Andrew Boudreau, a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan, grinned after looking down at his iPhone. A mobile app called theScore had notified him that his team was getting stomped by the Dallas Cowboys at halftime by a score of 17-3. “I took the Cowboys’ defence in my draft last week,” he said. “I think I got a sleeper.”
Boudreau was discovering that a pre-season game is rarely a good predictor of the team’s future performance, and this time the Dolphins simply fell flat. So why was he jubilant rather than disappointed when his favourite team lost?
The answer lies in fantasy football.
Almost every fantasy football fan knows about the “Rotisserie League” founded in 1980, which was the catalyst for fantasy baseball throughout the 1980s, but few know about what came before it.
Fantasy football was created in August 1963 by Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach (a limited partner in the Oakland Raiders’ organization), Bill Tunnell (the team’s PR manager), and Scotty Stirling (an Oakland journalist). They wanted to add more personal interest to a sport they were closely involved in but didn’t play. The trio then created the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, which is still popular in its 50th year.
The most common forms today are the head-to-head leagues, in which teams compete on a revolving weekly schedule, and total-point leagues, in which top-scoring teams win at the end of the year regardless of records.
The players are selected in one of two forms of drafting: a “snake” draft, in which, like in a common NFL formatted draft, teams wait for their turn in a particular order; or an “auction”, in which everyone has a chance to bid for players within their budget, which can consist of real or imaginary currency depending on the league.
Keeper leagues are widely popular, since they allow fantasy players to build a team not just for the current season but also for future seasons, at the cost of compromising their future draft positions.
Fantasy gives football fans the flexibility to cheer for a unique team comprising their favourite players. Fans also make all the executive decisions, including trades, cuts, and even the team’s name and logo.
Some believe that the increasing popularity of fantasy football is decreasing support for on-field football.
“I think some of the football purists would look at it as bad because fans no longer are fully into rooting for their team,” said Walter Cherepinsky, the owner of walterfootball.com, which gives users access to detailed fantasy scouting, ranking, and projecting. “For example, if you’re an ordinary Eagles fan, and Philly is battling Dallas, you’d obviously love to see a blowout or shutout. However, if you own Tony Romo, you’d want to see him do well.
“I feel like fantasy is great for football, though, because anyone who plays fantasy is going to be way more familiar with all of the players in the NFL. They’ll also be more likely to watch games that don’t involve their favourite team.”
Adam Rank, a writer for nfl.com and host of NFL Network’s Fantasy Live, sees a division between fantasy loyalty and simply playing to win.
“I think the Packers fan who ends up with Adrian Peterson has already shown his or her hand—loyalty aside, we’re going for fantasy wins,” Rank observed. “Whereas the Packers fan who has avoided Peterson or Matt Forte or Calvin Johnson has shown that while fantasy is fun, it’s not going to come between [them and their favourite team].”
Fantasy football’s prominence and coverage has grown beyond what an average fan can consume. One thing is made clear by the abundance of weekly and daily television shows that feature Sunday afternoon football coverage aimed mostly at fantasy players: no other North American sport enjoys as much fantasy league popularity as football.
ESPN reports that over 10,000 mock drafts took place in July and August in preparation for the drafts in the fall. Still, fantasy writers and columnists face the challenge of deciding how much information is too much.
“We want to target the newbies, but we also want to target the people who are experienced and have been playing fantasy for years and years,” said Michael Fabiano, an nfl.com writer, co-host of NFL Fantasy Live, and 2013 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Hall of Fame inductee. “I have the audience who doesn’t know who Steven Jackson is, and then I have the audience who knows that Latavius Murray is battling for the #2 spot on the Oakland running back depth chart.”
Football isn’t the only major sport supported by fantasy gaming, but it is the most successful.
“I think it has prospered so much because it’s the easiest to get into,” says Dan Bilicki, the Toronto Sun’s fantasy sports writer. “When you consider the depth of knowledge and research that you need to succeed at fantasy baseball, the general malaise about fantasy hoops, and the fact that many Americans still consider ice hockey a niche sport, football is undoubtedly the top dog. Also, it’s easy to follow and requires the least maintenance.”
But the stakes are also high. “I’ve heard of leagues in Vegas where entry fees are in the thousands. The most I’ve spent was a $200 league with $5 transactions. I like to make a lot of moves, so I had about $100 in transaction fees,” said Cherepinksy.
“I haven’t been involved in any real big-money leagues, but have heard of 10-team leagues with $200 buy-ins. That’s really when it stops getting casual,” said Bilicki. “Last year […] I had the highest-scoring team in the league, yet didn’t make the playoffs because I always gave up the most points. I also saw a 0.08-point win turn into a 0.08-point loss for one player thanks to a stat correction after the game.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the importance of fantasy, but its momentum is undeniable. And Rank predicts that it will only continue to change football.
“I’m waiting for the first wave of Hall of Fame candidates who’ll be judged based on fantasy numbers. Like, wouldn’t it be crazy if Larry Johnson gets some Hall of Fame consideration because some NFL writer won his fantasy league one year because he helped him win his league?” said Rank. “I guess this is the kind of thing that will probably keep me from ever having a vote for the Hall of Fame.”