The Weird and Outrageous History of Fantasy Sports

By Sean H.

It is human nature to love control. Every person loves to know they hold control over a situation, a problem, and to maintain the power to determine the fate of a given situation. Whether it is being a “boss” or executive, every person has a differing opinion in crunch time, and would try to input what they would do in a certain moment, and that example of humanity is all the more evident in sports. It’s hard to go to a public place to watch a game without hearing a complaining or belligerent fan state, “what is the coach doing? I can make better decisions. Why is he pitching? Why did he throw it to him?” et cetera. That ideal is the driving force behind the powerhouse monopoly that is fantasy. No, not the genre of media with wizards and dragons and spaceships, but the sports service that allows players to draft a team. Playing with family, friends and co-workers, fantasy sports lets the player build what really is a team out of a fantasy, play against other built teams, and win or lose based on that player’s real-life performance in games. Fantasy is most popular in its football form, and has grown from weird beginnings in an office, to become digitized and a billion-dollar industry that has changed the lives of some of the average Joes that made their making millions by making their picks. Fantasy sports has a weird and wild history, and its transformation from nothing to having whole shows on ESPN has a story that is impossible to make up.

In this modern era where the world is at our fingertips, and digitalization is becoming more and more evident in every situation of life, fantasy sports has never been an exception. Nonetheless, the powerful feeder business that many pro leagues have embraced has grown from the most humble beginnings. As SB Nation, a sports page respected by millions, puts, “It’s important to remember that fantasy football wasn’t always the one-click affair it is now. In fact, it wasn’t always in existence. The game first popped up in 1962 and was shepherded through the long, dark days of the pre-Internet by a small group of people with grit, passion, imagination, and a whole lot of scratch paper.” SB Nation detailed in an investigation the wild history of the sport inside a sport that changed the landscape of the game of football. The history of fantasy is quite crazy and complicated and somewhat clouded, but it can get traced back half a century. Surprisingly, fantasy as it’s now known was not created that year. In reality, the clock needs to be turned back more into the mid-50’s, where football wasn’t even the initial fantasy sport. Back then, the NFL had teams only found now in the NFC, the Cowboys weren’t even a thought yet, Chicago had two teams, and the Colts hailed from Baltimore. In addition, there was no fantasy football. But, Bill Winkenbach changed that forever.

Watching golf tournaments, Winkenbach realized viewers were becoming increasingly disenfranchised and felt the sport was, well, boring. As a result, Winkenbach had an idea. Quite frankly, a genius idea at that. “Bill Winkenbach first came up with the idea of a “fantasy sport” watching golf in the 1950s … to build your own team of professional golfers and follow their progress through golf tournaments. The person whose team of golfers had the lowest total score at the end of [the] tournament was the winner.” Research site ‘Fantasysportshero’ notes that this was initially created for a small group of fans, but it grew exponentially to become a local hit, and brought fans in. However, Winkenbach quickly realized his creation had potential. Not just potential as in a fun game, but as a business.

Bill Winkenbach was not just a man of intelligence, but a man of money. He had a lot of materials, and perfectly blended that with his game. After leaving due to its confusion in scoring, he moved to the robust stat-happy league that was Major League Baseball. As a football database known as ‘Fantasy Sports History’ pointedly explains, “baseball is more statistically dense than golf, Winkenbach and his friends started paying attention to more than just scores. Home runs and pitching stats were calculated and used to “score” this early version of fantasy baseball.” With more components and organization, his “fantasy” association of friends soon became something more than he could ever imagine. While his early baseball league was built three decades before its time, the American Football League was building one of the greatest competitor leagues ever. The Raiders realized Winkenbach’s game was imperative to sales, marketing and in separating itself from the NFL. As it later becomes clear, the rest of the world came calling too.

In 1959, creators of the AFL realized how susceptible the NFL was due to recurring injuries, many flop teams, and overall failure. The league was on the brink, and this new league hoped to capitalize on the weakness of competition. They built this association in a time before there was ESPN, before a clear big four in sports, and athletics were liable and every sport possibly besides the MLB was a fledgling. The NFL was no exception. As a result, the American Football League was born and was marketed as a faster, safer and more electrifying league as opposed to the older counterpart that was old, run-oriented, and established. The AFL decided they needed a catapult to legitimize their league into a real competitive threat. When the AFL was created, the Oakland Raiders were in part owned by a man very well-known at this point. The man’s name? Bill Winkenbach. Winkenbach had massive success in prior leagues, and had actually made commerce with AFL representatives about his organization. The Raiders were partly his team, so along with other executives, Bay Area sports writers and employees of the team, a plan was formulated. Their football club was nothing short of abysmal, and it was a lonely few seasons. After countless amounts of research and “prognostication” we come to 1962, the year the league was formally built. Skip ahead to 1963, where the GOPPPL, or the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League holds its inaugural draft,” according to the San Diego Tribune. The league was born out of a disastrous road trip, and Winkenbach thought it was at that point, time to implement the draft. According to Nico Newman, acclaimed sports writer, the first pick was the Raiders’ own George Blanda and the draft had full on teams from the AFL, not yet including the NFL. Newman continues by stating, “At this point in time fantasy sports now exist very loosely comparable to what we know to be fantasy sports today. Having said this though there is still a long way to go as there is still no fantasy sports for many other sports and no league is open to the public yet. Evidently, the idea of fantasy sports was ballooning and as a result, the NFL would soon catch on.

