Packers, NFL fans: Get Ready for a New Season of the Winkenbach Game


John Dewey has been at fantasy football for years and plans to continue for years to come.

The next big milestone for many Green Bay Packers and NFL fans between now and opening night for the season, Thursday, Sept. 5, is our preparation for another season of the Winkenbach Game.

If I’ve lost you momentarily, stay with me.

This article is a tribute to the late Bill Winkenbach, considered the founder of NFL fantasy football.

Consider the Mount Everest-like climb in popularity the Winkenbach Game has accomplished since its humble beginnings in a New York hotel in 1962.

Blessed again with a full preseason and sales cycle, fantasy football is recording historic levels of growth, generally exceeding the 10% annual spikes seen for much of the past decade. ESPN.com fantasy football registrations have grown 15% from ’11, and its base of registered players has exceeded 5 million, double its mark from just four years ago. The company is believed to have joined only Yahoo in surpassing that threshold. NFL.com fantasy participation is up 40% from last year, albeit from a lower base. Many other smaller outfits are similarly recording year-over-year growth rates well in excess of 20%. – Sports Business Daily, Sept. 7, 2012

I still participate in a fantasy league that began 16 years ago in an athletic club in Decatur, Ill. Most of the original fantasy team owners remain in the league. Our lives have taken many turns, we’ve been through marriages and divorces, and many of us moved to other states. I moved five times since our league’s formation, but every year I return to those Decatur roots. Like a salmon returning to its birthplace, I look forward to that late summer migration that occurs in the clear crystal streams of broadband technology. Twelve guys link up via the Internet and select players in 16 rounds. A new season of hope begins.

Could this be my year?

Our league pays a $160 reactivation fee to CBSSports.com in the summer. Like most fantasy websites, this site administers our draft, scoring, trades, waivers, the schedule and standings. We each also pay a small amount to our commissioner to build a piggy bank for the players who win the league and score the most points. The top awards in our Decatur league are nothing to go crazy about, but an extra incentive no less.

What may have spurred some of the recent growth of the Winkenbach Game is the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act of 2006, which legalizes fantasy sports under certain conditions. The exemption was granted since fantasy sports are about using one’s skill at accumulating and analyzing statistics for a fantasy team, and not betting on a real team’s outcome. Of course, laws can be interpreted and enforced differently depending on where you live.

If you can imagine that first year of the Decatur league in 1996, I had no access to ESPN.com, NFL.com or CBSSports.com. We held our draft in the lounge of the fitness center. My principal research was done reading several fantasy magazines, watching sports cable TV, and reading daily sports sections from area newspapers. The second year, our commissioner began hosting a barbeque at his home and we had a podium in the basement where we took turns being the commissioner of the league announcing draft picks.

Yes, we were dorks.

Call me crazy, but I wonder if some of the early pioneers of the Internet were really just trying to find a better way to manage their fantasy football leagues. Anyway, thank goodness for the Internet, because the Information Superhighway and the Winkenbach Game go hand-in-hand. The pairing gives birth to massive amounts of research data and video content, constantly flying around the planet, for the enjoyment of testosterone-charged, chicken wing-eating, caffeine-swilling guys like me, who like to form bonds with other men with the same passion for the Winkenbach Game.

The NFL’s bean counters must be tracking all of this activity. Commissioner Roger Goodell three years ago created a huge financial target: reach $25 billion a year in revenue by 2027. They are still more than $15 billion off. The NFL Network and the RedZone are sources of revenue that feed the fantasy frenzy, and they will likely grow in popularity and help the NFL inch toward that goal.

NFL.com, another NFL property, has a fantasy section on its website. The league will likely do all it can to  get people to migrate their fantasy league to the NFL.com website so the NFL can cash in on those reactivation fees. As I mentioned earlier, our Decatur league will pay a $160 reactivation fee to CBSSports.com this summer, unless we are incentivized to move elsewhere. We will wait to see what the NFL marketing wizards have in store for us this summer.

I assume the NFL will look at launching new products to serve this fantasy segment, but it will be a fine line that they walk since they don’t want to promote gambling. Former league executive Tom Spock told reporter Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal recently, “There are data streams they can monetize in gaming, fantasy.”

Want more proof the Winkenbach Game is a powerful NFL juggernaut? Microsoft announced this past week that it is bringing fantasy football to the Xbox One.

Gaming and fantasy. If only Winkenbach knew where this was all headed. Too bad his family doesn’t get royalties.

A Fantasy Sports Trade Association was formed in 1999. Here’s what the association’s website says about itself:  In 2013 we are proud to represent more than 140 member companies in a mature industry with a market size our research estimates over 35 million adult Americans.

In recent years, when slots opened up in my 12-team fantasy league based in Decatur (usually due to ultimatums from wives or girlfriends), I invited two of my nephews to join the league. Pretty soon, there were enough nephews and brothers for the formation of our own separate Dewey fantasy league. Family on the East Coast competed with family on the West Coast. Faith, family, football, and the Winkenbach Game. These are the ties that bind and make me look forward to the future.

My brother thought it would be cool to buy a traveling trophy to be presented annually to the champion of our family league. Not surprisingly, the guy at the trophy store said they sell lots of fantasy league trophies.

Fantasy football is woven into the fabric of the lives of tens of millions of Americans. By the year 2027, when Goodell hopes the NFL reaches $25 billion in annual revenue, there will be another generation of Deweys in our league. We may have to spin off and form another league just to keep everyone in the family happy.

Thank you, Bill Winkenbach.

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