Last week, a video of the Manning brothers pretending to rap about fantasy football made the rounds. It's a funny video, one supposes, featuring as it does Eli Manning eating a sandwich in slow motion and Joe Namath molesting someone's mother while stirring a pot of stew. But what struck me most was the historical irony of two of the NFL's most marketable stars -- their two most ubiquitous commercial presences -- starring in a viral video about fantasy football in the first place.
You see, young reader, there was a time when fantasy football was not, in fact, the center of the NFL universe. Back before there were multiple programs devoted to the game, before there was a fictional scripted series about a fantasy league that occasionally features cameos from NFL stars (as well as Seth Rogen), before there was a scroll beneath every single game that existed exclusively to let you know how your fantasy team was doing. There was a time when the NFL wanted nothing to do with fantasy football at all. This time was less than a decade ago.
If I may get all greybeard on you for a moment, a decade ago, fantasy football was considered, at least publicly, as the purview of dorks. Any time it ever came up during a pregame show, the retired athlete yakkers would bat it down like someone had just shown up wearing a wizard's cowl. I don't remember who, but I remember one ESPN analyst back then, I think it was a former offensive lineman, who responded to an anchor bringing up fantasy football by saying, "Well, just get out your protractor and slide rule, nerd! Do you need a graphing calculator?" Imagine how distant your relationship has to be with math that you consider the calculations that go into fantasy football the height of complexity.
Like with fantasy baseball -- famously invented by a bunch of surly New York scribes almost as an in-joke amongst themselves -- fantasy football was created outside the official structure of the game itself, and that's something those on the inside are always threatened by. (Even Stephen A. Smith thought people who played it were "nerds desperately in need of more sociable leisure-time activities.") So it was resisted, marginalized, even litigated. There was actually a stretch there where people who played fantasy football wondered if the game would be allowed to exist; there were some, even in Congress, who thought fantasy football to be considered illegal gambling and tried to ban it. Laugh if you will, but the final verdict on that didn't come down 100 percent until 2006.
This all seems ridiculous now that fantasy football has been institutionalized, mainly because the league and the networks realized, lo, just how much money they could make off of it. It's now more than a billion dollar business, and while some of that money was made outside the existing NFL/networks structure five years ago, it's almost all in-house now. (And ignore all those shady-math reports about fantasy football costing businesses in the billions every year. Not only is the math lazy, it also assumes that American workers are productivity machines that never take even a second of their day to think about anything other than pleasing their corporate masters.)
When the NFL launched its own fantasy football game in 2010 -- one that was almost immediately superior to Yahoo's and Fleaflicker's, the sites many fantasy players had used for years -- it was official. You suddenly didn't see any retired athlete analysts making fun of fantasy football on the air anymore. Word got out from on high, right quick.
It's difficult to overstate how much this has changed the way the games are aired now. Once the NFL and the networks realized just how much more people were watching their games for fantasy (and gambling of course) than for the beauty of a well-orchestrated counter trap lead, the game of football took a backseat. Every score from every game brought a beep from somewhere on the screen. The scroll showed a lot more stats than scores. The Red Zone Channel was invented. And now there is that DirectTV Fantasy Zone Channel, which cuts to the chase all together and mostly ignores the actual games going on, instead focusing solely on fantasy football experiences. Five years ago the very idea of this channel would have been mocked. Now it has the Manning brothers rapping about it.
You'll forgive an old-timer like myself a rueful chuckle about this. (My first-ever draft was 21 years ago, a keeper league I'm still in today. We used to have to hand-compile stats from USA Todays from the Undergraduate Public Library, which we had to walk to uphill in the snow while carrying a mule on our back and a typewriter slung over our shoulder.) A game that was supposed to be a supplement to the game we loved -- another way to express our love for it, just a fun side project -- has taken over the game itself.
If you are a football fan who doesn't play fantasy football, which is basically like being an NFL Thoreau in this day and age, 45 percent of the average NFL broadcasts exists solely to annoy you. Like everything else, when fantasy football became something people could make billions of dollars off, it became a lot less fun and a lot more oppressive. (And don't get me started on the tyranny of PPR leagues.)
Fantasy football is fully mainstream now, perhaps more mainstream than the dirty business of actual football itself. We've come a long way. Perhaps we have come too far.