In 1962 Wilfred Winkenbach, a businessman and partner in the Oakland Raiders came up with the idea of fantasy football in a New York City hotel room. The first league set up by Winkenbach was the tongue twisting Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL).
Sixty years on, NFL fantasy football is a much more professional pursuit with thousands of leagues in operation all throughout the country and even beyond. Last year there were an estimated 62.5 million fantasy football players in the USA and a great many more overseas.
That’s an awful lot more players than fantasy baseball, basketball and hockey have. It’s also around 52 million more players than Fantasy Premier League has, which is the fantasy arm of supposedly the most popular sports league on the planet.
Why is this then? Why are there so many more football fans into fantasy leagues than other sports? What is it that makes Gridiron so well suited to fantasy leagues? Read on to find out.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup Final between Argentina and France was watched by 26 million sports fans in the USA, 14.9 million in the UK, 29.4 million in Argentina and 24.1 million in France. In total, the global viewing figures for that one soccer game were an estimated 1.1 – 1.4 billion.
Whilst the FIFA World Cup Final is unquestionably the biggest game in world sport, those crazy viewing figures aren’t confined to international tournaments. The 2022 Champions League Final brought in 700 million viewers whilst the two league clashes between Barcelona and Real Madrid had an estimated audience of 650 million per game.
Conversely, the 2022 edition of the Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals drew a global audience of 99.18 million viewers with regular games for that season averaging 17.1 million viewers.
Why then, are the top three richest sports teams on the planet American? Why is the top 20 almost completely dominated by NFL teams? It’s because American sports franchises, in particular NFL franchises, are commercial behemoths.
From a marketing perspective, the NFL does everything right, which includes marketing the absolute hell out of fantasy football to get more and more people to sign up and forge emotional connections with the league.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the marketing campaigns of fantasy football companies here in the USA are vastly more advanced and efficient than those employed by Europe’s top soccer teams.
(It’s no wonder that a country full of real life Don Draper’s has made the most out of marketing football.)
Baseball and cricket are the two global sports that you would most naturally associate with fantasy sports. They are both games that absolutely ooze with statistics and data which should get the pulses of any fantasy sports player racing, right?
Well no actually. Both games are actually too heavy on the stats for the regular fantasy sports fan who just wants to experience a bit of escapism. OPS+, Woba, Wrc+, strike rates, wickets dismissed for duck and economy rates might all be catnip for statistics loving baseball and cricket fans, but they are way too complex for casual fans.
NFL then, with its lighter version of statistics is the perfect middle ground, allowing players to delve deep into the stats to invoke their inner Billy Beane without getting overwhelmed by data. It also has the edge over soccer in that regard as the stats in football can be more trusted than those in soccer to indicate outcomes.
Football is America’s #1 Sport
Football is the most popular sport here in the United States by far, and here in the US when we like something we go all in on it. Whereas soccer fans are content to just watch every minute of their favourite team’s games, we immerse ourselves completely in our fandom.
Not only do we watch every minute of every game, we listen to every podcast we can, read every article written about our teams and watch dedicated sports news channels. When there are no games on, of course we meet up with our friends and play fantasy football.
Of course we put our in-depth, borderline problematic, knowledge of the Eagles latest injury concerns to good use in our fantasy league management career, because why wouldn’t we?
There’s an argument to be made that football is perfect for fantasy sports because of the statistical sweet spot that it hits. Ultimately though we think its huge popularity more likely comes down to the fact that it is America’s number one sport and we do full-on fandom better than anywhere else on the planet.