Fantasy football is one of the most popular pastimes in North America, with an estimated 10% of the entire population playing some form of fantasy sport. Of these, the majority choose fantasy football, with around eight in 10 players citing fantasy football as their preferred fantasy sport. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association reported in 2015 that the fantasy sports industry was valued at $27 billion annually if betting is included, with the number of players increasing year on year.
The first known fantasy sports were established back in the early 1950s, when Wilfred Winkenbach conceived of a way of making golf more interesting by investing a personal, competitive stake in each player’s performance. While this particular version never became mainstream, it set the wheels in motion for some far more popular variations of fantasy sport.
The initial concept for fantasy football is said to date back to an evening somewhere in the fall of 1962, when Winkenbach, a minority owner of Oaklands Raiders was enjoying a few drinks with a couple of friends. The Raiders were performing poorly that season, with only one win to 13 losses at the time. Winkenbach and friends applied some of the concepts of fantasy golf to the game of football to make the season more interesting, therefore birthing NFL fantasy. While fantasy golf remained a fairly basic concept that had not caught the imaginations of the public, fantasy football would become a whole other ball game.
Back in the 1960s, Winkenbach and friends probably never conceived how their idea would grow, expand and attract the interest of fans far and wide. Today, the global fantasy football market is worth an estimated $18.6 billion. To put that into context, the revenue of the NFL, on which fantasy football is based, was roughly $16 billion in 2018. More than 70% of all fantasy sports participants choose fantasy football, which equates to over 40 million individual players worldwide. These figures do not account for non-professional fantasy football leagues, such as those run in workplaces or among groups of friends, meaning there are probably millions more people who enjoy fantasy sports than the official figures show.
Playing for Fun
While figures exploring revenues and betting income help to prove the popularity of fantasy football, for many it is an enjoyably activity that requires little to no financial commitment. There are thousands upon thousands of informal fantasy football leagues established each season, with participants joining for the thrill of the competition and a shot to show off their skills as a potential NFL manager, rather than for the potential of winning a large prize.
How Fantasy Football Works
The concept behind fantasy football is relatively simple – participants choose players from the NFL to be part of their fantasy team and decide each week who to play. They accrue points based on the statistical performance of their players each week. There are more complexities to the game, such as trading or transferring players, strategizing bye weeks and more. However, essentially competitors are trying to recruit the best players to their own teams to earn the most points. One of the reasons fantasy sports are so popular is that it is not simply gambling – there is a strong element of skill involved in selecting the right players for the team and knowing who to play with depending on the games each week.
Las Vegas Sportsbooks
Fantasy football is popular across the United States and Canada. In Las Vegas, arguably the gambling capital of the world, millions of dollars are taken in entry fees in week one of the NFL season. Vegas sportsbook operators spend millions more in advertising, and venture capital investment in Vegas sportsbooks has entered the hundreds of millions. Draft parties for fantasy football leagues in Las Vegas attract so much interest that many of the hotels both on and off the Strip offer special draft party packages, appealing to the hundreds of thousands of people who want to get in on the game from the beginning.
Big Money Contests
While most people play fantasy football for fun, or perhaps the opportunity to win a few dollars or some small prizes, there are many that take it seriously and are prepared to for the potential to win big. The biggest prize on offer is the $1 million top award for the weekly NFL Fantasy Perfect Challenge, where participants must predict the absolute fantasy line-up to take home the prize. Outside of this, there are several high-stakes fantasy football games that can be joined. Entry fees can be around $1,000 for some, and with hundreds of participants in the league the prizes are huge. These types of leagues regularly pay out prizes in the realms of $1,000 or even $10,000 to individual league winners, with top prizes reaching $200,000.
One of the key benefits for the real-life NFL of the growing popularity of fantasy football is that it tends to correlate to increased engagement in the sport. People who may previously have only watched their home team play suddenly find themselves watching several games a week as their fantasy players compete, seeking the thrill of knowing their points total is about to rise. Fantasy football has also served as a gateway for many female fans to get into football – approximately 29% of all fantasy football participants are women.
NFL fantasy football creates unique opportunities to get involved in a fun, exciting and sociable competition with family, friends and work colleagues, or even to play for the possibility of winning big money prizes competing against thousands of others online. The revenue streams created by official fantasy football leagues stand testament to the popularity of the game, which only looks set to rise as more people get involved.