What is the NFL Without Fantasy Football?

fantasy football header

On Saturday, a major twitter beef reared it’s ugly head, and no I’m not talking about the one between Draymond Green and Hassan Whiteside, though that was pretty hilarious. This one got to the core of an issue that has been bubbling below the surface for a few years now. I’m referring of course to fantasy football’s “role” in the NFL, and how it has grown bigger to sports fans than perhaps the NFL itself.

Fantasy football has been around since 1962, when Bill Winkenbach and three of his friends created it in a hotel room one night after drinking too many beers and complaining about how terrible the Oakland Raiders were (whom Winkenbach was a part-owner of), wishing they could draft their own teams that they could be the general managers of.

As this NFL Network video describing the birth of Fantasy Football tells you, even as the first league was forming in 1963 amongst a few NFL front office friends, they knew they had something special (once they’d sobered up apparently).

fantasy football draftAs it turns out, the Raiders haven’t come very far since that time as far as being terrible, but fantasy football certainly has. There’s no way the founders could’ve foreseen the explosion of fantasy football since free leagues began to be offered on Yahoo! in 1999.

As this Forbes article from before last season cites, over 33 million people now play fantasy football each year, and consumers combine to spend about $800 million annually on fantasy league fees and products that believe give them an edge.

At this point, you would be incredibly hard pressed to find an avid NFL fan who does not play fantasy football.

Let me tell you my personal story. I’ve never been an NFL fan. Growing up, the only real game I watched was the Super Bowl every year, which after the Janet Jackson nip-slip incident of ’04 I was never going to miss (at nine years old that opened my eyes in more ways than one).

However, after wasting entirely too much of my life playing the Madden video game as a child, I could probably name for you all of the best players on every team, and have an opinion on every team I had never actually seen play.

In the 21st Century, this is not uncommon. I bet if a poll was taken on how a kid decided who his favorite team or player was in any sport, over half of them would tell you it’s the team/player they use the most and do the best with on Madden. Don’t get me wrong, following sports in real life is great, but when you make it yours, and the decisions made are your decisions, and the outcomes of the games were in your hands, the fun increases exponentially. This experience forms the bedrock of fantasy football’s popularity.

fantasy football tears
We all know the feeling, and it will literally bring you to tears if you don’t stop for a minute and remember “it’s not real Matt.”

I imagine it’s the same feeling that Jessie Pinkman had whenever he tried Walt’s blue crystal for the first time after living his whole life using whatever “Chili P” crap him and Crazy 8 were cooking up (Breaking Bad reference, if you didn’t know it, there’s nothing for me to say to you). Like dang, I was addicted to sports before, but now I’ve had a hit of interactive sports, it’s like my eyes have been opened to a whole new world, and it’s really hard to go back.

So for me personally as I got older I started playing video games less and less (shame), and lost touch with the NFL for a few years. I had tried fantasy football once in middle school, and was so bad I lost to a team in a dad’s in the league designed so all of the kids could get at least one win.

Then, last year, I decided to give it another try, and this time I was going all in. I have previously written about my turbulent yet rewarding season, but results aside, I had a blast playing. Honestly, I was hooked. (Also funny side note for those that had read my previous column which ended with: “Screw you Tommy Terrific,” I’m targeting Brady in my drafts this year, when will I ever learn).

prayer for fantasy
I have my draft coming this Sunday, and I’d be lying if I told you this wasn’t an illustration of me.

I went from not caring about the NFL at all to watching almost every game.  I even was going to my friend’s room who had NFL Sunday Ticket because watching one game at a time wasn’t even enough for me. I was listening to podcasts, watching videos, reading analysis, and anything else I could get my hands on.

So what makes fantasy, and more specifically fantasy football, so addicting??

Beside making the sport of football interactive, and feeling as though you have some role in the games taking place, fantasy football also plays on a few other basic instincts.

One is competitiveness. Fantasy puts me up against 10 or so of my friends, and the winner of the league gets bragging rights as being “the NFL expert of the group”.  Winning is important to showing how much I know, despite the truth luck plays a huge role in every fantasy season (ask anyone who took Adrian Peterson #1 overall last year and forgot to factor in his parenting techniques into their draft strategy).

