What Fantasy Football Means to Hollywood

 Peter Yang

Actors and execs are among the 27 million sucked in as the recession-proof, $1 billion-a-year craze keeps growing, fueling record nfl ratings, websites, radio shows and an insatiable national obsession.

Fantasy football was created in 1962 by Wilfred Winkenbach, an Oakland Raiders limited partner, with help from the team's PR man Bill Tunnel and newspaper reporter Scotty Starling, according to HowStuffWorks.com. They invited American Football League affiliates, football journalists and anyone who sold or bought 10 season tickets to the Raiders' 1963 season to join their league, which used cash payoffs for scoring -- $2.50 for a kickoff returned for a touchdown, 50 cents for a rushing TD, etc. "Ground Zero" for fantasy football was the Kings X sports bar in Oakland, which, inspired by Winkenbach's creation, in 1969 opened a league for patrons and used a points system rather than cash.

Fantasy football spread from there, with friends banding together to form leagues and throw money into a pot that would go to their league champion each season. But it was a laborious hobby that included researching the week's stats for every team and player in the NFL to figure out who scored what in fantasy terms. The Internet made it fantastically simple, and sites like SportsLine.com (now owned by CBS) began launching fantasy products as early as 1996.

With a cash incentive to go along with bragging rights and the fun of managing your own NFL team, it's no surprise that fantasy football has had a halo effect on the entire industry. By every metric, a fantasy player is more engaged in the sport than are the fans who don't play fantasy. It's one reason for those massive ratings and why the TV distributors -- CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, DirecTV and the NFL Network -- will pay a hefty $4 billion for broadcast rights this year. In January, ESPN agreed to fork over $1.8 billion a year just for the rights to Monday Night Football from 2014 to 2022, which represents a 63 percent increase.

STORY: Fantasy Football's $1 Billion-a-Year Business, 27 Million Players: 'It's a Sickness'

"A lot of fantasy games come down to Monday night," says Jason Waram, vp fantasy games and social at ESPN, "and even if you don't care about the teams, you'll stay up late to watch if one of your players is playing."

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is to meet his goal of transforming the league into a $25 billion industry by 2027, up from $7.6 billion in 2008, you can bet that fantasy will have played a big role.

But the most obvious manifestation of the super-engaged fantasy fan isn't TV -- it's online. A fantasy player, for example, will spend 90 minutes a month at CBSSports.com compared with 30 minutes for a fan who doesn't play fantasy. And fantasy players will visit NFL.com twice as often as a football fan who doesn't play fantasy; plus, they'll read four times as many pages. Those are the kinds of figures that prompted the NFL to take its fantasy business in-house last year, whereas it had been farming it out to CBS Sports.

"Look, we're the NFL," says Jeff Berman, GM of NFL Digital Media. "If you want the authentic deal, you should come here, and we should do it ourselves."

As with many sites, NFL.com offers its fantasy products for free, but players aren't averse to shelling out cash for a premium product. That's why CBSSports.com sells several league management products for as much as $500 a season, and its business grows every year despite the competition from 60 or so sites that give away similar services. (Websites, though, do not share how many leagues are managed.) Because of the premium products, CBSSports.com claims to generate more revenue via fantasy sports than any other site (many smaller sites, like RotoWire.com, also sell fantasy products).

Not surprisingly, the NFL is working on premium fantasy products of its own, though it won't divulge details.

"The NFL gets it now," says Charchian. "For a long time they didn't, because they confused it with gambling. But fantasy players end up doubling up on the amount of NFL they watch."


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