How Fantasy Football Works

By: Matt Hunt
Fantasy football requires virtual scouting, coaching and managing skills. See more football pictures.

For many pigskin-loving Americans, the ability to control a professional football team is the ultimate dream. Fantasy football allows this dream to become a (virtual) reality. Players can compose a team of athletes to compete against both friends and strangers!

To succeed in fantasy football, you need the business sav­vy of a general manager, the knowledge of a pro scout, and the strategy of a head coach. In this article, we'll find out how fantasy football got its start, learn the fundamentals of the game and discover where you can play different types of fantasy football.



Fantasy Football History

The Milford Plaza Hotel, where Bill Winkenbach created fantasy football.
Photo courtesy Milford Plaza Hotel

At its most basic, fantasy football is a game in which football fans use their knowledge of the sport to compete against each other in formats that relate to the actual performance of professional football teams. The goal of the fantasy football player is to select which athletes or teams will have the most impressive performances during a given week. In order to be successful at fantasy football, a fantasy player must follow the weekly happenings of the NFL and make better choices than his opponent makes.

Modern fantasy football can be traced back to the late Wilfred "Bill" Winkenbach, an Oakland area businessman and a limited partner in the Oakland Raiders. In a New York hotel room during a 1962 Raiders eastern cross-country trip, Winkenbach, along with Raiders Public Relations man Bill Tunnel and Tribune reporter Scotty Starling, developed a system of organization and a rulebook, which would eventually be the basis of modern fantasy football.


Focusing on AFL offensive skill players, Winkenbach's blueprint laid the groundwork for what would come to be known as the GOPPPL (Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Procrastinators League). Upon his return to Oakland, Winkenbach organized the inaugural eight teams, which consisted of individuals who met one of the following qualifications:

  1. An administrative affiliate of the AFL
  2. A journalist with direct relation to pro football
  3. Someone who has purchased or sold 10 season tickets for the Raiders' 1963 season

As stated in the original rules, the purpose of the league was "to bring together some of Oakland's finest Saturday morning gridiron forecasters to pit their respective brains (and cash) against each other" in the hope that it would lead to "closer coverage of daily happenings in professional football" [ref]. The original rulebook stated that there were to be two league officials: a secretary who would keep scores, verify rosters, maintain records, and handle all monies and a commissioner who would preside over all league meetings, appoint any necessary committees, and mediate any league disputes. As the owner of a small business, Winkenbach had all the necessary tools (phone lines, typewriters, a mimeograph machine) to become the first fantasy football league commissioner. Following the assembly of the original eight teams in 1963, Winkenbach invited all of the team owners to the basement of his home to participate in an inaugural GOPPPL "draft."

The Fantasy Football Draft

In the first fantasy football draft, participants drew cards marked 1-8 for the privilege of choosing their drafting positions. The draft proceeded in a ladder order with the first position draftee making the first selection, the second position draftee making the second selection, and so on until the eighth position draftee makes the eighth selection. During the second round, the draft order reversed, with the eighth draftee starting with the ninth selection and the order continuing backward from the first round until eventually returning to the first draftee whose next pick would then be the 16th. Each subsequent round, the order would reverse with the last position draftee of the previous round making the first selection of the next round until each team's roster was full. This ladder order was implemented in order to make the teams equal and to promote a higher degree of competition. In subsequent years, after roster cuts were made, the team with the lowest record the previous season would have the opportunity to draft first. Teams were able to draft 20 players:

  • Four offensive ends
  • Four halfbacks
  • Two fullbacks
  • Two quarterbacks
  • Two kick/punt returners
  • Two field goal kickers
  • Two defensive backs/linebackers
  • Two defensive linemen

Since many players played at different positions in the 60s, the same player could play for different teams at different positions (for example, the #1 draft pick George Blanda played quarterback for one team and place kicker for another). Upon successful completion of the draft, each team was to submit their weekly lineup to the secretary before noon each Friday. Teams would compete on a weekly basis, and at the end of the season, teams would hold a championship to crown the league champion.


