You hate Manchester United, support Arsenal, yet you're considering putting Gooner traitor Van Persie in your Fantasy team. Why? Because they're goal machines and you want to win. But, boy it's going to mess with your mind when they bang them in...
You’re staring blankly into the middle distance and your partner asks you what you’re thinking about. Are you pondering one of life’s big questions, she wonders, or plotting your next move in your incredible career? No, are you b******. You’re mulling over whether Leighton Baines will get more assists than Ian Harte this season. Well done, you’re a fantasy football addict.
Don’t worry, though, you’re not alone. Today, 50 years since the very first fantasy league was invented by three American football enthusiasts in Oakland, over 35 million of us take part in a worldwide phenomenon believed to be worth $4billion to the global sports industry. In the UK alone, approximately three and a half million people play at being fantasy Fergies and virtual Wengers.
Of course, when we say people, we mean mainly blokes because of the 2.5 million participants in the Premier League game alone, only 7.7% are ladies. It seems the utterly engaging but essentially futile nature of fantasy football specifically appeals to men’s train-spotter-type minds and once you get embroiled in a season, you’re hooked. Time which would otherwise have been spent usefully at work, at home, on the train or in bed, now belongs to fantasy football.
The game we all play is based on the one created by Fantasy League in 1991. It came to national prominence during the 1992/93 Premier League season when it was licensed as the UK’s first-ever national fantasy football in 90 Minutes magazine. Initially teams had to be posted or phoned in but the dotcom boom in 2000 breathed a whole new life into the experience. For better or for worse, players can tinker all they like with their line-up online.
Of course, today’s web-based bun fight has come a long way from the very first fantasy sports league which was devised in 1962 by the late Wilfred ‘Bill’ Winkenbach. In the 50s, the part owner of American football team Oakland Raiders began to tinker with a golf game before adapting it to baseball and then over one boozy all-nighter in a Manhattan Hotel in New York, he and a couple of newspaper reporter pals Scotty Stirling and George Ross hammered out the rules to suit gridiron. The next morning, the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League was born, and it caught on like wild fire.
“It spread out in concentric waves,” remembers Ross. “Guys in offices and in bars would talk about it, and pretty soon it was all over town.” “The idea that you can draft your own team really turns guys on,” explains Stirling. “I know in Oakland some guys thought they were really building a football team”. To his death in 1993, however, Winkenback remained slightly baffled by the game’s enormous popularity: “It surprises me,” he said. “We were the first to start it, and it just mushroomed from there. Oh yeah, I'm surprised at how big it's gotten.”
It’s all about the banter. That’s the secret to the success of fantasy football and Bill knew it. According to Stirling, he even had a trophy with a dunce cap on top of a football made up that he gave to the loser each year. “The last-place guy had to keep it on his mantle till the next season, and when you visited his house he damn well better have that trophy up on the mantle or there was trouble.”
That competitive element to the game remains its source of popularity today. “We’ve done a lot of research over the years on why people love fantasy football,” explains the Telegraph’s Steve Stiles, “And the thing that gets them playing more than anything else is the chance to beat their mates: they love the banter and the chance to win money off them at the end of the season. From our research 80 percent play for the social side and only 20 percent are in it to win a prize.”
That’s how Mark Sutherns got sucked in. Desperate to beat his mate Granville he scoured the internet day and night for any little titbit that would give him the edge. In the end, he decided to take all this data and stick it all on one site – Fantasy Football Scout. “That way,” he explains, “I could see if there was anyone out there as fanatical as me – because that would make me feel much better”. Today, the site is a Mecca for every fantasy addict. Almost 200,000 a year feverishly logon in search of injuries, bans, details of team’s set-piece takers - anything that could help them get one over their work mates as well as to hear how Mark is getting on in his titanic struggle against Granville.
The strange inhabitants of Fantasy Football Scout will go to any lengths to pursue their aims, admits Sutherns. “You fear the unexpected and so you want to know you’ve got all the information available to pick the best possible team.” Last season when there was talk of Rooney missing a match because of the birth of his child, Sutherns was sent into a tailspin. “I found myself determined never to let this happen to me again,” he says. “So I began to research all the WAGs who were pregnant just so I could calculate when their partners were most likely to miss a match for the birth.”
