Mark Godfrey

Let Me Be Your Fantasy

Mark Godfrey
Let Me Be Your Fantasy

This article first appeared in Issue 16 of The Football Pink

JOE CARROLL examines the rise of a game that gave us all the opportunity to demonstrate how good – or terrible – we are at picking and managing our own Premier League team.

It’s 1994, and in a tired London flat, two blokes are slouched on a second-hand sofa watching TV. Shelves crammed with books, LPs and indiscernible miscellany lurk behind them. Football club pendants and scarves hang from a dated cabinet while the surface of their coffee table is littered with magazines, beer cans and empty takeaway cartons strewn haphazardly. A curious figure sits opposite wearing a checkered dressing gown, round framed glasses and a mop of black hair. Suddenly, (but perhaps not unexpectedly) the doorbell rings.

David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s Fantasy Football League show was hugely successful from its initial airing in January 1994, lasting for three series on BBC Two. Having negotiated a transfer to ITV just in time for a Euro ‘96 special, the show survived in this one-off guise for the subsequent tournaments in 1998 and 2004. It attracted millions of viewers eager to get their weekly fix of footy chat mixed with light comedy sketches. But perhaps only a handful of eagle eyed viewers would notice the name that flashed briefly across the screen as the credits rolled. It read: Fantasy Football League ’94 incorporating the original game by Andrew Wainstein.

Credited with importing the game into the UK in 1991, Andrew Wainstein has an almost Godfather-like status in the world of Fantasy Football. Although that particular title is contested on the European scene by Italian journalist Riccardo Albini and his Fantacalcio, the game really began to take off when Wainstein launched Fantasy League Ltd in time for the 1991/92 English Football League season. Unknowingly, Wainstein had just lit the blue touch paper on a phenomenon that would launch his product into the stratosphere; one that continues to thrive in the digital age.

It’s worth mentioning that recognition of the first Fantasy Football game in the UK is fought over by a Bernie Donnelly whose Facebook page “The Footie – The Original Fantasy Football” claims to have started in 1971, but it was Wainstein’s vision and endeavour that catapulted Fantasy Football into the public eye two decades later. The success of Wainstein’s game owes much to its simplicity. The American fantasy games that had inspired him were a minefield of statistics: in the NFL version players earned points in all manner of ways. But without the sports data providers, like Opta and Prozone who are such important contributors to today’s football landscape, Wainstein’s game was limited to the rudimentary elements of association football.

“I tried to break football down into a handful of stats – the kind of things you could pick up on watching Match of the Day”, said Wainstein. Appealing to an already attentive audience, it’s no surprise the game captured the imagination of viewers, and with everyone able to tune into the BBC programme, wannabe-managers started on a level playing field. Strikers were rewarded for scoring, midfielders won points for assists, and defenders and ‘keepers took credit for clean sheets. It was that simple.

While the points-scoring system has remained largely unchanged to this day, the way in which people play has changed unimaginably.

With more than 4 million players, Fantasy Premier League is the most popular version of Fantasy Football in the world. Players can enter teams, tinker with their squads and communicate with other users instantaneously through their smartphones. But in the early 90s Wainstein’s game began with barely a couple of hundred players, while telephones were limited to connecting the game’s founder and only administrator one player at a time. It was an age before handheld devices and 4G. Dial up internet was still in its infancy and the average household was more likely to have a fax machine taking up space in the living room than a computer.

The game was run out of Wainstein’s parents’ house where he would print out weekly reports on Sunday nights and post them out on Monday mornings. The game was his baby, with Wainstein revealing he would instinctively wake up every three hours to refill the printer that produced his reports. If Sunday nights were busy, Fridays must have been chaos. Players would phone in to make their last-minute adjustments before the weekend’s round of fixtures kicked-off. In a pre-internet age, and with no email or instant messaging available, replacing injured players and picking in-form strikers was transmitted through the electronic chirps and tweets (not those Tweets) of the fax machine. The image of players sitting in their local or at a friend’s house each week, discussing form and jotting down formations before literally ringing in to a single administrator in his parents’ home, will be as alien to today’s teenagers as the 90s were to fashion sense. They must think the game’s primitive form dull, laborious and frustrating.

But to thousands of players throughout those early years of Wainstein’s Fantasy League Ltd, it was anything but. It was new; unlike anything they’d ever played. It was exhilarating; putting them in the dug-out, in control of their own professional football team. It was – as one particular 90s player described it – an obsession.

