Money. Power. Women. The driving forces behind fantasy football's skyrocketing popularity.

This weekend, fantasy football managers across the USA will begin their league playoffs. They’re playing for pride – and maybe a bit of a financial reward – as they look to claim a championship.

While the National Football League is unquestionably king of all sports nationwide, fantasy football has a strong case as the national pastime. As of last year, 29.2 million people in the United States played fantasy football, according to Statista Research. And fantasy sports in general have exploded into an $11 billion business.

“NFL football is perfect for fantasy,” says industry pioneer Rick Wolf. “It has fewer players to know and understand. It is weekly so there is no ‘grind.’ The game is enormously popular, but I would argue that it is more popular because it is perfect for fantasy.”

For the uninitiated, fantasy football allows participants to construct their own teams made up of NFL players, and then compete against others in their league during the NFL season. The industry expanded considerably in the early 2010s with the advent of daily fantasy sports, led by companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel.

In the early days of the game, drafts were done over the phone and fantasy experts were rare. Now, fantasy football shows are some of the most popular in sports media. ESPN has a three-hour show that airs every Sunday morning. The NFL Network and Peacock have hourlong ones on weekdays. YouTube has numerous fantasy football shows and there's a dedicated fantasy channel on SiriusXM radio. If fantasy football were a stock it would be Apple.

So what makes the game so popular?

Its skyrocketing popularity has been evident for years but few stories, particularly recently, have closely examined why. What USA TODAY Sports has found is the reasons are myriad and sometimes even complex, ranging from a 1994 Major League Baseball strike that pushed people from fantasy baseball to football, to the increase of women playing, and even to something much simpler.

Ask anyone who has been around fantasy football for any length of time, one of the first things they’ll tell you is the camaraderie that comes with being in a league.

"Long before Facebook or even Myspace and Friendster, fantasy sports was the first online social network,” says NBC Sports analyst Matthew Berry. “It’s an excuse to get together. It’s a way to engage."

Bob Lung, founder of Big Guy Fantasy Sports agrees: "Whether it’s a work league, friends league or family league, it’s a way for them to be together, talk, trade, and trash talk."

Critical ESPN hire changes the course of history

Matthew Berry joined NBC Sports as its primary fantasy sports analyst in August 2022 following a 15-year run with ESPN.
Matthew Berry joined NBC Sports as its primary fantasy sports analyst in August 2022 following a 15-year run with ESPN.

How did the game get to be such an obsession for so many people? It’s been a longer road than many realize.

Fantasy football can trace its roots back to the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL), which was formed in 1963 by Bay Area businessman Bill Winkenbach.

Football took a back seat to baseball, however, when writer Daniel Okrent and his cohorts developed the rules for and popularized what was called Rotisserie Baseball in 1979.

But after a while, the landscape began to shift.

“There's no question in my mind that the turning point for fantasy football was the MLB strike of 1994,” says Greg Ambrosius, founder of the National Fantasy Baseball and Fantasy Football Championships. “Baseball was still the biggest fantasy sport at that time, but when they went on strike and didn't come back, that was it for a lot of fans. Fantasy football skyrocketed in 1994 and it never looked back.”

Another milestone came several years later as online commissioner services, such as the one Wolf helped develop for CBS Sportsline, brought even more people to the game.

“I truly believe the ability to manage the fantasy football leagues online was the first big step in making it easier for more folks to be able to play,” Lung says. “Being a commish before the online league manager sites was very time-consuming.”

Despite its growth, fantasy football was far from becoming a national obsession. But a turning point in the industry occurred in 2007, when ESPN hired Berry to run its fantasy sports department.

"Matthew fully owned the space at a time when most football traditionalists wanted nothing to do with fantasy, even mocked it and those who played," says ESPN injury and fantasy sports analyst Stephania Bell. "That did not deter him. In fact, I think he saw it as an opportunity to convert those folks to enthusiasts by making fantasy ‘friendly.'"

All of a sudden, the online sites that to that point had ruled fantasy football – Yahoo and CBS Sportsline – had a powerful new competitor.

Stephania Bell, ESPN's injury analyst, has developed into one of the most popular and respected figures in the fantasy football universe. Bell provides context around player injuries which helps fantasy players set their lineups.
Stephania Bell, ESPN's injury analyst, has developed into one of the most popular and respected figures in the fantasy football universe. Bell provides context around player injuries which helps fantasy players set their lineups.

“Prior to me getting there, fantasy in general wasn’t thought of other than a small niche thing that was tucked into the back corner of the internet,” Berry recalls.

His pitch to company executives was simple: “Instead of trying to focus on stealing some of their customer base and trying to get a bigger piece of the pie, why don’t we just try to grow the pie?”

That’s exactly what happened, but there was one major hurdle to clear first.