Another factor is the NFL is an “event sport.” Fantasy sports are offered for almost every sport at this point, and yet none come close to the level of participation of fantasy football.

As Forbes points out, “Football popularity is enhanced by the fact that it is an “event sport” with build up to the game ahead and analysis of the game past stretching throughout a week.” You only have to set your lineup once a week, and the games conveniently fall on weekends when most people are off work. And with only 16 games in the season, each one matters a lot more than in the MLB (162 games) or NBA (82 games), where statistics begin to level out and the games can get more predictable. The NFL is an ever-changing landscape, where each week can produce a new unheard of star that could be the hero for your team.

fantasy football anchorman
Something tells met that Brick wouldn’t be very good at fantasy footbal trash talk, or actual fantasy football for that matter.

And finally, the gambling instinct, despite being illegal, has been a big part of NFL game days for years. Whereas gamblers on the games might bet against a spread, you as a fantasy owner have to bet on a certain player to have a good game, taking into account dozens of variables. This added pressure raises the stakes for you, and makes you feel like “somethings on the line.” Now you have to watch it, because you’re personally invested.

This leads us to the Twitter beef. The exchange I mentioned at the top started with Jeremy Maclin, who after being a star fantasy wide receiver last season with the Philadelphia Eagles saw his stock plummet after his move to the Kansas City Chiefs, an offense that didn’t throw a single touchdown to a wide receiver in the entire 2014 season.

I’m not saying his sudden loss in value in many fans’ eyes motivated his rant in some way, but I’m also not NOT saying it had an effect. Here’s how it started.

I can understand Maclin’s point, but I’m not sure he made too many of his 233,000+ followers happy by saying it. But is he right?

As I mentioned with the gambling instinct, fantasy football players feel like they have something on the line as they watch football each week. But that causes their allegiances to lie with whatever players are on their fake teams, and almost always those players are from a variety of different teams.

So let’s say you lived in Kansas City and called yourself a Chiefs fan. It’s Week 14 against the Chargers at home, and the Chiefs are fighting for a playoff spot. But on your fantasy team, you’re already in the playoffs and it’s a close game where every point counts, and Melvin Gordon of the Chargers is one of your starting running backs. Aren’t you going to root for Gordon? Obviously you’d love for both Gordon to play well and the Chiefs to win, but if you had to decide wouldn’t you choose the fantasy win? I know I would.

That’s Maclin’s point, that fantasy football has in 2015 finally overtaken the real NFL in fan relevance. Field Yates, used on ESPN as both an NFL fantasy expert as well as an NFL insider on “real” football, said recently on the podcast he co-hosts that he notices whenever he goes on Sportscenter and does a segment involving fantasy advice or news, when it’s over he will look at his Twitter page and there will be thousands of replies and questions and engagements.  Responding to whatever he said with concern or questions relating to individual fantasy teams. But when he goes on Sportscenter to talk about any NFL topic not relating to fantasy, “it’s crickets” as he says, it seems like no one cares.

field yates fantasy
Field Yates, ESPN’s rising superstar, on the set of Sportscenter not talking about actual NFL news but rather where Tom Brady ranks among other fantasy football quarterbacks.

Another topic on Yates’ podcast, was a conversation with Adam Schefter, who has seen his job go from NFL Insider to “that guy who gives me injury news so I know whether to start that guy on my fantasy team” (it’s an unofficial job title), was the disappearance of the “sleeper.”

Sleepers are those players who come out of nowhere to have huge fantasy seasons, but the term doesn’t really apply anymore because of the super extensive coverage ESPN gives fantasy now.

Fantasy football went from a game people played for fun to nearly a billion-dollar industry. It used to be a fantasy player would follow actual NFL news, and then take any information relevant to fantasy football. You don’t have to do that anymore, because there is an abundance of news and analysis catered directly to fantasy football.

There’s a new weekly show on ESPN called “Fantasy Football Now,” and Matthew Berry has been added to ESPN’s Sunday morning game day coverage to follow any real NFL news with it’s fantasy significance.

More than that, try watching 10 minutes of Sportscenter or any TV show talking about NFL without hearing the word “fantasy” mentioned, I doubt you’ll be able to.

Oh, and I wouldn’t be able to write this column without mentioning there is an actual TV show started on the premise of fantasy football, called The League on FX and Netflix that is hilarious. In short, fantasy football isn’t just supplemental to the NFL fan experience anymore, it’s essential.