Years go by in the GOPPPL without much more news, with the league growing from eight members to having a waiting list to join. However, the league would quickly and finally become a monetized association and not a gentleman’s game, in genius fashion. As the SD Tribune analyzes, “This [was] the first signs of any sort of fantasy sports game ever.” Everything was new, with Winkenbach not knowing the progress that other prognosticators would make. Others did. “Andy Mousalimas became commissioner of the first public fantasy football league, which is open to his patrons at the Kings X Sports Bar in Oakland,” the Tribune writes; “[and in 1974] The first known Ladies’ Division begins at the Kings X Sports Bar.” The leagues were a massive hit and Mousalimas became a local legend, and officially coining the term fantasy for his leagues. Nowadays, 41.5 million people play fantasy sports, but at that time, leagues were limited to pen-and-paper leagues that were managed by a “secretary” and sent into a database to control winners and money.

By the 80’s, fantasy was mostly limited to football, but that would soon change. With longer amounts of time staying stagnated, it was virtually guaranteed that demand would arise for growth in other sports. Coming out of those ashes? Roto baseball. The fact that baseball would become the second biggest fantasy association is mesmerizing, given the fact that it had become more and more of a complication due to growing statistics and the beginning of the Statcast era. But, bars across the nation starting in 1981 started these leagues, with other sports following suit. Football always has and currently is the leader in fantasy sports, but other leagues have niche fans that play their fantasy sports religiously. Fantasy sports started from a small base to becoming a reasonable business, but the computer and the Internet forever changed the game.

In the mid-80’s, the era of pen-and-paper was soon to end, as many people found it redundant and many fans from the 60’s were growing out of the game. The computer changed it all. With the birth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, websites such as ESPN, Yahoo!, and CBS found the profit in fantasy, and capitalized. On their burgeoning websites, they all allowed for fantasy news and information. The first of these sites to do so is Yahoo! Sports. In the late 90’s they were the first major company to create a free online fantasy game. The other two followed suit, but Yahoo is still the most successful of these currently. In the last decade, newer leagues that allow for large gains such as Fanduel and DraftKings have brought in a popular, low risk/high reward system that younger players have taken a liking to. Digitalization has changed the game in utter assuredness, but fantasy’s life has not been all brightness.

“Although strictly not information about Fantasy sports,” Newman states, “the court case between the National Basketball Association and Motorola Inc. did bring about huge precedent that would forever change the world of Fantasy sports.” Newman explains that in 1996, Motorola company was broadcasting NBA scores and stats, used by many fantasy companies. As a result, the NBA tried to make a case that they were losing financial gains from this, and Motorola was doing this illegally. Newman continues his analysis by stating, “Motorola got all of their information without the consent of the NBA and Motorola funded it all themselves. The NBA claimed that scores and statistics of NBA games were covered by copyright.” However, they were deemed legally wrong. In fact, “The court ruled that because the scores and stats that Motorola was sending their users were entirely factual, they could not be covered by copyright law. [This] was a precedent that suggested that the vendors of this information were not breaking any laws and thus fantasy sports could continue to grow.” This paved the way for fantasy to skyrocket in popularity, eventually allowing for their own real-time updates. This court case was a mask for fantasy sports, and completely proved their legality forever thanks to Motorola’s precedent.

Fantasy sports, in all of their wild journey, have stayed the same in construct. For fantasy baseball, as the original big sport for it, still scores off of homers, strikeouts, and for hits. This is the same now as it was back a half century ago. With added digitalization, legality, and popularity, fantasy has grown from a game with friends to a billion-dollar business that has whole shows on ESPN dedicated to it. Fantasy has changed the lives of some average Joes who chose to play and has made sports more appealing to non-fans and made a profit for some leagues, most notably the NFL. On a personal note, I’ve played every type of fantasy, from daily predictions, football, hockey, basketball, and baseball. All of these sports benefit as they help grow knowledge of players and give recognition of players who play the sport the best, not just who have the best name recall. There are still stars that blossom like Zeke Elliott and Mookie Betts, but now legends like Michael Vick grew his fame thanks to fantasy and his dual-threat abilities helping the game. Fantasy sports have survived illegal gambling, the countless Supreme Court cases, and multiple generations to become the exciting and electrifying game that really at this point has become more than that. To think many don’t watch football but play fantasy is truly astounding, and it shows how a friendly way to have fun can build up and grow to monstrous proportions. It may seem impossible, but it is truly a reality; not fantasy.

Student Bio

Sean H.

2019 MSU Oranges Camp
2020 Summer Program

A standout athlete, I participate in wrestling and baseball and am an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox and Dallas Cowboys, along with other teams. I also enjoy mini-golfing, spending time with my family and friends, and going to the beach.

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