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Fantasy Football

Three things have catapulted the popularity of football in the United States from being a popular sport to supplanting baseball as the national pastime. Two of them are fairly obvious, the point spread and television. The other catalyst for football's popularity – fantasy football – isn't as immediately obvious, but might be equally as important for the sport going forward.

What fantasy football has done is make every player and every team relevant to the average fan. Instead of being territorial and limiting their interest to their favorite team (and possibly the one or two rivals of that team) or their favorite player, many football fans take an interest in the league as a whole. And fantasy football is the reason for that. On an average Sunday (or Thursday or Monday), fans tune into NFL games not necessarily to see who wins or who loses, but to see how many points their fantasy players can score for them.

So how did fantasy football get started and why has it exploded in popularity? Let's dive in.

The History of Fantasy Football

Fantasy football was actually started in the 1960s by Bill Winkenbach, a minority partner with the Oakland Raiders. It stayed somewhat underground the next three decades, as it was mainly played by sports writers on the West Coast before slowly spreading to other parts of the country. The format, with a player draft or action, weekly transactions and scoring and trades, was complicated when kept by hand and didn't easily translate to the masses. However, the advent and the popularity of the internet was the tool which allowed fantasy football to explode into what it has become today.

CBSsports.com was the first website to offer a fantasy football option in 1997, which was immediately popular, as much of the minutia that came from running and participating in a fantasy football league was now automated. Other sports websites followed, with every major sports website having a fantasy football option by the 2000 NFL season. It also made fantasy football leagues go viral, as players from all over the country and world could come together and participate in leagues together instead of being confined to the same office or bar or circle of friends.

The explosion continues today, as fantasy football has become a primary marketing tool for the NFL. The league even officially sanctions fantasy football now, as the NFL Network runs fantasy stats regularly on its bottom line and sidebar while NFL.com has its own sanctioned fantasy football game. Sports networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports have segments devoted to fantasy football on highlight shows, or even entire shows devoted to the subject. FX further brought fantasy football into the pop culture spotlight in 2009 with the creation of The League, a comedy sitcom centered around the antics around the members of a fantasy football league.

The popularity of NFL fantasy leagues has started to trickle down into college football as well, as college fantasy football has started to gain steam. The pioneer for NFL fantasy football, CBSsports.com, recently added a college fantasy option, further cementing the place of fantasy football in the American culture.

With ease of access, fantasy football appeals to football fans because it allows the fan to serve as a general manager of sorts. For years, fans have discussed why certain players should be playing and why others should not, questioning the general managers and coaches that have built their favorite teams. In fantasy football, these fans have a chance to put their money where their mouths are. A fantasy owner decides who to play, who to sit, who to pick up, who to release, who to trade, etc. And now they have their fantasy record as an indicator of whether they know what they are talking about.

The Fantasy Football League

A typical fantasy football league has about 10-12 different teams, with 8 being the minimum and 16 being the maximum for an effective league. These teams come up with unique names and logos that the owners create themselves. Owners tend to usually get pretty creative and crazy with these, as team names could be inside jokes, pop culture references or even contain vulgar humor rift with innuendo. This is one of the more enjoyable aspects of a fantasy football league, as having a good team name will earn you as many bragging rights as having a good team.

There are several different formats that are used (which we'll go over later in the article), but a standard fantasy football league has a roster size of 16-18 players. All rosters tend to have the following players – quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, placekicker, and defense, with some leagues allowing for the drafting of individual defensive players or even coaches. Most rosters are filled with 2-3 QBs, a combination of roughly 10-12 RBs and WRs, 2 TEs and 1-2 each of kickers and defenses. Teams usually start 8-10 players per week depending on league format.

The most important part of the league is the draft. There are a couple of different formats for that (which will be described later in the article), but the draft tends to happen before the season in August, preferably 2-3 weeks before the season starts.

From there, teams are free to drop and pick up players on a weekly basis via the waiver wire. While some leagues allow you to drop and pick up players on a first-come, first-serve basis, many leagues have a waiver process to allow multiple teams access to desired players. Owners have until a certain date to request add/drops – usually Wednesday – then their requests are put in order of priority (which is typically determined by a random drawing or by team record) and processed by Thursday afternoon. Teams that lose out on players on the waiver have the opportunity to pick someone else up or keep the player they tried to drop.

Fantasy football also has a lot of trades between owners. There are two main regulations when to comes to trades; a trade deadline and league approval of trades. Both of these are put in place to prevent owners from manipulating the system to unfairly improve their team. A trade deadline (usually put in place towards the end of the regular season around Week 10) prevents owners from teams out of contention from giving away their best players to championship contenders, while league approval (usually via a vote) is needed for trades that seem drastically uneven or when collusion between owners is suspected. Typically, these votes only happen if an outside owner voices an objection – otherwise trades are processed at the same time as waiver transactions.