Not all fantasy addicts play fair though. One poor soul emailed the support team at Premier League Fantasy Football to explain he’d been the victim of skullduggery. Apparently, having left himself logged on at work, a colleague had jumped in to his mate’s seat and made 50 transfers before bringing the entire original team back in. The victim didn’t have a clue what had happened until the week’s results were announced and he had scored minus 54.
The incumbent Premier League champion is not alone in his fight for the right to play an utterly absorbing but ultimately meaningless game. Right now, men across the country are gazing deafly at their girlfriends moving moves as they calculate whether they can afford Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney in the same team.
All this devotion to fantasy does have real life repercussions. Meaningless things like relationships and work fall by the wayside. Last year City worker Jon Reeson, 38, saw off almost 2.5 million competitors to win the prestigious title of champion of Premier League Fantasy Football. But, he admits, there were casualties along the way. Aside from ignoring his wife and kids most evenings and choosing to spend family holidays in foreign internet cafes rather than on the beach, Reeson confesses that his team on occasion took precedence over his work. “This year I went to Washington and had to duck out of a meeting early so I could make some transfers.”
So how much time did Reeson really spend tinkering in order to become champion? “About an hour a day – I commute to work so I could also focus on it then.” Prhaps Jon is perhaps being a little economical with the truth here but we’re prepared to let it slide - after all, we wouldn’t want to make a ‘Cameron Pettigrew’ out of him. FYI, Cameron Pettigrew (below) is the game’s martyr. This 27-year-old clean cut Texan suffered for our sins when he was fired from his job as an investment banker after being caught playing fantasy football on company time. “I kept thinking, ‘All of this over a $20 fantasy football league?’”, bleated Pettigrew after an intercepted email led to a 90 minute grilling from two of his firm’s hard asses.
Clearly, fantasy addicts need to tread carefully - if not just to save your job but also your relationship. According to Reeson, his partner has tried to ban him from playing this season. “She says, ‘There’s no point - you’ve won it’”. Her reasoning probably sums up the logic gap between the sexes.
The incumbent Premier League champion is not alone in his fight for the right to play an utterly absorbing but ultimately meaningless game. Right now, men across the country are gazing deafly at their girlfriends moving moves as they calculate whether they can afford Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney in the same team. “I’ll be chatting to my girlfriend and then halfway through I’ll wander off because I’m thinking about my team,” admits Mark Sutherns.
Has fantasy football ever been cited as a cause for divorce? “We don’t know of any,” says the Telegraph’s Steve Stiles, “But every time someone wins and we give them the cheque, they invariably say ‘I’m going to have to buy a present for my wife because I’ve been unbearable for the past six weeks’.” One Telegraph champ has even used the prize money to buy his wife a boob job - although whether that was a prize for him or her remains debatable.
Let’s face it - fantasy football should probably carry a health warning. It doesn’t just interfere with your work and social life, but it can also play havoc with your team loyalty. “It completely skews your enjoyment of football,” admits West Ham fan Reeson. Although never so desperate for points that he would cheer a goal against the Hammers (“No, no, no, no, no!”), he does have one torrid secret. “The thing I feel most guilty about is bringing in a Spurs player,” he confesses. “Towards the end of the season Gareth Bale was on fire and everybody was jumping on the bandwagon (see Fantasy Glossary sidebar) and I didn’t want to miss out.”
For some, such conflict of interests simply proves too much. “This is exactly why I stopped playing – it became just too damn confusing to watch matches,” explains reformed fantasy addict Don Rosco. “You want Man United to lose, but you want Van Nistelrooy (as it was when I last played) to score a hat-trick and Van der Saar to keep a clean sheet. Pain in the ****.”
It’s not just the fundamental question of loyalty that Fantasy Football puts into questions but the very way you watch football. “If someone were to pick up the ball in their own area, beat 11 players and score the greatest goal ever, my only concern would be that it was one of my defenders who had initially passed the ball,” explains journalist Benjie Goodhart.
Yet despite all this – the dangers that fantasy football poses to your job, your relationship and your mental health – the game continues to soar in popularity. Why? The explanation is straightforward according to Mark Sutherns. “It’s the best way to prove your knowledge of football. When you’re in the pub you think you know best; better than the actual manager of your team and better than your mates – if you can beat them at fantasy football, it proves you’re actually right.” And what could possibly be sweeter than that?