“The sports leagues for the longest time tried to … forget fostering the growth, they actively worked against it,” Berry says.

In 2015, then-Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and two business partners planned a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas that would bring fans together with nearly 100 current and former NFL players. However, the league banned players from attending because it was being held at a casino property.

For years, the NFL saw fantasy football as too close to gambling for comfort. ESPN helped change that mindset.

“Once the sports leagues saw ESPN, their broadcast partner, doing a fantasy segment and there wasn’t a public outcry, the sky didn’t fall and advertisers didn’t flee – and in fact, it was the opposite – suddenly they realized this is something that drives fan interest, it’s monetizable (and) they started to get on board,” Berry says.

Berry − who like Wolf, Ambrosius and Winkenbach is a member of the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association Hall of Fame − became the network’s face of fantasy sports, appearing on podcasts, SportsCenter segments and eventually shows dedicated exclusively to fantasy football.

Fantasy football entered the mainstream, even in more subtle ways, such as the stats we take for granted scrolling across the bottom of our television screens. ESPN had those scores and stats on its “Bottom Line” for a while, but Berry successfully pushed for stats important to fantasy players – the number of catches to go with receiving yards and most important, who scored the touchdowns.

Events like Romo’s were no longer something to avoid. In 2018, Lung created the King’s Classic, a fantasy football experts competition that held its draft at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. A year later, he added a fantasy football expo to the schedule.

Women change the game

Daily fantasy sports have also helped take fantasy football to new heights. For years, DFS companies had to walk a fine line legally to differentiate them from gambling. But when the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and freed states to allow sports betting, the fantasy industry rejoiced.

“If sports betting was OK, then certainly fantasy sports is OK,” Ambrosius says, “and we have seen an almost 20% jump in participation in fantasy leagues.”

The ability to win money beyond just a friendly competition among friends gave fantasy football yet another turbo boost.

“It’s really fun to play. It’s easy to understand. It’s hard to master. But the barrier to entry is not tough,” Berry says. “Anytime you have a game that can be played by people from eight to 80, you’re onto something.”

The numbers bear him out.

Berry, who left ESPN after 15 years to join NBC Sports in 2022, is a prominent cast member of “Football Night in America,” the network’s Sunday night pregame show, and also hosts the Fantasy Football Happy Hour on Peacock.

Sunday Night Football is the most-watched program on TV again this year, as it’s been for each of the past 12 years. And the NFL’s appeal across all demographics is impressive.

According to an SSRS Sports Poll, women make up 46% of the NFL’s fan base. That interest has carried over to fantasy football. The Journal of Sport Management in 2018 found that "women represent the fastest growing demographic for the fantasy sports industry, making up approximately 38% of fantasy football participants."

Women aren't just playing the game, more are being recognized as experts as well.

"When I first entered the fantasy space, much like with women who cover the game of football, there were not many of us and we were often viewed as 'lesser than' our male counterparts," Bell says. "That dynamic has certainly changed and I credit the men and women who have helped grow the game to embrace a broader range of talent."

That group has expanded to include ESPN's Liz Loza, YouTube host Kay Adams, SiriusXM's Lindsay Rhodes, "The Football Girl" Melissa Jacobs and's Cynthia Frelund and Michelle Magdziuk, among many others.

In a special edition of ESPN's Fantasy Football Now in 2017, analysts Matthew Berry, Adam Schefter, Field Yates, Stephania Bell and Tim Hasselbeck conduct a live fantasy draft.
In a special edition of ESPN's Fantasy Football Now in 2017, analysts Matthew Berry, Adam Schefter, Field Yates, Stephania Bell and Tim Hasselbeck conduct a live fantasy draft.

“I love the fact that we have such a diversity of voices commenting on and analyzing the game,” Berry says. “We have a number of women in our industry that do just phenomenal work.”

This season, the King’s Classic added a 14-team league made up entirely of women – the Queen’s Classic – to the weekend in Canton.

In addition, Lung says, “The Women of Fantasy Football panel discussion is always one of the most attended panels at the Expo on Sunday.”

It provides even more evidence that those who play fantasy football can relate to each other, regardless of demographics or backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how famous you are,” Berry says, “you’re still like the rest of us – sweating your flex decision and hoping your running back doesn’t get vultured at the 1-yard-line by some fullback.”

That sense of community among fantasy players is what keeps the industry growing and keeps feeding the obsession. For a select few, all that work will pay off a few weeks down the road with a league championship. But the road to get there will almost certainly be paved with totally unexpected and occasionally lucky twists of fate.

“No matter how much research you do and analysis you do, you still never know. It’s one of the reasons we love sports at well,” Berry says.

“That randomness is what keeps us engaged because when you nail it, there’s no better feeling.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fantasy football is one of the biggest drivers of the sports economy