In 1962, part-owner of the Oakland Raiders Bill Winkenbach met with some friends in a New York City hotel and birthed what we now know as fantasy football. They would draft players from the NFL and now-defunct AFL to their fantasy franchises and earn points based on their performance. Whilst the concept has remained just as simple, the change in popularity is night and day. With an estimated 56.8 million users in Canada and the USA alone, fantasy sports have become a staple of sporting culture around the world, and its ever-increasing popularity dictates that it is here to stay. In fact, analysts expect the global market for fantasy sports to grow another 12% by 2022.
The advancement of technology in the 21st century means anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can create, manage and compete in fantasy football leagues. You can no longer have a conversation about the big game without mentioning what it meant for your fantasy league. At the bar, the water cooler, even when you’re tailgating your favorite team; is just as much a part of gameday as beer and hot dogs. Additionally, the president of the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association, Paul Charcanian, has pointed to a changing demographic that has helped increase its users with females now representing 29% of the fantasy football’s player base.
But just why has it become so popular in recent years? Well, science has answered that question for us. A study conducted by researchers at MIT suggested that the performance of fantasy sports users is based on skill rather than luck. Associate dean of engineering Anette Hosoi said of the findings “Some [fantasy] players may know more about statistics, rules of the game, which players are injured, effects of weather, and a host of other factors that make them better at picking players — that’s the skill in fantasy sports,”. After growing up in the age of the internet, millennials have become generally attracted to hobbies that are innovative and tricky, so the world of fantasy sports is the proverbial match made in heaven.
With eighty percent of players taking part in fantasy football, the record user numbers being witnessed in fantasy sports are reflected in viewership, particularly in the NFL. According to former VP of interactive games and partnerships at ESPN Raphael Poplock, they are engaging with “content and with programs and with live games, more than any other fan base”.
In many ways, fantasy sports have become their own sub-culture of sport. Thousands of hours of video content, radio, and podcasts are produced every week based on how to get the best out of your fantasy franchise. Sports networks and even the NFL itself took note of this and have dedicated portions of their programming to fantasy football, with the NFL Network referring to their ‘Red Zone’ channel as “The perfect fantasy football companion.” If all of that wasn’t enough evidence of the effect fantasy sports has on viewing habits, research from the FSGA has shown that a whopping 64% of players are watching more live sports as a direct result of their favorite hobby.
One huge positive for the major sports leagues is that fantasy sports give fans who are perhaps disillusioned with their own team a reason to tune in throughout the year. For example, say your team is tanking a season. They are 0-8, their draft picks were weak and they have injuries all over the field. Whilst you may not be motivated to watch them, you still want bragging rights over your buddies come to the end of the season. For that reason, you are still tuning in to other games to see how your players are performing, helping you make informed decisions when managing your fantasy franchise. And this is not exclusive to die-hards. Casual football fans are now switching over to football games week in week out for the same reasons. These are people who perhaps had little to no interest in the sport before they decided to play, but the excitement of fantasy competition has drawn them in and hooked them. Before they know it they cannot miss a play and what started as a light hobby has turned into a routine. This is how the synergy between fantasy sports and major sports leagues can create an entirely new generation of fans.
To see just how far fantasy sports have come since their humble beginnings in that New York hotel room is remarkable. Whether it is for bragging rights over their buddies or big cash prizes through Draft Kings, tens of millions of users have let it be known that this is what it is to be a sports fan in the 21st century. It is a competition and it’s thrilling. It is a worldwide subculture that is defining the way that sport is marketed and the way that we consume it. Be it football, baseball, hockey, or basketball; the fantasy sports industry has changed the way we enjoy gameday forever.