Now played by tens of millions of Americans every year, fantasy football has become one of the most popular pastimes linked to sports.
The roots of fantasy football can be dated back to the early 1960s when Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach, an Oakland, California businessman who part-owned the Oakland Raiders, created the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL).
In a New York City hotel room in 1962, Winkenbach, along with Raiders employee Bill Tunnel and Oakland Tribune reporter Scotty Stirling, developed the rules that would serve as the basis for modern fantasy football. They launched the league the following year, with 8 players involved in the inaugural competition.
Much like fantasy players do now, each person served as general manager of their fantasy franchise and ‘drafted’ real NFL and AFL (the American Football League, which merged with the NFL in 1970) players into their roster.
These players would then earn points each week for their achievements on the gridiron for things like touchdowns, rushes, or field goals.
Now, of course, fantasy football is easily accessible online, but back in the 60s and early 70s, the commissioner of each fantasy league would have to compile the full results from newspaper box scores and send them out to the rest of the league each week.
For a few years, the game was largely kept under wraps as Winkenbach and others assumed only those with a deep knowledge of football could be involved. The first GOPPL only involved figures closely associated with the sport, like football writers and administrators.
One of the people involved in the inaugural GOPPL was Andy Mousalimas, who then brought the game to his local sports bar in Oakland. From there, fantasy football spread by word of mouth and was soon being played by regular folk in bars across the Bay Area.
By 1980, fantasy football had spread across the country and was being featured in magazines like Inside Sports. In fact, a group of students from Cleveland, Ohio saw an article in Inside Sports and decided to set up the Indoor Football League, which remains one of the oldest fantasy football leagues still in operation.
In 1983, the first East Coast fantasy football league was founded at Marist School in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the early days of this league, members would call TNT basketball sportscaster and Marist School graduate Ernie Johnson Jr. to receive statistical updates from Sunday games before the box scores appeared in Monday newspapers.
A couple of years later, fantasy football moved online and became available through Q-Link. In 1987, Fantasy Football Index, the first national magazine dedicated to fantasy league, was launched.
Despite this, players still chose analog means through which to play fantasy football. The first national competition – the Pigskin Playoff – was launched in 1990 through various newspapers across the United States including the Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald.
Players had to call a toll-free number and enter four-digit codes to make the selections for their teams. By this point, over 1 million people were playing fantasy league in America.
It wasn’t until 1997 that fantasy football truly exploded on the internet. CBS Sports launched its first version of the league, revolutionizing the way people played. Suddenly, they didn’t need to use newspapers and phone lines to create their teams; it was all available at their fingertips.
Noticing the success of CBS’ league, other major media corporations followed suit and created their own. In 1999, Yahoo! released the first free version of a fantasy football platform, to great acclaim.
With the growth of the internet, fantasy football managers now also had easier and more instant access to key statistics and football news, plus they could make tweaks to their rosters more regularly. This made fantasy football exponentially more engaging.
By 2006, over 12 million people in the U.S. were playing fantasy football, highlighting a staggering rate of growth for the game and conveying just how much of an impact the advent of the internet had.
In September of 2009, the way people consumed NFL content changed forever. DirecTV launched the Red Zone Channel which, rather than showing live games, instead aired all the major events from every single game being played, be it a touchdown or a field goal.
Now, fantasy football players didn’t need to scour over dozens of games being played, and could instead find everything they needed on one channel. They expanded on this in 2014 with Fantasy Zone, which outlined in real-time how stats affected fantasy teams.
It was around this time as well that people began using smartphones and apps a lot more regularly, making fantasy football even more convenient to play. People could check their team and make changes on the go, instead of having to wait until they were at their computer.
The NFL fully embraced fantasy football in 2010, launching their own platform for it, and the game has only continued to grow since then. By 2013, over 21 million people were playing and this figure rose to roughly 60 million in 2017.
From its humble beginnings in a New York hotel, fantasy football has grown into a juggernaut that now goes hand in hand with the NFL itself.