The NFL has never turned its nose up at a dollar, and as fantasy football has become more and more commonplace, the NFL has embraced it.
Without the NFL, there would be no fantasy football. Certainly the NFL’s policies and rules change how your fantasy league plays.
However, the reverse is true in some ways too as fantasy football has made an impact on the game of football.
How, you ask, can a multi-billion dollar enterprise be influenced by something which, while large, is still a hobby?
As the two interests have both seen tremendous success at nearly the same time, it shouldn’t be shocking that they have influenced each other.
Over the past decade the popularity of the NFL has exploded. According to NFL.com, a Harris Poll last October said that 59 percent of Americans follow the NFL. This is up by more than 10 percentage points from the 47 percent who said they followed the NFL 10 years ago.
Not surprisingly, fantasy football has also seen tremendous growth over that time.
Do you play fantasy football?
According to an article Eliot Caroom wrote last September in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, there are approximately 35 million fantasy sports player of which a significant number play fantasy football.
It’s a huge audience and the NFL has definitely made strides in appealing to it specifically. After all if there is money to be made, the NFL will work to get it.
Consider for a minute the Red Zone Channel. Nothing but scoring plays (well, save for the occasional dull halftime moment), no muss, no fuss.
Now, we all like watching a touchdown. However, did we really need an entire broadcast and an entire channel dedicated to it?
Not really, unless you’re down by 12 points in your fantasy league and Marshawn Lynch is marching down the field.
Perhaps it would have existed eventually anyway, but the league is catering to a very specific fanbase with it. Otherwise, it’s just cutting out the network commercials, and we know that’s only costing people money.
As for network feeds, look at how many different camera angles and replays there are. We all love to see how a play develops after the fact, but it’s the fantasy owners who really spend their time watching it over and over again.
The continuing deal with DirectTV also seems to be at least in some ways influenced by the fantasy world as much as a need for people to see their favorite teams from out of state.
After all, how else can we follow everyone in our fantasy roster?
OK, the truth is that there was money there in satellite television for the taking, and the NFL was of course going to dip into it. However, the popularity and success of it certainly has something to do with a lot of rabid fantasy addicts tuning into every game they can get their eyes on.
The NFL has also put some serious cash into their league management software on NFL.com as well. A significant investment which is, as most things are, designed to pull eyeballs to the league website and of course the advertisements on it.
Of course, those are all off-field effects. Let’s talk about ways fantasy might be influencing actual play on the field.
The following is all conjecture, of course. It’s not like there’s a Roger Goodell fantasy-football cabal bent on making the sport more fantasy friendly.
A lot of things the league has done make the game more fan and viewer friendly, and the fact that it also makes it more fantasy friendly as well is just a happy by-product.
However, the two things are very similiar because the popularity of the NFL is partially tied into fantasy as well. It’s one part of many things which have made the league the most successful and profitable sports league in America.
Fans love points, and many of those fans love points because of their fantasy teams.
As we’ve seen over the past decade, the NFL has gone out of its way to make rules changes and additions which make it easier to score those points.
With new rules making it harder to hit a quarterback cleanly (or anyone else for that matter), the NFL has become more and more of a passing league.
More than anyone else on the field, the fans recognize quarterbacks as the “face of the franchise” and there have been numerous rules changes to protect those players.
Does it have to do with player safety? Sure. It's just also about protecting the main image of the NFL as well as the players with the ability to put up massive yards and points.
Another area we see the ripple effects of fantasy in would be the advent of statistical analysis. It’s actually also the impact of the whole sabermetrics trend in baseball, but the fact is that stats have become a much bigger deal and one of the reasons is the importance it has to fantasy football.
How does that change the NFL? Well aside from all those nifty yards we were just talking about, you see a lot more focus on stats by the players themselves, as well as the league. Stats which didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago are commonplace now.
Some of that is due to the expansion of fantasy football.
Of course, the NFL is popular primarily because it is a phenomenal game. It very well might have climbed over the corpses of the steroid-scandalized Major League Baseball as well as the lockout-decimated National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association.
Fantasy football may not have caused it to happen, but it definitely gave a rabid fanbase something else to be rabid about.
Andrew Garda is the former NFC North Lead Writer and a current NFL analyst and video personality for Bleacher Report. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at Footballguys and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.