daily, are “a great vehicle to do that,” he said. 

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For the NFL, fantasy football has become insurance against bad teams and bad games. 

“If your team is 1-10 and yet your fantasy team is 10-1, I would argue you’re just as engaged,” said David Jurenka, senior vice president of media for the NFL’s Los Angeles operation. 

Jurenka said every metric the NFL has tells it that “if we can get someone to play fantasy, they are the most consumptive, engaged fans.” 

While those who pay for fantasy football products tend to skew male, Charchian said that 29% of fantasy football players are women. They include the likes of Giana Pacinelli, who works in real estate during the day but writes for fantasy football website RotoViz.com during her free time. High school friends drew her into playing fantasy football and her competitive nature soon took over. She said fantasy football can serve as a gateway to NFL fandom for women who weren’t previously interested in the sport. “It just allows you to put football in a perspective you can understand,” Pacinelli said. “This is their way to learn the game.”

FSGA research shows that 64% of fantasy sports players are watching more live sports because of their involvement with fantasy. And that engagement reveals something very fundamental about sports fans, generally.

“The reason they’re watching is they want a rooting interest in the game,” said DraftKings’ Robins. “And if they have that rooting interest, that’s what makes it exciting for them. Fantasy took that core thing that people wanted and it expanded it from their hometown team or their favorite player’s team, to have a rooting interest in almost every game.”

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