While it's not an across-the-board thing, most fantasy leagues have a monetary element to them, with a cash reward given to the league champion. The league runner-up usually gets money as well, with some leagues, giving a cash reward to the third-place team or division winners. The pool of winnings comes from a flat entry fee at the beginning of the season plus money spent on waiver transactions, as some leagues charge an add/drop fee.

  • Head-to-head leagues: This is the most popular of all formats, as teams are scheduled a game with another team on a week-to-week basis. The winners are determined by who scores more points in a typical week, with those points determined by the scoring system set for the league.
  • Total points leagues: These are similar to rotisserie leagues in baseball, as instead of competing against other teams in a head-to-head basis, points are accumulated through the season, with the team scoring the most points winning the league. These leagues tend to allow everyone on the roster to score points, instead of having to pre-select starters like in head-to-head leagues.

Most of the below leagues have their schedules structured in the above two formats:

  • Keeper leagues: These leagues are usually stable (with the same group of owners participating on a multi-year basis) and work in both the head-to-head and total points scheduling formats. In keeper leagues, owners can pick certain players to hold on to for the next season while releasing the rest of their roster back into the draft pool. There might be restrictions (a player automatically has to go back into the pool if kept 2-3 years in a row, for example) or penalties (forfeiting draft picks that are based on the quality of the player kept). The first restriction prevents owners from keeping star players such as Peyton Manning for the bulk of their careers.
  • Dynasty keeper leagues: Same general premise as the keeper leagues, however you can keep the bulk of (if not your entire) roster from year to year if you so choose. This is popular in college football fantasy leagues where players graduate/leave for the NFL. In pro leagues, leagues like this are usually coupled with a salary cap.
  • Salary cap leagues: As mentioned above, salary cap leagues assign dollar values to each player and gives owners a cap that they have to keep their roster under. This gives a fantasy owner an element of realism, simulating what NFL GMs have to deal with on a daily basis.
  • Auction leagues: Every owner is given a budget ($200 for example) and every player of a draft is bid on, with owners offering a dollar value on each player. They continue to buy players until their rosters are filled or until they are out of money to spend.
  • Two-quarterback leagues: A newer phenomenon, these leagues allow teams to start two quarterbacks at the same time, putting a premium on that position. Most leagues allow you to start one QB, two RBs, two WRs, one flex player (an RB or a WR), one TE, one kicker and one defense/special teams.

Common Scoring Formats

  • Touchdown-only: This was the first format used in fantasy football, where the only way a team could score is if their players scored touchdowns. This format has been slowly phased out, but is still used at times.
  • The most common scoring format involves both touchdowns and yards gained. Quarterbacks tend to receive 4-6 points for touchdown passes and an additional point for each yardage threshold gained (typically each 25-50 yards gained passing). QBs can also gain rushing yards and be penalized for interceptions thrown/fumbles lost. Running backs, wide receivers and tight ends get 6 points for a rushing/receiving touchdown and additional points for yardage thresholds (typically 1 point for every 10 yards rushing or receiving). Kickers get points for extra points and field goals, earning more points for longer field goals (4 points for 40-49 yard FGs, 5 points for 50-59 yarders, 6 points for 60-plus yarders). Defenses get points for turnovers caused (typically 2 points per turnover), sacks (1 per sack), return touchdowns (6 points per TD), and safeties (2 points). There's usually bonus points awarded for shutouts and games where defenses allow small point totals.
  • Points-per-reception leagues have the same format as above except players get one point for every reception. This format puts a premium on wide receivers, tight ends and running backs that are used in the passing game.

The Draft

This is the most important (and often the most fun) part of fantasy football, as a league gets together, either in person or online, to build their teams. Most leagues have a “snake” format, where the order is randomly selected for the first round, reversed for the second round and keeps flipping by round from there. For example, the owner with the first pick of the draft in a 12-team league doesn't pick again until the last pick of the second round (the No. 24 pick) and alternates from there, picking first in odd-numbered rounds and last in even-numbered rounds. The owner with the last first-round pick (No. 12) gets the first second-round pick (No. 13), and alternates from there.

Drafts in keeper leagues don't “snake,” as the order is usually determined from team performance, with the worst team from the year before picking first and the champion picking last.

Playoffs

Total points leagues typically don't have playoffs, but head-to-head leagues usually have 13 regular-season weeks and three playoff weeks, with the championship game coming in Week 16. Fantasy leagues tend to not play in Week 17 of the NFL season, as that week, usually sees a lot of starters on teams whose fates have been decided sit out, severely altering the fantasy landscape.

As you can see, there's a lot involved in fantasy football. But more than anything, fun is involved. Along with serving as a competitive outlet, fantasy football allows friends to stay in touch and have an always-relevant conversation topic. Happy fantasy footballing!

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