Dan Cox is a member of the Fantasy Football internet forum FISO. He began playing when he was 12 years old, entering his very own team in Match Magazine’s Fantasy Football game, in the 1994/95 season. The then teenager’s fixation with game was just beginning, and unlike modern day Fantasy Football which might only cost players their time and relationship status, Cox’s early cravings clearly had some very immediate and very real costs.

“My old man used to go crazy that I’d spent £10+ on a premium rate phone call [in order to make transfers]. With The Telegraph’s game, I remember having to post your transfers in, hoping they were processed before the next match.”

If anything, this archaic form of communication provided a unique aspect to the game which – for better or worse – is now lost. The playing experience would have been that little bit more thrilling; not knowing for sure whether your decision to swap the out-of-form Vinny Samways for Tony Yeboah had even gone through – never mind whether it would actually come off – until the results were published in the following week’s paper. And you thought getting up in time for an 11am deadline was hard enough.

But that’s not to say the process wasn’t a frustrating one.

“Ringing up The Sun’s Dreamteam was a chore” Cox continues. “It used to take 5 minutes per team to do transfers. You’d be sat with the house phone, a newspaper and sheets of paper with players’ 3 digit codes on. It took ages before smartphones. Now you can do your transfers while you’re out and about, after 2pm having seen the team news on Twitter. Back then you’d have to scan Ceefax, call up and do your transfers at 10am, only to find out later that someone was injured.

The Telegraph Fantasy Football was even worse. You’d post in transfers on a postcard. I once posted mine at 2pm on a Saturday and by 3.30pm my striker got injured. I was half tempted to catch the postman when he was emptying the post box to cancel the move.”

Russell Cane is content manager for Oulala Games, one of the most popular ‘daily’ versions of Fantasy Football, in which players can pick new teams and start afresh every day. Russell believes the daily format has the potential to one day surpass the seasonal game, citing a greater social experience and innovations like in-play subs as cause for optimism. But the frustrations of the 90s have not been forgotten.

“Discovering a new football-based game which was completely different from the typical quizzes offered an initial sense of excitement”, said Cane. “Picking a team and the anticipation of how I’d perform was fun in the build up to the season. But the excitement quickly disappeared after having to call costly numbers to make transfers, not being in a league with friends and my team sliding down the rankings.

“As a teenager and still living at home, using my parents’ landline to make transfers was my only option. I was too impatient to post transfers. Premium rate numbers completely ruined the experience early on and halted its growth somewhat. If the game providers had offered standard rate calls to make transfers, the rise of Fantasy Football would have been a lot faster during the 90s”

Indeed, the thought that Fantasy Football may have reached its zenith by the turn of the century was one felt by some working in the industry. Barely six years after Wainstein introduced his game to the UK, an article by Sharon Smith for Campaign magazine put the spotlight on Fantasy Football as a useful database marketing tool. In the piece, David Roscoe, promotions manager at Group Four Marketing, said that he thought the market for Fantasy Football was peaking.

“There are so many games around and generally people will only play one game, so it is spreading more thinly now and will reach saturation point soon”, said Roscoe. That Smith describes the game as a “fad” and a “craze” in the opening two sentences of the article, suggests that the staying-power and influence of Fantasy Football was being severely underestimated. But when you consider Baddiel & Skinner’s TV show was no longer regularly on the air, and with a sense that the thirst for football post-Euro ‘96 would dry up, it’s perhaps not surprising that the marketing and media worlds predicted its demise in 1997.

And yet the Fantasy game – and the appetite for the real thing in England – was unrelenting. The Premier League had already proved a huge success and its ability to attract new audiences and appeal to new markets around the world was unprecedented. More and more people were taking out satellite TV subscriptions. They wanted to watch the game, read about the game, talk about the game and more importantly they wanted to replicate the game.

And there were thousands of outlets willing to oblige. By 1997, Wainstein had licenced between 2,500 and 3,000 mini leagues around the country, controlling 60% of the UK market. The Telegraph was the first major media outlet to see the game’s potential, launching its own Fantasy Football game in 1993, and competitors soon followed. The Sun Dream Team, The Mirror Fantasy Football and similar games from the Daily Star, Daily Mail and the now defunct News of the World, not forgetting those publications aimed at younger readers like Match and Shoot. If it could be read by fans, then chances were it had a Fantasy Football game.

