It was never particularly unusual for Joe Banner’s two pre-teen sons to discuss football with him in the early 2000s. After all, Banner was the Eagles’ team president at the time, and Philadelphia was a perennial Super Bowl contender. Bowl. However, at some point, Banner noticed that the conversations were changing.
They no longer asked innocent questions about Donovan McNabb or next week’s game against the Cowboys. The questions were getting more specific and more about the entire league than just the Eagles.
Who are the best debutants this season?
Which teams have the best offense?
“For whatever reason, they were focusing on things like running backs and wide receivers,” Banner recalls. “I realized that they weren’t just having a conversation. Actually, they were poking around in my brain.”
Why the sudden need for information?
“In a relatively short time, I realized they weren’t unique,” Banner says of his children. “They were really the tip of the iceberg. The thing was on fire.”
Fantasy football has been around for more than a decade since the Banner kids started playing it, but it didn’t take off until the internet made it much easier to play. The Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association estimates that around two million people played fantasy football in the early 1990s. In 2003, that number ballooned to 11.8 million.
The most recent estimate from the FSGA, 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 affected their day jobs. Sure, they heard fans calling out certain players before the game, saying they needed them to come today. Banner says he’s heard players in the locker room complain (or brag) about where they’re being taken in fantasy drafts. You know the adage, Don’t you believe the players who say they don’t read their press clippings? The same goes for when they tell you they don’t know where they rank in fantasy.
“There’s a pretty high level of awareness,” says Banner.
Tannenbaum and Banner have made the transition from NFL headquarters to the media world, recently launching a site called The33rdTeam.com. Much of the content on that site features deep dives into topics like analytics, scouting and salary-cap management, but these old-school league execs knew they needed to tackle the fantasy.
“Fantasy football has become mainstream over the years,” says Tannenbaum. “In order to become a holistic soccer website, we thought it was necessary to have quality fantasy content.”
Tannenbaum and Banner are not 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.
Team 33 started a weekly radio show on SiriusXM’s fantasy sports channel. Banner, although he never has. juice fantasy football – was the co-host of the show.
While he had a “macro view” of fantasy, Banner says that co-hosting the show took his appreciation of fantasy to another level.
“I think it added to what I realized was a passion, but I still underestimated how intense that passion was,” says Banner, president of the Eagles from 1995 to 2012 and then CEO of the Browns from 2012 to 2013. It’s not so much about winning and losing, he notes, as it is about evaluating talent and the ability of fans to try out their old work.
“I think a lot of fans picture themselves as general managers of their teams,” says Banner. “Some of them are smart enough to see it from a league perspective, and (with fantasy) they have a real shot at it. Testing their own skills and competing turned out to be very interesting and fun for them. And frankly, no threat to the game or the traditions of the game at all.”
There was a time when NFL executives worried that fantasy football might threaten their sport. The league is going fantasy these days, but it took some persuasion. Team owners feared fantasy would dilute their fan base. God forbid a Broncos fan had a Raiders quarterback as a starter for his fantasy squad.
Are you rooting for Rich Gannon, even in his two games against us?
(Well, they’re still rooting for the Broncos to win, as long as it’s a high-scoring game.)
When Chris Russo joined the NFL in 1999 as the league’s senior vice president of new media, he set out to learn as much as he could about the emerging fantasy business. What Russo learned convinced him that the NFL should embrace fantasy. And, surprise, it wasn’t about money.
“I did research that showed pretty definitively that fantasy players watched more NFL games on TV, more hours of NFL than non-fantasy players,” says Russo, who was in the NFL for seven years. and is currently CEO of Fifth Generation Sports. a sports consulting company. “And the more 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 top brass of the NFL, including then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to go ahead with the fantasy as a fan engagement and development vehicle.
“It wasn’t really about money or profit. He had no cash elements,” says Russo. “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 broadcasts of NFL games, which had been banned under previous broadcast 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 an NFL.com commercial).
“That was a big step to bring it in 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 of day. The NFL launched its RedZone channel in 2009, and when Tannenbaum arrived in Miami in 2015, the league required teams to show RedZone highlights in stadiums during game breaks. “That’s when I realized how big it was,” he says. NFL RedZone was created for fantasy managers, showing every touchdown from every game on any given Sunday. The league knew that even fans attending games in person were also playing fantasy.
Looking back on that experience with RedZone at the ballpark, Tannenbaum knew that fantasy coverage had to be brought into the 33 team.
Some media outlets have employed former players to cover fantasy, but the idea of former NFL general managers and team presidents talking about fantasy hasn’t been as common. Banner, while he still has no plans to join a league this season, has gotten used to the game.
Jade McCarthy, who co-hosted the 33rd Team 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 a good mood, but competition is competition, right? I saw Joe’s interest in fantasy grow because that competitive nature was activated.”
McCarthy says he found it compelling to hear Banner analyze how he expected certain players to be used, speaking like an NFL general manager but applying his observations to fantasy. “He provided a different spin on the 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.
“The thing I took away the most was credibility,” says Banner. “There are absolutely some of the best people in fantasy who could work as evaluators 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 out of their parents’ basement, that ship has sailed. He discovered that many in the space had great knowledge about soccer.
“Those I interacted with were very, very hardworking,” says Banner. “It was amazing to me how many hours they spent consuming content or forming their own opinions or reading data. He jumped up and hit me in the face. It was even bigger than I realized, that the passion for this and that the people who work as experts actually deserve probably more respect and credibility than they were getting.”
Banner’s experience epitomizes the growth of fantasy football as a cottage industry: It started when high school students turned to their father for advice, and now the experts providing advice are smart enough to work for NFL teams. And some of them already have.
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