From baseball to football: The history of fantasy sports
A look into the origins of what is now one of the biggest online phenomenons in North America
Fantasy sports has become a global phenomenon since the late 1990s. The idea of choosing your favourite athletes across different leagues and gambling on a result-based platform blew up the online market.
Although fantasy sports may seem like a new trend, its roots date back to the end of the Second World War. The first accounts can be traced back to the 1950s, with people picking a team of golfers, tracking their progress through a tournament and seeing the person with the lowest amount of strokes win the pool.
Fantasy football, for example, got its start in the 1960s.
In 1962 a man named Wilfred Winkenbach, a businessman in the Bay Area and a one-time shareholder of the Oakland Raiders, created the blueprints for what would become fantasy football.
His league came to be called the ‘Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League’ and comprised of picking skilled position players like a quarterback, running back and wide receivers around the NFL and tracking their stats in a weekly head-to-head matchup against friends.
Former Raider quarterback and Hall of Famer George Blanda was the first fantasy football player selected.
Fantasy baseball built off this mold in the 1980s when a Harvard professor created a league that follows a format many fantasy sports players use today where the person with the most points at the end of the season wins the league, with points being added up from statistical success from the players ‘drafted.’
Famed news editor Daniel Okrent was a university student before being known as the New York Time’s first public editor for his work in the growing history of fantasy baseball.
His innovation was that "owners" in a Rotisserie league would draft teams from the list of active MLB players and would follow their statistics during the ongoing season to compile their scores. Instead of running realistic simulations using statistics of seasons whose outcomes were already known after the fact, the owners of teams would have to make similar predictions about players' playing time, health and expected performance to give players the feeling of running a Major League team.
This format got its name from the restaurant in New York city called La Rotisserie Francaise were Okrent and his friends decide to pick MLB players before the season started and then track their stats. Whoever had the most points at the end of the year won.
Football player Alan Pastrana in the 1960s, around the birthplace of fantasy sports p
The 1981 MLB lockout was the launch pad that fantasy sports ended up taking off from as many journalists such as Okrant had nothing to write about during this time, allowing for exposure and further experimenting with the phenomena.
USA Today reported in 1988 that thousands of leagues had spawned with eight to 12 participants.
Hockey pools follow a format that was derived from baseball earlier in the 1980s from the ideas of Okrant.
The Internet boom in the 1990s sparked the growth of fantasy hockey with the Molson Brewery in Canada adding a ‘pick-n-play’ feature on their website that was set up for marketing and branding reasons.
Gavin Granger, who started a fantasy hockey playoff pool with his brother in 1987, played fantasy sports before the expansion of the internet and modern apps on phones.
“We used to have to get the box scores from the newspaper the following day to get the stats and then my brother would put the updated standings on his answering machine, so the team owners would have to call him to find out how well you were doing. Also, if there was a late game out west and that results didn’t make the print, you'd either have to wait two days or we just completely missed those stats.”
Cody Woodman first fell into the fantasy sports scene in 1996 when he was 12 years old.
“I got into fantasy sports in ‘96, there's was this website and the premise was you would buy an athlete from any sport, they had everything from golf to tennis. You'd buy the player from whatever price the site has set. If he won a golf tournament his price would go up. Then you could sell that player and make that money and you would incur a dollar amount by buying and selling players. It was a really cool concept, I’m pretty sure it does not exist anymore, but it was really cool.”
The invention of the iPhone has taken fantasy sports to a whole new realm. Apps have changed the game tremendously in terms of tracking your team's in-game stats and progress. NFL fantasy, ESPN fantasy and Yahoo fantasy apps are just another reason people are glued to their cell phones. Other apps like the Score and Rotoworld keep the fantasy addiction fed, Granger says the modern age of fantasy sports is easier than ever to get into but comes with a new set of flaws.
“For me, I go way back to when you got all your intel from Sports Illustrated, the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star Sports. Now everything is at your fingertips. It is too easy to disseminate. You can hit up Twitter and get everything that's trending on that player.”
Despite building a fantasy league on an answering machine 33 years ago, the Granger brothers are gearing up for another playoff pool in 2019.
One of the problems in today's age of citizen journalism is that there may be too much information says, Granger.
“The problem with it now is trying to make sense of what is reality and what is bullshit because everyone and their brother is a fantasy expert and you have to decipher whose opinion is worthy and who is not.”
Fantasy Sports really began to pick up during the 1980s baseball rotisserie.