It was people like David Pugh, marketing director for The Telegraph at the time of the launch who spotted the money-making potential of Fantasy Football, though he admits it was still something of a gamble. “We launched halfway through the season (93/94) and we weren’t sure whether the idea would be a hoola-hoop, lasting just a few weeks, or represent a permanent change for the better. Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter.”

On top of entry fees, newspapers like The Telegraph benefitted from the season-long investment of more than 300,000 players at its launch in 1994, and the boost in sales meant the initial speculation paid off. “It was costing us more than £200,000 a season but that was nothing compared with the benefits from the 50,000 extra readers each Wednesday”, says Pugh.

The marketing opportunities of Fantasy Football were not lost on Chris Jones either, sales and marketing director at News International in the late 90s. “They get readers involved in the game for a long time because of the season, which ties them into reading the paper, unlike most promotions which only draw readers in for one or two weeks.

“The games are fun and only cost around £2 to enter, but they represent a genuine challenge because skill and judgment as well as luck play a part when selecting a team. There is also a prize for most games; in The Sun’s game you can win £100,000, in the News of the World it was £50,000.”

Prizes were – and still are – a huge pull for Fantasy Football players and it became more important for newspapers to entice participants away from competitors with bigger cash sums. But with hundreds and thousands of entrants, not everyone could win. Indeed, the majority were realistic enough to know they didn’t stand a chance of winning, instead opting to simply enjoy Fantasy Football as an extension of the match-going experience.

Which is perhaps why the game also lent itself so successfully to other media forms. While newspapers recognised the potential to increase readerships and gather marketing data, broadcast media were using it in a different way. Dominik Diamond hosted Fantasy Football League on the relatively new Radio 5 (soon to be renamed 5 Live) by the start of the 1993/94 season. Featuring radio mainstay Danny Baker, the show was packed with as much general football chat as Fantasy Football talk. You get the impression the fantasy element was merely an excuse to broadcast a show devoted to discussing Manchester United’s barnstorming run to the 1993/94 title, which saw them 16 points clear by December, and Swindon Town’s inevitable relegation following a run of 15 games without a win.

But the programme didn’t find widespread appeal until January 1994, when it swapped the faceless radio format for the glossy technicolour of BBC Two. The presenting duo of Baddiel and Skinner was a perfect match for the fantasy football TV show. By this point Baddiel had established himself as a big draw in the comedy world as well as appearing in and writing various observational and satirical shows. Skinner himself was a huge billing on the stand-up circuit so it was no surprise that the majority of the show revolved around humour that catered for a growing ‘lad’ culture, propagated by the birth of Sky Sports, Loaded magazine and Britpop.

The show was an undisputed hit, providing match-going fans (and tele-clappers) with their midweek fix. Why wait for the weekend when you can chant “Statto” at a slightly nerdy guy in a dressing gown, applaud (or boo) your favourite sport and entertainment personalities, and watch re-runs of the weekend’s action with the comedy observations of Britain’s new most popular double act?

In the beginning the Fantasy Football element was a significant part of the show. An array of personalities and pundits would pick their fantasy teams at the start of the series and segments were devoted to the players’ progress since the last round of results. Baddiel & Skinner would dissect a goal or two from the weekend’s action, freezing phases of play and adding up the points earned from those players in the celebrities’ teams. They would eventually have them on the show as guests to discuss their choices amid other footy talk, promotional plugs and general goofiness.

But the Fantasy Football was soon watered down to make room for more comedy sketches and guest interviews. ‘Phoenix from the Flames’ became a hugely popular segment (in which Baddiel and Skinner met with former players to recreate notable goals and on-pitch moments, like Gordon Banks’ full-stretch save from Pele in 1970) as did ‘Jeff Astle Sings’ (no explanation needed), and the fantasy element soon disappeared completely by the time Euro ‘96 kicked off. The fact that most people remember the show simply as Fantasy Football is indicative that viewers were tuning in for their dose of weekly humour as opposed to finding out how Sue Johnston’s team was faring in the standings.

Baddiel & Skinner may have turned their back on Fantasy Football in a bid to satisfy an ever-growing TV audience, but Wainstein’s game went from strength to strength. As the 90s drew to a close, the new millennium gave birth to broadband internet connection and together with the introduction of smartphone technology, the conditions for a multimillion-pound industry fell into place.

It’s all a far cry from a twenty-something computer geek running a Fantasy League out of his parent’s loft.

JOE CARROLL - @Joe3Carroll