As the NFL season kicks off this weekend, the Philadelphia Eagles begin a quest to become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions in more than a decade, a storyline with less interest outside of the City of Brotherly Love.
For many fans in Chicago and across the country, the focus instead will be on dethroning that blowhard from accounting who won last season’s office fantasy football league, a growing pastime for some 60 million virtual team owners.
Once the exclusive domain of stat-obsessed sports nerds, fantasy football — a competition based on individual player performance — has become a booming industry in the digital age, with online platforms, subscription research services and up-to-the-minute news that can help even casual fans crush it on any given Sunday.
“It’s big business,” said Peter Schoenke, president and co-founder of RotoWire, a 21-year-old fantasy sports subscription news service based in Madison, Wis. “It’s a lot of fun too.”
Schoenke is also chairman of the Madison-based Fantasy Sports Trade Association, a 20-year-old membership organization representing 200 fantasy sports companies. The association pegs annual fantasy sports revenue at $7.2 billion, which includes everything from advertising sold by online league hosts such as ESPN and Yahoo to game day pizza orders.
Fantasy football can also be a major-league time suck for participants — mostly young, well-educated and gainfully employed men — many of whom spend surreptitious hours at work each week researching and juggling their team-agnostic player rosters in a bid to best their fellow fantasy owners.
A study released last month by financial technology firm OppLoans found that, on average, fantasy football players spend nearly seven work hours each week managing their teams during the NFL season.
“When you play fantasy sports, you’ve got to research everything, such as the wide receiver on every team,” Schoenke said. “When you put in time to research and get better, it pays off.”
Standard fantasy football leagues are composed of about a dozen teams — friends, co-workers or complete strangers — who hold a preseason draft to assemble a lineup heavy on high-profile offensive stars. A typical lineup may include a quarterback, running backs, receivers and other positions that amass touchdowns, first downs, yardage and other statistics that contribute to fantasy scoring.
Stats from each week’s NFL games determine fantasy scores, and standings are based on head-to-head matchups between owners or cumulative scores throughout the season. Many leagues include a modest entry fee, with the champion bringing home the winnings — and bragging rights — at the end of the season
On average, players pay about $50 to join a league, hoping to take home a first-prize payout of about $350, according to the OppLoans study.
Founded in 1997, RotoWire provides real-time news and fantasy player information to about 100,000 subscribers who each pay about $80 per season for the service, Schoenke said. The privately held company has 35 employees.
Subscribers use RotoWire to stay on top of player performance and to keep a fantasy team winning throughout the 16-game NFL regular season, Schoenke said.
“There’s a whole component of in-season moves,” Schoenke said. “You set your lineup every week, you pick up players every week, you cut guys because they’re injured. Roster management is a big component of it.”
The research also helps fantasy players find “sleepers” such as Alvin Kamara, a running back for the New Orleans Saints who came out of nowhere last season to be a top fantasy performer.
“That’s everyone’s dream scenario, to pick up a player like that,” Schoenke said.
Fantasy football traces its origins to 1963 and the inaugural season for the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, which was developed by a minority owner of the Oakland Raiders, a team spokesman and a sportswriter.
In the 1980s, Rotisserie Baseball moved fantasy sports forward, but as the action shifted online in the 1990s, fantasy football became the dominant game, elevated by free online platforms found on websites such as ESPN and Yahoo that facilitated the formation of grassroots leagues.
The advent of daily fantasy websites such DraftKings and FanDuel have upped the stakes, drawing millions of registered users who pay an entry fee to jump in on any given game day, assemble their lineups and compete for potentially big money prize pools.
In 2015, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued an opinion that games offered by sites like DraftKings and FanDuel constituted illegal gambling and required legislation to be allowed in the state. The companies sued Madigan, claiming the sites were permissible contests of skill, not gambling. The companies continued to operate in Illinois, the state legislature never acted on Madigan’s opinion and the lawsuits were dismissed in March.
For most players, fantasy football is more about fun and besting your friends or co-workers. The time lost at work may still be an overall win for company morale, Schoenke said.
“It’s an activity where people are socializing and building camaraderie around,” he said. “It’s not necessarily wasting time.”