The GOPPL used the following method of payoffs for scoring:

  • 50 cents for rushing touchdown by any player
  • 25 cents for any player receiving a pass for a touchdown
  • 25 cents for any player throwing a touchdown pass
  • Double the above for any score from more than 75 yards out
  • 25 cents for each field goal
  • $2.50 for a kickoff or punt return for touchdown
  • $2.50 for a touchdown by a defensive back or linebacker on pass interception
  • $5.00 for a touchdown by defensive lineman

Next, we'll learn how fantasy football went public.

Fantasy Football Goes Public

Oakland restaurateur and GOPPL team coach Andy Mousalimas opened the first public fantasy football league to his patrons at the Kings X Sports Bar in 1969. By veering slightly from the original GOPPL formula, Mousalimas was responsible for the push toward the current practice of performance scoring, which rewards points to players who score touchdowns. Mousalimas has since retired from the restaurant business, but the Kings X remains the ground zero of fantasy football. Today, the Kings X continues to maintain six different real world fantasy divisions, including the Queens division -- a division especially reserved for the female patrons of the Kings X.

With the advent of the Internet, fantasy football has blossomed from a game played by an elite group of all-male sports enthusiasts in bars to a million-dollar industry reaching 30 million online players (including 6.5 million women) in America. On average, players spend $110 a year on their online fantasy franchises.


Early proponents of fantasy football struggled to get information about the condition of their competing players and relied heavily on such publications as Street and Smith's sports annuals to make draft day decisions. Today, Internet-savvy football fans can get a wealth of information online on any player currently in the NFL. They can easily compare and contrast both whole teams and individual players. "Virtual drafts" enable team owners to build teams from the comfort of their living rooms, and fans can create leagues with friends who live half a world away or test their skills against a group of total strangers. It is no wonder that "virtual" fantasy football has taken center stage, while public, non-digital fantasy football now finds itself fading into obscurity.

With so many different types of fantasy football games and fantasy sites to choose from, there is a game for any degree of football fan. So which game is right for you?

Choosing a League

The first thing to consider is how much time you are willing to spend on a fantasy game, because playing fantasy football successfully can require hours of time each week. If you are a casual fan, a pick 'em game is the least time consuming game, but the diehard fan will definitely be willing to spend the time required to manage a full fantasy football team.

You should also consider the pros and cons of joining a pay site. Pay sites can range from a few dollars a month to hundreds of dollars per week. To a casual fan, it may not be worth the cash, but pay sites generally offer a greater level of customization for fantasy leagues and also typically provide real-time updates, gossip, and fantasy tips for fantasy owners. Pay sites also reward prizes for the most successful and dedicated fantasy players in the form of cash payouts, trophies, and even tickets to actual NFL events. While there are quite a few incredible prizes to be won, don't forget the greatest fantasy football prize of all -- bragging rights!


In the next few sections, we'll take a look at the various types of fantasy football games that exist today.

Pick 'Em Leagues's Fantasy Sports Fantasy Football Pick 'em game.
Photo courtesy Yahoo

In pick 'em, fantasy players pick who they believe will win between the two opposing teams in each of the NFL's weekly regular season contests. While some games feature the same point value for every game, others have the player rate games with confidence points in which point values are assigned to games based on the fantasy player's certainty of outcome. For example, in a confidence point game with point values of 1-15, a player might assign a 15 point value to a game if he feels sure of the outcome, but might assign a 1 point value to a game if he is unsure of the outcome. In other games, the player must pick whether or not the favored team will cover the point spread (win and score more points over their opponent than the number of the spread) or if the underdog team will beat the spread (either defeat the opposing team or lose within less points than the spread). Usually, the point spreads are provided by the Associated Press.

An example of fantasy football point values.
Photo courtesy Sandbox

Here are some of the more popular pick 'em sites:


Public leagues and groups are available for anyone to join, random leagues are available for anyone to join as players are grouped at random, and private leagues and groups are available to join only by password invitation.

