The History of Fantasy Football
Fantasy Football History
The history of fantasy football is a story about road trip boredom and America's love for sports and statistics.
What started as a fun little way to pass the time using professional golf statistics eventually bled into a baseball scorekeeping game before ultimately settling on football as the ultimate statistical challenge. Legend has it that a man named Bill Winkenbach first came up with the idea of a "fantasy sport" watching golf in the 1950s. The idea behind his golf game was to build your own team of professional golfers and follow their progress through golf tournaments. The person whose team of golfers had the lowest total score at the end of a tournament was the winner -- a simple game meant to increase a small group of fan's enjoyment of professional golf.
Eventually, Winkenbach (who was a sports fanatic and part owner of the Oakland Raiders football team) moved on to baseball. Because baseball is more statistically dense than golf, Winkenbach and his friends started paying attention to more than just scores. Homeruns and pitching stats were calculated and used to "score" this early version of fantasy baseball.
Naturally, as part owner of a professional football team, Winkenbach set his sights on a rudimentary form of fantasy football, joining with other football fanatics to create a game where different accomplishments on the football field led to the accumulation of fantasy points. Thus, the first fantasy football game was built.
Early on in the history of fantasy football, the scoring system was fairly crude. Winkenbach joined with Bill Tunnel (PR man for the Raiders), Scotty Stirling (a sports writer in Oakland), and two other sports writers to build a fantasy football league of eight teams. Fantasy owners in this rudimentary league earned ten points for an extra point kicked by one of their players, 25 points for a passing touchdown, 25 points for a touchdown reception, 25 points for a field goal, and 200 points for a punt, kickoff, or interception returned for a touchdown. This is a far cry from the complex and varied fantasy football scoring systems we have today.
If you buy into the version of the history of fantasy football that is passed around today, the idea for the game came up during a lengthy road trip the Oakland Raiders took to the East Coast. Winkenbach and the other players built the rules of fantasy football while on the trip, and polished the rules of the game after their return. The first fantasy football league was called the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, a fancy name that tells you just what they were about. This was a group of friends and football fans looking to have a light-hearted good time.
In the early years of the game we now call fantasy football, statistics and all fantasy related activity was done by hand. Fantasy owners had to compile and track their own stats (no fantasy football experts or analysts on TV then) and call in their starting rosters to the league's "commissioner" by phone. This was a do it yourself kind of league by default. Unlike today's fantasy football universe, the number of players then was paltry, though their enthusiasm for the game could not be doubted. Anyone willing to dig through piles of sports stats for a simple game means business. Compared to the game as it is now, the history of fantasy football is a history of passion, geekery, and intense competition.
Whereas now, the influence of personal computers and the massive fantasy audience via the Internet have changed the game, fantasy football at its roots was an insider's pasttime. There weren't many fantasy owners back then, and few people even knew the game existed. In fact, the earliest requirements for participating in Winkenbach's game were people who were administrative members of the AFL, a journalist with direct relation to pro football, or any person who purchased or sold at least 10 season tickets for the Raiders' 1963 football season. An insider's game? You betcha.
Around 1970, the history of fantasy football went through a drastic change. One member of Winkenbach's GOPPPL owned a bar in Oakland, the Kings X. Andy Mousalinas, the owner of the bar, opened up participation in a fantasy football league to any patron of his bar. Mousalinas also instituted the earliest form of performance scoring, awarding points to players for earning yardage and performing other feats rather than just scoring TDs or certain specific offensive skills. The Kings X is still the "ground zero" of American fantasy football, operating tons of both public and private leagues.
By the late 1990s, fantasy football was bigger than at its start, but wasn't quite the sport it is today. After the Internet became ubiquitous, participation in fantasy football and other sports increased dramatically. What was once a game played by a group of sports insiders has become an easy to access and play game that brings millions of dollars into the economy. There are an estimated 30 million online players in America alone. On average, each fantasy owner spends $110 a year on their online fantasy teams.
Most fantasy leagues are now hosted online through web-based providers such as CBS, ESPN, NFL.com, and Yahoo. These providers typically operate at no charge and are easy to use for even the least computer or football literate, making the game extremely accessible to players of all skill levels.
The history of fantasy football is cute at times -- ("Prognosticators"?)-- and other times it can be seen as an exclusive boy's club. No matter your opinion of the early days of the game we know and love, you have to admit that fantasy football has come a long way from the days of calling in your roster every week and crunching stats at home.