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When it comes to NFL growth, fantasy is reality

Interest in NFL fantasy football is on the rise, and chances are a family in your neighborhood is already good-heartedly talkin’ trash

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This Aug. 30, 2010, photo shows Brian Sherman, left, using his laptop to record moves in his team’s fantasy football draft.

This Aug. 30, 2010, file photo shows Brian Sherman, left, using his laptop to record moves in his team’s fantasy football draft, at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Cincinnati. Over 40 million Americans are expected to play this week with many more overseas. ESPN reported in 2021 that there were 20 million fantasy players in India alone. Europe is also a growing market.

Al Behrman, Associated Press

The McCann Family Fantasy Football league kicks off this weekend. My opponent is my ex-wife — and I’m a six-point underdog.

In some families, this kind of matchup right out of the gate would be too much, but not in ours. The league is a mix of parents, stepparents, children and the spouses of those who are married. Everybody’s in except for our 16-year-old daughter. Understandably, it wasn’t her idea and so no amount of pleading can get her to join — at least not yet.

The league is a platform for lively family banter, built-in rivalries (my son) and four months of cheap entertainment. My team’s name is King David and I am the self-appointed “Chairman of the Victory Committee.” As the dad, that’s just how it is — no matter how often I may lose or how frequently my claim to the throne is disputed.

The McCanns aren’t alone. Over 40 million Americans are expected to play this week with many more overseas. ESPN reported in 2021 that there were 20 million fantasy players in India alone. Europe is also a growing market.

Studies by the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association indicate 19% of the fantasy football market are women (40% of the McCann league) and research by Sportsfinding.com showed fantasy sports has generated $22.3 billion in gross revenue.

It is safe to say that when it comes to the NFL’s growth, fantasy is part of the reality that has driven football to where no sport has ever been in U.S. history.

Last year, of the 100 most watched television broadcasts, 75 of them were NFL games, including 41 of the top 50. The NFL reports average regular season viewing in 2021 was up 10% from 2020 to 17.1 million. February’s Super Bowl drew two-thirds of the U.S. population (208 million viewers).

“TV usage is going down, football viewing keeps going up,” Fox Sports executive Mike Mulvihill told Frontofficesports.com.

Two weeks ago, CBS recorded the highest ratings in nine years for a preseason game where 5.8 million viewers spent their Sunday afternoon watching the Steelers and Lions play their backups — many of whom were cut two days later.

Prices are going up, too. Over the next 11 years, media companies will spend $110 billion just for the rights to show the games on their respective channels.

Fantasy football is the offspring of an idea that was hatched in California in 1962. Sportsmanagementdegreehub.com reported that in 2003 there were 15.2 million people playing fantasy sports. That number grew to 56.8 million by 2015, with 40 million focused on football.

As the roster cuts have been made for the 2022 season, it is quite apparent how difficult it is to make a 53-man roster. However, anyone can play fantasy football. You just sign up. Some leagues play for pride (like the McCanns) while others play for big money.

ESPN’s fantasy league will even help owners draft their rosters and provide coaching throughout the year. Winners and losers are determined by the touchdowns and yards the players on a roster accumulate during the game.

“I did some research that pretty definitely showed that fantasy players watched more NFL games on TV, more hours of NFL than nonfantasy players,” Chris Russo told Sportsillustrated.com. “And the longer you play fantasy, the more you watched. I think it was something like two to three hours more or something like that.”

Russo joined the league office in 1999 as VP of New Media. Seizing on the growing interest, the NFL began its own Red Zone Channel in 2009 that only shows when a team is inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and threatening to score. It bounces from game to game to keep fantasy owners in the loop.

In a television market like Utah, where there isn’t a home team to cheer for, fantasy football has given fans reason to take interest in all 32 teams, depending on who is on your roster and who is on your ex-wife’s roster.

During my draft for this season, I went heavy on ball catchers with Cooper Kupp (Rams), CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys), Amon-Ra St. Brown (Lions) and Mark Andrews (Ravens). The NFL is a passing league. We all learned a painful lesson two years ago when my daughter Madison drafted Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce with the No. 1 overall pick.

What? A tight end at No. 1?

Then we watched and listened as she steamrolled her way to winning the Super Bowl – something she keeps talking about even though her team tanked last year.

Sometimes, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred. During my 20 years working at KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, the station had a very competitive league, one that we (our sports office) resisted for years until finally relenting. Our mantra had been, “Why do you want us in the league when you know we will win it?”

My co-anchor and I typed up a very official looking press release and emailed it to all the staff.

The following Monday, during a story planning meeting, an unaware assignment desk editor proposed that the station send a photographer to “an afternoon news conference about a new sports franchise moving to Las Vegas” – it was our fantasy football franchise.

First there was interest, then confusion, then laughter after the room realized they had all been duped. With that, our team was officially on the books and it wasn’t long before we unfurled a championship banner from the ceiling tiles in the sports office — just as we predicted.

Fantasy football isn’t necessary, but it’s fun. It keeps football fresh and it has managed to attract audiences that aren’t interested or don’t have time to sit down and watch a complete game. As a result, it has changed the way many of us pay attention to the NFL.

Like so many across Utah, the McCanns are ready for the season. As for the opener against my ex-wife, I’m just going to take it one play at a time. It doesn’t help that I think my wife is pulling for her? She thinks I take the family league too serious — and she might be right.

For the NFL, however, when it comes to its unprecedented growth, fantasy is reality and it’s all serious business.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.


Actor John O’Hurley of “Seinfeld” fame ponders his pick at the SiriusXM Celebrity Fantasy Football Draft 2015 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nev., on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

AP Images for SiriusXM