With summer winding down and fall just around the corner, millions of fans are getting in game shape for football season: fantasy football season.
The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that nearly 18 million people played fantasy football in 2009. The rise in popularity goes hand-in-hand with the continuing national obsession with professional football .
Baseball may be the national pastime, but the NFL is America's most popular sport, according to a Gallup poll, and according to the all-important barometer of television ratings. Fantasy football in recent years has similarly overtaken fantasy baseball as the most popular fantasy game in the United States. But most of today's casual fantasy participants probably don't realize that fantasy football origins date back nearly 50 years.
The first fantasy football league was organized in 1962 in Manhattan, when three men from Oakland were in town for the games of upstart NFL competitor, the American Football League, according to the NFL. Bill Winkenbach, a limited partner in the Oakland Raiders, Scotty Stirling, an Oakland Tribune sportswriter, and Bill Tunnell, who worked in public relations for the Raiders, devised the game in a room at what is now the Milfred Plaza hotel in New York City, during the Raiders' annual visit to play East Coast teams. In a 2004 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Stirling credited Winkenbach with coming up with the idea.
Winkenbach also came up with the league's name. The "Greater Oakland Pigskin Prognosticators League" (GOPPL) was not only the first official fantasy football league, but it was also the first to have a little fun with the league name, something that's now become part of the fun for fantasy nuts everywhere.
Once the men returned to Oakland, Tribune sports editor George Ross was brought in to help fine-tune their new game. The rules for the first year of the GOPPL were remarkably similar to the current fantasy game. You drafted players who had the highest propensity for scoring touchdowns and gaining yards , same as you do today. The big difference between then and now was the available research.
There was no Internet to instantly crunch wide receiver statistics, very few printed football magazines to pore over, except for the old Street & Smith preseason guides, and ESPN didn't exist.
The first player ever drafted in the history of fantasy football? That would be future Hall of Famer (and then Oakland Raider quarterback) George Blanda.
The founding fathers of fantasy football never made a dime off their groundbreaking creation. Even more surprising is the fact that, while the game exploded in popularity in the past decade, Ross and Stirling, the two surviving charter members of the original league, haven't played fantasy football in more than a quarter century. Winkenbach died in 1993, and reportedly played the game until close to the end of his life.
The guys who touched off a phenomenon never saw it coming. They thought all they did was devise a fun, in-season diversion.
"I had no idea it would explode into the kind of mania that exists today," Stirling told the Fantasy Football Index in 1994.
Millions of number-crunching football fans in man-caves and offices everywhere owe those trailblazing guys in the Greater Oakland Pigskin Prognosticators League a great debt for making their fall Sundays more competitive, and more fun.
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