It was never particularly unusual for Joe Banner’s two pre-teen sons to talk football with him back in the early 2000s. After all, Banner was the Eagles team president at the time, and Philadelphia was a perennial Super Bowl contender. At some point, though, Banner noticed the conversations were changing.
No longer were they asking innocent questions about Donovan McNabb or next week’s game against the Cowboys. The questions were becoming more specific and more about the entire league than just the Eagles.
Who are the best rookies this season?
Which teams have the best offense?
“For some reason, they were focusing on things like running backs and wide receivers,” recalled Banner. “I realized they weren’t just having a conversation. They were actually picking my brain.”
Why the sudden need for information?
“Over a relatively short time, I realized that they weren’t unique,” Banner says of his sons. “They were actually the tip of the iceberg. The thing was kind of catching fire.”
Fantasy football had been around for over a decade since Banner’s sons started playing, but it didn’t take off until the internet made it so much easier to play. The Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association estimates that about two million people played fantasy football in the early 1990s. By 2003, that number ballooned to 11.8 million.
The FSGA’s most recent estimate, in 2017, was over 46 million.
“It’s amazing how popular it is,” says Mike Tannenbaum, who ran football operations for the Jets (2006-12) and Dolphins (2015-18).
Tannenbaum and Banner had front-row seats to the rise of fantasy football, but it never impacted their day jobs. Sure, they heard fans calling out during pregame to certain players, saying they needed them to come through today. Banner says he’s heard players in the locker room complain (or brag) about where they’re getting taken in fantasy drafts. You know the saying, Don’t believe players who say they don’t read their press clippings? The same holds true when they tell you they don’t know where they’re ranked in fantasy.
“There’s a pretty high level of awareness,” Banner says.
Tannenbaum and Banner have transitioned from NFL front offices to the media world, recently launching a site called The33rdTeam.com. Much of that site’s content features deep dives into subjects like analytics, scouting and salary cap management – but these old-school league executives knew they needed to address fantasy.
“Fantasy football has become so mainstream over the years,” says Tannenbaum. “For us to become a holistic football website, we thought it was necessary to have quality fantasy content.”
Tannenbaum and Banner aren’t alone. Mike Lombardi, a front-office executive with four different teams during his 22 years in the NFL, has been actively involved in the media world. Lombardi offers personalized fantasy advice through Cameo.
The 33rd Team started a weekly radio show on SiriusXM’s fantasy sports channel. Banner – although he has never played fantasy football – was the show’s co-host.
While he had a “macro view” of fantasy, Banner says that co-hosting the show brought his appreciation of fantasy to another level.
“I think it just added to what I realized was a passion, but still underestimated just how intense that passion was,” says Banner, president of the Eagles from 1995-2012 and then CEO of the Browns from 2012-13. It’s not so much about winning and losing, he notes, as it is about talent evaluation and the ability for fans to get a taste of his old job.
“I think a lot of the fans fancy themselves as GMs for their teams,” says Banner. “Some of them are smart enough to look at it from a league perspective, and (with fantasy) they get a real chance to do that. Testing their own skills and competing turned out to be something that was very interesting and enjoyable to them. And frankly, no threat to the game or the traditions of the game at all.”
There was a time when NFL executives were concerned that fantasy football might threaten their sport. The league is all-in on fantasy these days, but it took some persuasion. Team owners feared that fantasy would dilute their fan base. God forbid a Broncos fan had a Raiders quarterback starting for their fantasy squad.
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When Chris Russo joined the NFL in 1999 as the league’s senior VP of new media, he set out to learn as much as possible about the emerging fantasy business. What Russo learned convinced him the NFL should embrace fantasy. And – surprise – it wasn’t about money.
“I did some research that pretty definitively showed that fantasy players watched more NFL games on TV, more hours of NFL than non-fantasy players,” says Russo, who was at the NFL for seven years and is currently CEO of Fifth Generation Sports, a sports advisory firm. “And the longer you played fantasy, the more you watched. I think it was something like 2.3 hours more or something like that.”
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That was enough to convince the NFL’s higher-ups, including then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to go forward with fantasy as a fan development and fan engagement vehicle.
“It wasn’t really about money or profit. It had no cash elements to it,” Russo says. “And then what happened over the next three or four years was really an expansion of the visibility of fantasy, which I think drove a lot of the adoption in the industry.”
Suddenly, fantasy football was being talked about and promoted everywhere, including NFL game broadcasts — which had been prohibited under previous broadcasting deals. The NFL Players Association also got on board with fantasy, allowing players to help the league promote its product (then-Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri famously drafted a fantasy team of “just kickers” in a commercial for NFL.com).
“That was a very big step to sort of mainstream it from a communications standpoint,” says Russo.
Tannenbaum witnessed the growth of fantasy football during his years with the Jets, but it wasn’t until he was in Miami that he saw the light. The NFL launched its RedZone channel in 2009, and by the time Tannenbaum got to Miami in 2015, the league was asking teams to show RedZone highlights in stadiums during game breaks. “That’s when I realized how big it was,” he says. NFL RedZone was built for fantasy managers, showing every touchdown from every game on any given Sunday. The league knew that even the die-hards attending games in person were also playing fantasy.
Remembering that experience with RedZone in the stadium, Tannenbaum knew fantasy coverage had to be incorporated into the 33rd Team.
Some media outlets have employed former players to cover fantasy, but the idea of former NFL general managers and team presidents talking fantasy has not been all that common. Banner, while he still has no plans to join a league this season, has taken to the game.
Jade McCarthy, who co-hosted the 33rd Team’s fantasy radio show, felt that Banner’s competitive nature as an NFL team executive clearly carried over to fantasy. “Like when he helped build teams in the league, Joe wanted to win,” says McCarthy. “It was all in good-spirited fashion, but competition is competition, right? I saw Joe’s interest in fantasy grow because that competitive nature kicked in.”
McCarthy says she found it compelling listening to Banner break down how he expected certain players to be utilized – talking like an NFL GM but applying his observations to fantasy. “It provided a different spin on fantasy,” she says.
For his part, Banner was surprised to learn that he wasn’t the only “fantasy expert” who knew what he was talking about.
“My biggest takeaway was the credibility,” Banner says. “There are absolutely some top fantasy people that could work as an evaluator on an NFL team and contribute.
“I would have thought that was a ridiculous statement probably five years ago.”
If Banner had any preconceived notions that fantasy analysts fit the stereotype of bloggers working from their parents’ basement, that ship has sailed. He found many in the space to be extremely knowledgeable about football.
“The ones I interacted with were really, really hard workers,” says Banner. “It was kind of amazing to me how many hours they spent consuming content or forming their own opinions or reading data. It kind of jumped up and hit me in the face. It was even bigger than I realized, that the passion for it and that the people working as experts actually deserve probably more respect and credibility than they were getting.”
Banner’s experience sums up the growth of fantasy football as a cottage industry: It started with middle schoolers asking their dad for advice, and now the experts doling out advice are smart enough to work for NFL teams. And some of them already have.
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