When I first imagined the night that fantasy football was created, I pictured four or five older gentlemen, mostly bald, sitting around a poker table in a dimly-lit basement, smoking cigars and bragging about their favorite football teams. I envisioned their excitement at discovering something new to compete at. An entirely innovative game that no one else played let alone heard of. After some research, it turns out I wasn’t too far off.
Instead of a dimly-lit basement with a card table, it was a hotel room in downtown New York, then named the Manhattan Hotel, on 8th avenue. Instead of cigars, the group was sharing stiff cocktails throughout the night. And instead of four or five avid sports fan, there were only three, the most important being Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach. Winkenbach, a businessman from Oakland, California, was on an east coast road trip to watch his awful Oakland Raiders. In 1962, he and a few colleagues cooped up in that hotel room were trying to come up with ways to make football more watchable as his Raiders had only won three games between the 1961 and ’62 seasons. Winkenbach, who actually owned a stake in the team, developed the idea from a game he invented in the 1950s involving golf. He and some friends would select a fantasy team of golfers, add up their scores at the end of the tournament, and whoever had the best-combined score won. They applied these same principles to football. Instead of golfers, they chose skill position players from the AFL. When their player scored in the actual game, their team scored on their imaginary team as well. I was right about one thing, however, as the three of them stayed up all night developing the very first rule book, excited to challenge each other in a unique game of knowledge and statistics. I was also right about them being mostly bald.
Winkenbach took his exciting new idea back to the Bay Area where he started the first league in 1963 named the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League or GOPPPL, for shortish. Pro football journalists, employees of the AFL, and Raider season tickets holders filled the room for the inaugural draft that August. Despite knowing they had created something special, they mostly kept the game to themselves as they believed the game required a vast knowledge of football. Somebody couldn’t just walk off the street and play; the league’s members were strictly those involved in the game such as football writers and AFL administrators. For 6 years, the game remained undiscovered by most, a true sleeper if you will.
In 1969, the game took its first steps to becoming a national phenomenon and the man responsible was Andy Mousalimas. Mousalimas, who was a founding member of the GOPPPL, introduced the game to the patrons at his sports bar, King’s X, located in Oakland. Most visited the establishment for sports trivia but found something far greater in this new game where you chose different AFL (strictly AFL) players and scored points when they scored a touchdown in the actual game. A few leagues were started in the bar as word circulated around the greater Bay Area. This hype was short-lived, and the game’s popularity stalled once again. Without the proper technology to keep track of scores in an efficient way, the hours spent looking through box scores to calculate who won discouraged people from playing. Those who enjoyed ciphering through their Monday papers kept the game alive, and it grew very slowly but surely.
Twenty years later, over one million people in the U.S. played the game created in that Manhattan hotel room. With so many participants, new ideas sprouted and the scoring started to change. What was originally a TD-scoring league only, the various leagues added yardage and eventually point per reception. Keepers were introduced, dynasty leagues were created, a super flex was added (where a QB can be in the flex position), and cutthroat ideas like Pirate leagues were put in place where the winning team was able to choose a player from his opponent’s roster. It wasn’t until a little thing called the internet that fantasy football really took off.
In 1997, CBS.com launched their first version of the game, making it free for anyone who wanted to play. It was an instant hit. Fantasy football was no longer a diamond in the rough but was at the beginning stages of becoming the multi-billion industry it currently is. Other major sports sites took notice immediately and similar games were born. Fantasy analysts like Matthew Berry popped up and became mainstream with features on ESPN. By September of 2006, over 18 million people in the U.S. were competing against each other. From offices to high school hallways, people around the country were talking trades and draft strategy. Three years later, DirectTV changed the way the game was consumed with their introduction of the NFL RedZone channel. RedZone showed every single touchdown and big play from all the NFL games without forcing people to touch a single button on their remote. Life couldn’t get any better for the average fantasy football addict. Or could it?
Nigel Eccles, the CEO of Fanduel, thought that even though fantasy football was a tremendous success, there was still untapped potential. In his first press release regarding his new, unknown start-up called FanDuel, he stated that “There are at least 20 million of us playing fantasy sports every year and yet in recent years, it has seen very little innovation. For many, one of the major problems with fantasy sports is the huge time-commitment involved – when you play fantasy, you have to play for the whole season – no breaks, no holidays, no excuses. However, in this era of Facebook and Twitter, people want instant gratification.” He took this idea and created what is now known as daily fantasy sports. This allowed players to chose a new team every week and win literally boatloads of money. Users didn’t have to worry about waiver wires, injuries, or bye weeks. Every week was a brand new start. By 2015, FanDuel had over one million paid active users and was paying out over a billion dollars in yearly prizes. Fantasy Football and gambling enthusiasts flocked to the game by the thousands as this daily version undoubtedly changed the way fantasy sports was played.
That brings us to today, where last year almost 60 million people played fantasy football in the U.S. and Canada alone. Where DraftKings & Fanduel run commercials that seem to appear every 15 seconds. Where most of us spend our Sunday’s yelling at our TV’s, whether it be out of anger or joy. While Winkenbach knew he had created something special, it would be hard to believe that he expected it to become what it did. He died on March 7, 1993, unfortunately just six years shy of the first big internet boom. So come September when you’re setting your first lineup of 2017, don’t forget to smile and pay thanks to Bill “The Gill” Winkenbach, the father of fantasy football.