Evolution of fantasy sports

By Robby Sabo,

It is now August, the time that fantasy baseball enthusiasts are gearing up for the home stretch and fantasy football die-hards are in heaven, dreaming about landing a top three pick (LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, or Adrian Peterson). The popular ways of fantasy sports do not go unnoticed anymore.

There was a time when the prerequisite to play fantasy sports was owning five calculators, two pairs of glasses, and a sleek pocket protector. While nerds played fantasy, real men gambled on the games and watched the sport for its real worth. Oh, how far we have come.

Fantasy sports in this country are now an epidemic and an obsession. It is estimated that nearly 30 million people participate each year in this 4-billion dollar industry, according to ESPN. The average fantasy player spends three-hours a week managing their roster. We are now in an era where fantasy sports are glorified, a huge change from what old-timers remember. Both the rich and famous and the struggling and invisible play fantasy sports.

Unlike most great obsessions though, fantasy sports has had a tough time proclaiming an origin.

As most know, thanks in part to ESPN’s 30 For 30 Film Silly Little Game, the inventors of fantasy sports was a group known simply as The Rotisserie League. In 1980, a group of journalists formed The Rotisserie League in a New York City restaurant La Rotisserie Française. According to Silly Little Game, these guys were the founders of fantasy, as they played their first game of fantasy baseball that day.

Daniel Okrent, who was a magazine writer/editor, has been credited with the formation of the scoring system. He reportedly came up with the idea on a flight to Texas, and upon arrival, was quickly shot down by his uninterested friends. He then presented the idea to other friends in New York City and their attention was caught, much to the delight of Okrent.

The principle which Okrent used for scoring still holds true today in rotisserie leagues. This is especially the case for baseball leagues, as the rotisserie format is still the overwhelming favorite option, while football uses the head to head scoring format.

Let’s hold this “founding fathers” thought for a moment though. Despite the now common knowledge that The Rotisserie League created fantasy sports, it is simply not true.

While the late '80s certainly helped pick up steam for fantasy, and the late '90s took it through the stratosphere, there was a little-known 1963 draft that took place in Oakland that most are unaware of.

The legend has it that Oakland Raiders QB/K George Blanda was the first pick in the history of fantasy football, according to SportsOnEarth.com. The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, or GOPPPL, held the first ever fantasy sports draft, and it was football.

One of the guys who participated was Bill "Wink" Winkenbach, who owned a Bay Area tile company. According to many, “Wink” is the founding father of fantasy sports.

Winkenbach was part owner of the Raiders in 1962, and they were awful. The pure boredom of watching this dreadful team must have contributed to the creation of fantasy, since I'm sure “Wink” was looking for a fun escape. Al Davis’ slogan of “Commitment to Excellence” now seems relevant in the world of fantasy as well, if only in the accidental form.

Winkenbach discussed his idea for fantasy with Tribune Sports editor, George Ross, on a flight to Buffalo. This was the basic premise of his idea: “What if we created our own football league based on actual player performances? And what if we were all team owners?”

In the fall of 1963, an eight-team GOPPPL league was created and began play which was largely made up of Tribune writers. During the draft, each team selected 20 players, as scoring was not quite what we know today. Rushing touchdowns were worth 50 cents, a passing touchdown 25 cents, with any score over 75-yards doubling the money. The seasonal winner of the league received $60. Not bad for 1963.

Cleveland Browns RB Jim Brown went number two overall in the draft. Think about that for a moment, all of you football nuts. Jim Brown.

While Winkenbach and crew had to mainly rely on newspapers for information, Raiders' eventual head coach and owner were also somewhat involved. Being part owner, Winkenbach had ties to John Madden and Al Davis through the years.

From there, the GOPPPL took off and remains strong today, as does the concept of fantasy sports. Whether The Rotisserie League or GOPPL deserve the most credit for being the first “organized” fantasy sports origin, we know that fantasy sports has been around for quite a long time.

The evolution of the concept is due to one big item: the Internet. Fantasy sports is all numbers and information, and the internet provides that instantaneously. Regardless of who the founding fathers were, the internet always will be the real catalyst for the explosion of fantasy sports.

Get ready for 2014 folks: that week-one pot has your name written all over it.



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