Fantasy football is undoubtedly the most popular of all fantasy sports. It is estimated more than 33 million people worldwide participate in a league of some sort. That number continues to increase every year. The game is the number one marketing tool of the NFL. It has evolved and changed over many years into what it is today. Like most huge money making ideas, fantasy football started out as a small operation and slowly grew into the multi-billion dollar industry it is now.
The origins of this game can be traced back to a stormy evening in 1962. The Oakland Raiders were in New York to play a game. Raiders’ minority owner, Bill Winkenbach, was stuck his room at the Manhattan Hotel (now named Milford Plaza) and came up with a new idea. Winkenbach’s idea was based on the original fantasy sports game, fantasy golf, which he was an avid fan of. He presented the idea of starting the first ever fantasy football league to his friend, Bill Tunnel. Tunnel was the Raiders’ Public Relations director at the time and was also forced to stay inside this evening due to the storm. Winkenbach and Tunnel, with the help of Oakland Tribune sports writer Scottie Sterling, created a set of rules for the game that evening.
Once back in Oakland, the three men created the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League. The GOPPPL, as it was called, consisted of men who were somehow involved with the Raiders organizations. The eight teams were made up of major AFL affiliates, sports writers, and major season ticket holders for the Raiders’ 1963 season. Winkenbach was named the commissioner of the league, not because it was his idea, but because he owned a mimeograph machine. A mimeograph is an old miniature printing press used for small-time printing operations. Winkenbach was able to use it to print out rules and keep track of statistics for the league.
Bill Winkenbach, now known as the “Father of Fantasy Football”, passed away in 1993. Though he was a multi-millionaire, he never made a cent from his idea. It is reported he played fantasy football every year up until his passing.
The original set of rules for Winkenbach’s league was simple. Owners would draft players from both the AFL and NFL in an annual meeting. Rosters consisted of four wide receivers, four half backs, two full backs, two quarterbacks, two return men, two kickers, two linebackers or defensive backs, and two defensive linemen. The owners would be awarded based on their players' performance. They would be given 25 points for a passing, rushing, or receiving touchdown, 25 points for a field goal, ten points for a successful point after attempt, and 200 points for a defensive or special teams touchdown. No points were awarded for yardage.
Fantasy football’s first major decision happened during the inaugural draft. Raiders’ season ticket holder and Oakland bar owner, Andy Mousalimas, had the first pick in the draft. He was faced with a tough decision. He had to decide whether to take quarterback George Blanda or running back Jim Brown. At this point, nobody understood how the scoring rules would affect a team’s roster. Mousalimas decided to draft George Blanda. Mousalimas finished the season with the league’s worst record.
Mousalimas bought a bar in 1969 called King X’s, located in downtown Oakland. Prior to this purchase, King X’s was the weekly meeting place for members of the GOPPPL. In 1971, he started the first leagues for bar patrons. These leagues had a different set of rules than the GOPPPL. These leagues would allow points to be awarded based on the number of yards a player tallied during a game. He did this because Winkenbach was unwilling to change the rules of the GOPPPL, and Mousalimas thought it was unfair to only give points for touchdowns because some players who carried the ball a couple times every game could put up more points than players like O.J. Simpson, who put up huge yardage totals but rarely found the end zone.
Winkenbach always regarded fantasy football as a “man’s game”. He never wanted to allow women to play. He believed that it was a game designed for men who needed time to get away from their families. He wanted the game to be considered a good reason for a guys night out. However, King X’s female patrons began pleading with Mousalimas to allow them to participate. He knew he would not be able to convince Winkenbach to allow a female in the GOPPPL, which had grown in size from its original eight owners. In order to please his patrons, in 1974 Mousalimas started a separate league for women. “Queens”, as it was named, would be the first league that allowed women to participate in fantasy football. Today, over 20 percent of fantasy football players are female.
The popularity of the game grew very slowly. Due to the time-consuming nature of fantasy football, many people did not want to join leagues. Slowly, however, the game made its way out of California to a Washington state pizza parlor called Marie’s. It was at Marie’s that the first league founded outside of Oakland and San Francisco was born.
The game's success continued to grow at a snail’s pace throughout the 1970s. It was not until the 1980s when it really began to gain some ground. In the early 1980s, sports writer Daniel Okrent, started the first rotisserie style fantasy league. This format was originally used for fantasy baseball, but soon spread to football. This is where the idea of the nerds and pencil pushers gathering in the local sports bar to discuss stats really began.
Rotisserie leagues are fantasy leagues that award points based on performance, but do not match up owners in a head-to-head format. Instead, teams receive points and the person with the most points at the end of the season is the champion. This simplistic style of fantasy sports kept the game alive until the most important breakthrough in fantasy sports, the internet.
In 1988, a fantasy football league called the G-League was formed. Its members were employees of a Trenton, NJ company called GTech. In 1994, the G-League was renamed the Brick City Football League and hosted the first live online draft. The league still exists to this day.
The internet allowed the game to start its rapid fire movement towards a multi-billion dollar industry. In 1997, CBS created the first free online fantasy football website. Not only was it free, but it was open to anyone who wanted to play. CBS’s game was a huge success and by 2000 nearly all major sports media websites had installed their own version of fantasy football.
Even though the game’s popularity was spreading, it was not until 2009 where it became considered a very normal thing to participate in fantasy football. Before this, playing fantasy sports was still considered a rather nerdy thing to do. The mainstream public believed the game’s participants would spend way too much time on the computer. It was also frowned upon by a large number of NFL fans. These fans believed fantasy football made its participants forget about their NFL team loyalty. It is a valid argument because fantasy owners now have the opportunity to root for players who are not a member of their favorite NFL team.
This attitude changed when FX Productions aired “The League”. “The League” is a popular comedy sitcom based on a group of friends who are obsessed with fantasy football. The characters all play in the same fantasy football league and are constantly trying to find new ways to get ahead in the league’s standings. Once this show gained popularity, the stereotypes on fantasy football players went away and it became socially acceptable to participate in the game.
It took a long time for fantasy football to become what it is today. From a stormy New York night, to a simple bar game, fantasy football slowly grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Each year, new developments are introduced into the game, and each year, more and more people are flocking to their computers to draft their first team. Fantasy football will continue to thrive in the years to come. The game is used as a major marketing and advertising tactic, as well as a new form of gambling. It may have taken a long time to get going, but it appears fantasy football is one sports spin-off that will not be going away any time soon.