A HISTORY OF FANTASY FOOTBALL
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Picture this: ten individuals gather annually from various corners of existence during the latest, most daunting days of Summer to partake in a ritual that has been going on for decades to discuss an ultimately trivial matter but one that is still vastly important to the fabric of their lives and relationships as a group. They discuss what they have done since the prior year’s meeting, how things have changed, how they have stayed the same, but most important of all, they talk mad trash. Seemingly intertwined with the very nature of the event is the obligatory ripping into each other for awful decisions made in the previous year or every year in certain members’ cases. Some seem to treat mediocrity as if it were a second job while others triumph over the rest, having their name etched in glory time and time again. As the gently ribbing persists throughout the event, the participants are ultimately there to choose. One by one, they read aloud the names they have viewed over and over, deciding who will serve them best in the battle ahead. Hours and hours of research and analytics, frequent late nights combing through sheets of data, and many lunch breaks copying expert testimony has all led to that moment when one is called upon to declare their selection. Some choose wisely, while others choose their combatants poorly, but once the dust has settled from the initial determinations, reflection creeps its way in. Envy, pride, and wrath are just a few of the many sins that boil forth as these participants gaze upon the selection laid bare before them with the tiniest of mistakes shining forth like a blinding light. While they have many chances to alter their ranks in the midst of their arduous journey, many have already laid the framework for their eventual victory or defeat. The cruelest aspect of the entire matter is that no one knows exactly which is which at that point. Only time can shed any light on that illusive matter. After all the choices made, arguments had, and many guts busted, the individuals return to wherever it was they came from to await the start of the season and more importantly, their fate.
Naturally, what I am describing is a fantasy draft and much like many of you reading this, my friends and I are among the millions and millions of players around the world who partake in the sport within the sport that is fantasy football. We have been playing for years, but I never once thought about how fantasy football got started, until now. My curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to look into it. Please join me on this journey into the history of the thing we all love, fantasy football.
It all started way back in 1962 when a partial owner of the Oakland Raiders decided that he wanted to find something that could bring back the joy of football. After all, the Oakland Raiders were a joke within a joke in a town that played second fiddle to the bustling city across the bay, San Francisco. You see, the Raiders were a part of the AFL which had not yet merged with the NFL at that point. The AFL was commonly referred to by the unfortunate nickname of the Almost Football League as it had only been in operation around three years at that point while the NFL had been around since 1920. The Raiders also were off to an 0-7 start to a season which would ultimately end up as a 1-13 season. This is following another one-win season in 1961, so it can be understood that the morale of anyone associated with the Oakland Raiders at that time was pretty low. This series of events or travesties, by the looks of it, led to one of most important aspects of modern sports. After a dismal outing against the Titans (now known as the Jets) in which the Raiders lost 71-43, three men holed themselves up in the room of a Manhattan hotel and came out with the rumblings of what would become fantasy football. These three men were the Oakland Tribune’s sports editor, George Ross, the beat reporter Scotty Stirling and most importantly, Wilfred “Wink” Winkenbach. Winkenbach is ultimately credited as the inventor of fantasy football as he was the one who created the meeting based on his previous fantasy related venture in baseball and golf.
Upon the initial scribblings made during that fateful night, Winkenbach and his two compatriots gathered various personalities from around the Oakland area, many of whom were workers for the Tribune and the Raiders. A total of eight men gathered in Winkenbach’s rumpus room, which is most likely one of the most famous in sports history now. Being that it was the only fantasy league in existence at that point, the group decided to name it the incredibly simple title of the “Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prediction League” or GOPPPL for short.
Surprisingly, many of the rules established for the league are ones that are still used to this very day in many leagues. They used a snake draft, had head-to-head matchups, and included roster spots for various players such as a quarterback, running back, wide receiver and defensive players. They also collected money to be given to the winner at the end of the year, while the loser had a dunce trophy that needed to be predominantly displayed in their home for all to see and laugh at. Because this was the 1960s, all of the scores and tabulations had to be done by hand on notepads by Winkenbach’s secretary, who hopefully got a much-deserved raise as a result.
The first player selected was George Blanda with the second being Jim Brown. Blanda would go on to be a bust for that season while Jim Brown did Jim Brown things. The man who basically wasted his first pick went on to lose that initial season and get his dunce trophy. Despite playing an important role as having the first ever fantasy football pick and being its first loser, Andy Mousalimas is known for a much different reason when it comes to fantasy football. While many of the other members went on to become sports legends such as Stirling becoming a general manager for the New York Knicks and Roy Wolfe becoming a scout for the Green Bay Packers in the 1990s, Mouslimas paved the way for the rest of the world to participate in the game.
Fast forward a few years to the late 1960s when Mousilimas bought the King’s X Sports Bar which would become a big spot in the Oakland bar scene. In a move that got him banned from the GOPPPL, Mousilimas opened the game up to his patrons. No longer was fantasy football exclusive to an octet of Oakland sports figures. It could be open to the public.
Along with this alteration, Mousilimas made three huge changes. The first thing he did was allowing yardage to play a factor in how your team scored. Before then, only points scored in the game reflected on your score sheet, but by adding yardage stats, Mousilimas essentially created a whole new realm for strategy in the game. The second thing he did was get rid of individual defensive players in favor of a team’s defense as a whole. Everyone knows defense wins championships and that definitely translates to fantasy with many defenses making or breaking a player’s season. The last and arguably most important change for getting us to where we are now is allowing women to play the game. It was no longer just a boy’s club with Mousilimas even starting a lady’s division in the mid 1970s. Women now comprise nearly a third of all fantasy football players.
Once regular people started to get involved in the game, it was inevitable that it would spread like wildfire. The 1980s was a pivotal decade for the sport because over the course of it, the number of players reached over 1 million. This was due in large part to numerous fantasy guides published both on paper and electronically. It was possible to buy a fantasy football guide that could be displayed on one’s home computer. Piggybacking off of its success in the ‘80s, fantasy football’s popularity skyrocketed with the advent of the internet. Much like many other products and ideas of the time, fantasy football was able to reach even more people with the intricate webbing of the internet. People all over the world could now invite their friends, make a league of their own, or even compete in a league with complete strangers. The possibilities were virtually endless.
The start of the 21st century also saw an uptake in the amount of people playing the game due to exhilarating displays of athleticism such as the “Greatest Show on Turf” which highlighted the possibility and excitement of humiliating your friends if you had Isaac Bruce Kurt Warner, or Marshall Faulk on your fantasy team. Along with an increase in the excitement of players, many more big-name players got into the fantasy game as well. CBS started an online league in the late 1990s and even the analysts covering the games on television incorporated the terminology and stats into their commentary. Fantasy football was becoming more and more synonymous with the actual sport to the point now where it’s almost impossible to separate the two. The NFL has a channel dedicated specifically to watching the games with fantasy matchups in mind called NFL Redzone. As a result of the game’s popularity, more and more people have access to games across the country and a better understanding of the game of football itself. With nearly 15 million players in the US alone, fantasy football has taken the country by storm and there seem to be no signs of it stopping.
Although Wilfred Winkenbach died in 1993 and many of the others involved in that very first league are no longer around, I can only imagine they would be pleased with the result. After all, the game was created out of a want for fun and enjoyment and fantasy football has brought that to millions of people.