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Fantasy Football Goes from Diversion to Phenomenon

It all started in the early 1960s, with friends poring over newspaper stories about players like Unitas, Brown and Ditka and keeping records with pencil and paper.

Fantasy Football on TVToday, fantasy football is a billion-dollar combination of entertainment and enterprise that sends untold millions of data points swirling through the Internet every fall. It has inspired a TV series along with several films and even has its own channel (DIRECTV FANTASY ZONE).

It seems time and technology have their way with everything, including fantasy football.

How Big Is Fantasy Football?

In 2013, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimated that Americans spent about $15 billion a year playing fantasy football. If you throw in ad revenue for the websites that host fantasy leagues — not to mention lost productivity at work, as some spoilsports insist on doing — the estimated financial footprint gets at least three times bigger.

The cultural impact is harder to measure but offers a lot of noticeable evidence:

  • Take a spin through the sports news shows leading up to Sunday and you’re sure to find segments focusing on fantasy football. America’s largest satellite TV service even has an entire channel devoted to maximizing your lineup. DIRECTV FANTASY ZONE, included with a subscription to the NFL SUNDAY TICKET MAX package, airs every Sunday and offers analysis, updates, real-time stats and projections.
  • Since debuting in 2009, the FX comedy series The League has satirized the competitive mania that can afflict even the most mature and good-natured fantasy football players. Insults, chicanery, blackmail … it’s all in good fun for a group of longtime friends vying for their fantasy league trophy, nicknamed The Shiva.
  • Several movies (including Fandom, 10 Yards and Pros and Cons) have explored the subject of fantasy football in the past years. It’s become such a presence in America life that even documentary filmmakers are turning their cameras in its direction.

A Cultural Force with Humble Beginnings

The first fantasy football league on record held its inaugural draft in 1963 in a rumpus room — the ’60s equivalent of a man cave. The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL) was comprised of people who had connections with the Oakland Raiders franchise, including a part-owner and a few Bay Area sportswriters.

Those men couldn’t have dreamed that their hobby would someday generate big business. The existence of an invisible electronic network compiling football statistics in real time probably would’ve seemed like science fiction, even though today we just call it the Internet. Fantasy football TV shows and movies? They would have regarded it as … well, fantasy.

Take a moment to ponder the GOPPPL when you fire up your TV, computer or mobile device this Sunday to see how your fantasy team is faring. When you see names like Manning, Lynch and Gronkowski on the screen, remember that your hobby/diversion/pastime came to life in a rumpus room with Unitas, Brown and Ditka.

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