Fantasy Football Booms From Curious Hobby to Mainstream Marvel

By Nando Di Fino

Fantasy football used to be an exercise in friendship. Groups of guys would gather in their married friends’ garages, drink a few beers, order pizza and draft their teams. Scoring was done by hand every week. They were considered obsessive nerds.

This season, no less than 10 major companies are sponsoring fantasy in some way, and they are making it well-known. A vitaminwater ad for Norman Tugwater, a fictitious fantasy sports attorney played by Gary Busey, hangs prominently in Times Square. Fantasy Sports Trade Association president Paul Charchian — yes, this organization exists and it has over 400 members, including representatives from ABC, CBS and NBC — estimates that over 20 million people will play fantasy football this season. In June, the NFL announced it would be hosting a league-backed fantasy football game on NFL.com. In July, Sirius XM satellite radio launched a 24-hour channel dedicated to fantasy sports. Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew hosts a weekly show on the channel.

“Fantasy sports has become a huge industry in a very short amount of time,” said Louis M. Maione, a former bond trader for Deutsche Bank who now serves as president and CEO of fantasy company RotoExperts. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Investors like Maione aren’t the only ones getting into the mix. Actor Ashton Kutcher is a co-owner of fantasy advice site TheFantasyConsultant.com and hosts a weekly show on UStream. He also appeared at this year’s SuperDraft in Vegas, an event that brought in hundreds of players from across the country to compete in a high-stakes affair with competitors they had never met before. There’s an off-Broadway musical based on the fictitious roots of fantasy football. President Obama famously helped Rick Reilly set his Week 6 lineup in 2008. Cable channel FX is currently broadcasting its second season of “The League,” a show based on the exploits of a group of friends in the same fantasy football league.

Maybe most telling of how big fantasy football has gotten is this little nugget: Matthew Berry, ESPN’s senior fantasy analyst, has more Twitter followers (229,684) than Roger Ebert, Pamela Anderson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. The roots of the game date back to the 1960s, but fantasy sports owes much of its success to the Internet boom of the 1990s. By automating most of the game, and introducing live scoring, fantasy became as easy as just a few mouse clicks per week.

However, not all leagues were born via the Internet during the fantasy boom. Sports writer Greg Fox recalls starting his fantasy football league in 1989 with a bunch of friends, sitting on the bleachers following a softball game.

A father helps his sons with their fantasy football draft selections at Durham Intermediate School in Grapevine, Texas
“I remember hearing about fantasy football,” Fox recalls, “but it sounded so stupid to me. As a traditionalist, I didn’t really want to partake in something so unrealistic.” Twenty-two years later the league is still intact, and until recently all stats were done by hand. “On Sundays we would have to call our lineups in to the commissioner’s voice mail,” Fox explained. “It was suggested that we also call our opponents with our lineups, but I was the only one doing it. For years, we would have no idea of the lineup we were playing against until the updated stats came out the next Thursday.”

Fox and his league-mates had long tried to remain as fantasy football traditionalists, but the convenience of the online format and the ability to monitor your scoring instantly was too much for them to pass up on. They eventually conformed. But that’s where they draw the line. One format you likely won’t see Fox participate in is the weekly fantasy contests. Taking away trading, waiver claims, and living and dying by your draft-day performance does not sit well with many traditionalists.

FanDuel.com co-founder and CEO Nigel Eccles, however, believes that he has found more than just a niche fantasy market with his weekly fantasy leagues. This season Eccles and his team introduced the “FanDuel Fantasy Football Championship,” which is a weekly format league that has raised the stakes. Over the course of the season the site will crown 10 weekly winners based on their salary-cap scoring system. The 10 winners will each take home $500 and will be entered in the “one-day fantasy football league” in Las Vegas where the ultimate winner will be crowned. Eccles believes that, through this contest, FanDuel has raised the stakes and made the game more widely-recognized and accessible. It’s a valid argument, since all you need is a $10 entry fee in order to compete, and then a big day from Terrell Owens and Marion Barber for a trip to Las Vegas and a chance at winning $25,000.

The inspiration for the fantasy football championships came from a place rather familiar to glitz-and-glam of the Vegas lifestyle. Eccles explained that seeing 2003 World Series of Poker champion Chris Moneymaker win $2.5 million on a $39 entry fee was something that inspired their move toward creating this event. Eccles also wants to help make the fantasy champs more recognizable, saying that part of his plan is to craft public personas of the winners. “We’d love to do with fantasy what they do with poker stars,” Eccles says.

Not every fantasy road leads to Vegas. One of the most popular companies riding the fantasy-playing wave of the last 15 years is FJ Fantasy, a draft board manufacturer based in Erie, Pennsylvania. Owner Jeff Peters started his venture as a side business when he was a corrugated salesman, a position he has long since retired from to focus on draft boards. At first, Peters mailed out orders from his home, storing boards in his basement. Demand grew, and his three-car garage was soon overtaken with the flat packages, which stand about four feet tall.

“Some of the teams were so serious about picking their teams that they asked us to turn the music down, they prevented anyone to come to the room while they were ‘working’ on their teams.”
– Flavie Bagnol, Director of Communications at Thrillist.com
Eventually, Peters had to rent out a storage facility, and the boards — which see huge spikes in sales before football and baseball season — are now kept in a 1,000-sqaure foot warehouse space. Peters now knows how to operate a forklift. “We use three semi-loads of corrugated per year,” Peters says. He estimates that FJ Fantasy sends out about 50,000 pounds of corrugated and 350,000 sheets of player name labels each year. “In May when we open the garage door to the warehouse, we can’t get in,” he explains. “We prepare all our shipments in May and June out in the hallway, until the pallets of draft boards start to go away.”

One of the drafts that Peters supplied the boards for this year was Thrillist’s Fantasy Football Draft Suite at Manhattan nightclub Pulse back in August. Thrillist – a daily e-mailer that highlights events, trends and happenings nationwide — decided it would throw a fantasy football event, an area it traditionally doesn’t dabble in, and it had its poor Director of Communications, Flavie Bagnol, a native of France, scrambling to a) Learn what fantasy football was, and b) Figure out who to contact and invite to the lounge. At the end of the day, the event — which featured free professional shaves, an appearance by New York Giant Ramses Barden, and a co-sponsorship with fantasy giant Yahoo! — was a rousing success, attracting hundreds of players to a Manhattan hotspot not traditionally associated with fantasy drafts. Bagnol even learned a thing or two about how big the game actually is.

“It helped me understand how serious people are about fantasy sports,” Bagnol told FanHouse. “Some of the teams were so serious about picking their teams that they asked us to turn the music down, they prevented anyone to come to the room while they were ‘working’ on their teams. They meant business.”

And “business,” whether it’s selling draft boards, webcasting alongside a famous actor or hosting a show on Sirius Radio, has never been better.