America is a fantasy land. By some accounts, there are nearly 60 million fantasy football players in North America — a number that dwarfs many good-sized nations. (We’re looking at you, Argentina.) Even presidents who you really wouldn’t expect to be into fantasy sports … have been into fantasy sports: witness young Thomas “Tommy” Woodrow Wilson, who ran a fantasy baseball team in the 1870s.
But as that most hallowed of American fantasy seasons approaches and we all simultaneously attempt to draft Le’Veon Bell, it’s important to remember that fantasy football wasn’t always the one-click affair it is now. (Gentle reminder: the NFL season kicks off on September 7th, so drop whatever you’re doing and sign up on NFL.com/fantasy.) In fact, it wasn’t always in existence, as we might sometimes presume. Rather, the game first popped up in 1962 and was shepherded through the long, dark days of the pre-Internet by a small group of people with grit, passion, imagination, and a whole lot of scratch paper.
They were the real-life fantasy pioneers of Oakland.
Chapter 1: Of Rules and Rumpus Rooms.
Love them or hate them, the Oakland Raiders have played an outsized role in the history of the NFL and professional football. As it turns out, they played a huge part in the development of fantasy football, too.
In 1962, the Raiders were just one fledgling team in a fledgling league — and a struggling team at that. That season, they set an AFL record for lowest winning percentage by going 1-13. And it was in that fateful year — in that horrible season — that fantasy football materialized.
Its inventor was Bill “Wink” Winkenbach, a Bay Area contractor who owned a minority stake in the Raiders. On a particularly dismal road trip in October (during which the Raiders were outscored 71- 43), Winkenbach and two compatriots — Raiders PR-man Bill Tunnell and Oakland sportswriter Scotty Stirling — gathered together in a midtown Manhattan hotel room and sketched out rules for a game that would eventually become fantasy football.
Those rules were put into action the following season. It was the world’s first fantasy league — and it set the tone for every fantasy league that followed by giving itself a really silly name, the “Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League.” (Although some sources say the third “P” stood for Prediction.) The GOPPPL met in Wink’s rumpus room.
Many of the concepts in modern fantasy football were already present, although in a primordial form. Head-to-head match-ups, snake drafts (of 20 rounds (!), with 8 slots reserved for NFL players), and a substitution system can all be found in the first GOPPPL charter. The points awarded reflected the AFL’s game: a field goal netted as much as a passing touchdown, and both counted for less than a rushing touchdown. At a season ending dinner, the league winner received a cash prize; the loser received a dunce trophy. Gerald Winkenbach, Wink’s son, told us that league custom dictated that the dunce trophy be displayed in a prominent place in the loser’s home.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, was the sheer amount of effort it took to play fantasy football. Without smartphones or even dial-up connections (gasp), a league secretary had to do the difficult work of compiling scores and statistics from around the AFL and NFL. (You can probably guess why GOPPPL’s sportswriters had an advantage.) Plus, rosters had to be submitted to a league commissioner in writing … by midday on Friday.
Another difference was that the GOPPPL was a closed club — not yet a movement. The charter limited membership to men with a close connection to the Raiders franchise, whether it be in management or media. Despite that small circle, though, it’s astounding how many from the GOPPPL went on to become sports royalty. Scotty Stirling — the sportswriter who helped invent fantasy rules — later became general manager of the New York Knicks and a vice president in the NBA. Ron Wolfe, then a lowly scout for the Raiders, went on to lead the Packers’ front office during their glory years in the mid-90s.
So it would take another Oakland pioneer to bring fantasy to the masses.
Chapter 2: The King of Oakland.
The following is a promise we made to Andy Mousalimas, the man who took fantasy public: FANTASY FOOTBALL DID NOT ORIGINATE IN NEW YORK.
Promise fulfilled, let’s continue: Mousalimas wasn’t just an original member of the GOPPPL, he picked first in its first draft. The player he chose — the great George Blanda, who later went on to quarterback for the Raiders — was a bit of a bust compared to the incomparable Jim Brown, who went second. Andy still laments the pick, decades later.
In the late 1960s, Andy purchased what became a staple of Oakland nightlife, the King’s X Sports Bar. (It was so well known that when it finally closed in 2005, Bay Area newspapers lamented its passing.) It quickly became known as the spot for bar activities. In 1969, Andy brought the GOPPPL game to his bar — but he opened it up to all his customers. That move got him excommunicated from the GOPPPL, although it almost certainly hastened the spread of fantasy football.
Freed from the charter of the GOPPPL, Andy and his fellow commissioners of the King’s X League experimented with new rules. The biggest one was that yardage now mattered, but Andy also replaced the usage of individual defensive and special team players with defensive and special teams themselves. Finally, he brought women into the game: in the mid 1970s, he started the King’s X Lady’s Division. Today, some 34 percent of fantasy football players are women.
We feel safe saying that the King’s X scene was probably a real blast. League teams had to submit their roster in person by 9:00 PM on Friday nights, no faxing or phoning in allowed. (Be thankful for NFL.com/fantasy.) In Andy’s own words — and this may be the greatest sentence committed into word doc — “the X would be mobbed and the bantering and jive ass was nonstop by the weekly winners.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Since Bay Area media outlets usually only reported on local teams, Andy had to call up newspapers and television stations in other cities and beg for results. They often hung up on him, thinking that he was just some bookie. The dearth of information was so total that, in at least one instance, a King’s X League fantasy player drafted a NFL player that had unexpectedly passed away.
But despite all those hurdles, the public now had a taste for fantasy football. There was no turning back.
Chapter 3: The Conquest of the Americas.
From then on, the game of fantasy football spread out into the wide open fertile spaces of the American imagination. The Rotisserie game — sometimes mistakenly thought of as the beginning of fantasy sports — wafted out of New York’s La Rotisserie Francaise in the early 1980s. In 1984, a pair of friends from Minnesota self-published 3,000 copies of a fantasy football digest, designed to streamline the myriad and confusing systems of rules that had sprung up in the game’s infancy. It proved lucrative, and they continued publishing that digest (and a spin-off magazine) until early 2000s.
By the end of the 1980s, articles in national newspapers trumpeted fantasy football’s expanded player base, which had already reached 1 million. And fantasy football was easier to play than ever, as computer programs offering players the ability to track their league finally went on sale. (They even came with a weekly floppy disc delivery, containing updated game stats.)
But it took the Internet to really propel the game to its current popularity. Of course, it helped that free fantasy leagues first appeared online around the same time that Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Isaac Bruce shattered offensive records as part of the Greatest Show on Turf.
Today, fantasy football has never been easier. On the NFL’s official fantasy league site, you can optimize your team with a tap, draft (and even mock-draft) teams from the comfort of your own rumpus room, and find every score of every game without ever being accused of being a bookie.
But getting us to this point took a lot of work, and a lot of heart. So let’s hear it for the pioneers of Oakland.