  • Yahoo Sports Pro Football This site is free and offers basic one point pick 'em, confidence points pick 'em and spread system pick 'em.
  • ESPN Pigskin Pick 'em This site is also free and offers basic one point pick 'em, confidence points pick 'em and spread system pick 'em.
  • Sandbox Pro Pix Football This site has a monthly fee of $4.99 and offers confidence points pick 'em.
  • AOL Pro Football This site is free and offers one point pick 'em.

Salary Cap League

The Coach's Clipboard Fantasy Football Salary Cap game on
Photo courtesy Sandbox

In a salary cap game, the fantasy player acts as a virtual owner with a virtual bank account to draft players whose weekly game performance translates into points. These points are awarded for categories such as touchdowns, rushing yards, field goals and sacks. Players' salaries rise and fall according to their weekly performance, and the goal of the virtual GM is to build the strongest lineup possible without exhausting his payroll or going over the number of allowed trades during a weekly period. Since more attention must be paid to variables such as injury, bye weeks, and opposing coverage, a successful salary cap team requires more maintenance and research than a pick 'em game.

Here are a few popular salary cap sites:


  • Yahoo Salary Cap Football This site is free and offers a nine-man roster (one QB, two RBs, three WRs, one TE, one K, one team defense), a $100 million salary cap and no trade limits. You can have public or private groups.
  • Sandbox Coach's Clipboard Salary Cap Football This site has a monthly fee of $4.99. You manage a 10-man roster (one QB, two RBs, two WRs, one TE, one K, three Defensive flex players) with a $50 million salary cap and four trades per week. You can have public or private leagues.
  • Sporting News Ultimate Salary Cap Football On this site you can manage one team for $19.99 with an 11-man roster (one QB, three RBs, three WRs, one TE, one K, one Team Def), a $50 million salary cap, four trades per week. You can have public, random or private leagues.

Next, we'll learn about full fantasy football.

Full Fantasy Football's Full Contact Full Fantasy Football game draft results.
Photo courtesy Sandbox

Full fantasy football is the granddaddy of all fantasy football games. In this game, fantasy players join a league of friends or strangers and act as virtual owners controlling numerous position players on offense, defense and special teams. Players can set up leagues with head-to-head competition between teams or base them on total cumulative fantasy points. As in salary cap games, points are awarded for each player's game day performance.

Before the season begins, there is a virtual draft. All owners in a league draft players for each position from a trove of eligible athletes, who may only play for one team per league. League members can set the draft to last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. All players that aren't drafted are placed on waivers and are usually available on a first come, first served basis. There is usually a waiting period before a team owner can pick up a waived player, and sometimes leagues allow lower-placed teams first pick priority for players on waivers. Besides being able to waive and claim new players, an owner can also make trades with other owners in his league. In a keeper league, owners have the option of selecting a number of players to retain automatically for the following season.


Managing the Team’s SBX Full Fantasy Football game.
Photo courtesy Sandbox

After drafting his team, the owner must select which players to start on a weekly basis and must submit this lineup before the weekly deadline. Some full fantasy games have players win by having the team with the most wins or the largest point total, while others have playoffs to crown the league champion.

Here are a few popular full fantasy football sites:


  • Sandbox Full Contact Full Fantasy Football For a monthly fee of $4.95, players on this site have a 20-man roster (11 active players per game -- one QB, one RB, one TE, one WR, three offensive flex, one K, three defensive flex). There are eight to 14 teams per league, and players can choose from public or private, keeper or non-keeper, head-to-head, point total, playoff and non-playoff leagues.
  • Yahoo Sports Fantasy Football This site is free. Players have a 15-man roster (nine active players per game - one QB, three WRs, two RBs, one TE, one K, one team defense). There are 10 teams per league and players can choose from public or private, head-to-head or points leagues. There is a playoff at the end of each season.

For lots more information about football (fantasy and otherwise), check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • AOL Fantasy Sports
  • ESPN Fantasy Index
  • Harris, Bob and Emil Kadlec. "A Nod (and a wink) to the Founders of Fantasy Football." Fantasy Sports Publications
  • Sandbox Fantasy Sports Games
  • The Sporting News: Fantasy Football