In short, fantasy football isn’t just supplemental to the NFL fan experience anymore, it’s essential.

I guess you could say that Walt’s metaphorical blue crystal (meaning fantasy sports in this case) has swept the entire NFL fandom. According to this great infographic, since 2007 attendance to NFL games has decreased every year, and yet TV viewership is way up, and revenue generated by the league is WAY up.

They cite rising ticket prices, but are not considering the effect of fantasy football. In 1998 an ESPN sports poll found that 54% of fans would rather be at the game instead of watching from home, but when that poll was put out again in 2011, the number had dropped to 29%.

There has to be a link between that stat and the rampant increase in fantasy football popularity, and I think we can see that through NFL Sunday Ticket’s increase of about 4% in viewership every year since it’s creation in 2010. It’s set to jump a lot more than that this season with it being offered now to non-Direct TV subscribers.

The simple economics of it is actually helping the NFL. More fantasy interest = more NFL fans and not only that but more dedicated NFL fans = more revenue for the NFL = higher salaries for everyone, including players. Matthew Berry, ESPN’s “senior fantasy football expert,” took it upon himself to remind Maclin of this fact.

And here’s another ode to how influential fantasy football has become. In the past, no NFL player would respond to some nerd who plays number- crunching fantasy game. But now in 2015, with the help of Twitter, star NFL wide receiver and ESPN fantasy expert are linked together.

J-Mac may be a little bitter but he’s still making good points. From a player’s perspective anyway. But seriously dude, I’m getting a little annoyed having to click off to see your full tweets. Learn to use fewer characters like the rest of us!!

I would love to read the PR email Berry received before launching that last tweet out. There’s a better than 50% chance he didn’t even write it himself. But he’ll be the first to tell you, he’s a company man.

FIGHT FIRE WITH….oh come on. This twitter beef is losing steam quickly. Maclin responds to Berry’s PR statement with one of his own. These guys need to take a lesson from Drake and Meek Mill and start taking shots! Where’s my diss tracks?

Ok kids, get a room. Then Maclin threw out one more heart-warming tweet as if to say, “I swear fans, I don’t hate you!”

And every other media member seemed to jump on board with this, partially because it’s a hot button topic right now but also because let’s be honest, how awesome would it be to get tweeted back by a star NFL player. I’m not going to include all of their tweets in here, but you won’t have to look very far to find them.

If you’re a sports purist, my guess would be that you side with Maclin. The theory people should love the sport for what it is, and not need to alter it and customize it to their personal desires. However, you can’t argue fantasy football has helped make the NFL the most popular sport in the United States.

I can speak from experience, as I’m someone who would probably not watch a snap this year of NFL action if it weren’t for fantasy, and now find myself in two different leagues and currently punching my credit card digits into Direct TV’s website as we speak so that I can get NFL Sunday Ticket on my PS4. What’s more, for every hour of actual games I watch, I’m spending three hours researching, listening to analysis, and studying the NFL.

Maybe I’m part of the problem.  Maybe I’m part of the revolution.  It’s the new era of NFL football.

I leave you with one more tweet, from my favorite comedian Stephen Colbert, who describes how the NFL may be viewed within five years.

So what do you think? What’s your opinion? That’s what the comments below are for! And good luck to all your fantasy teams, may your team be free of tragic injuries.


by Matt Craig


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Author: Matt Craig

Chirp City Founder & Director of Content. Hey Bill Simmons, if you're reading this, hire me.

2 thoughts on “What is the NFL Without Fantasy Football?

  1. I like how the article also discussed the history behind fantasy football. Currently, according to all the articles that I have been checking out, approximately 33 millions are now into fantasy sports, that’s a huge number and it will surely blow p by next year. And it is no surprise that the most popular sports in fantasy sports is football but I think eventually basketball will also be famous in this hobby and also MMA. I also agree that aside from being entertained you can develop certain good qualities when you participate in fantasy sports, and yes one of them is competitiveness, good competitions with friends or families. I believe that NFL is still going to be famous without Fantasy sports but not as famous when it is related with fantasy sports. I got friends who are attending the daily fantasy sports conference and if you want to learn more about it too, you may check dfse.net

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