Culturematics are little ideas, manageable, vivid, thought-provoking, and actual. They are cheap, cheerful, and multiple. We fire them into the universe to see what phones home. A Culturematic is a probe of the possible. It’s a way to investigate the future. Culturematics are what happens when creativity escapes the R&D lab, university management, elite scrutiny, and government control. Culturematics are the forge on which a distributed, decentralized culture will make its own culture. One of them, anyhow.
Fantasy football now entertains 27 million people. They play this game an average of nine hours a week. The fantasy football industry is valued at around $800 million a year.
The game was invented by Wilfred Winkenbach, Bill Tunnel, and Scotty Starling in a Manhattan hotel room in the early 1960s, before the Internet existed. The idea was simple. Take the numbers generated by a professional sport, and use them to create outcomes in a fantasy league.
Professional football was throwing off a lot of numbers. At the end of any given Sunday, it was possible to determine not just the points scored by every team, but the yards gained by every running back, the number of interceptions made by every cornerback, the number of sacks recorded by every defensive end.
In American sports, almost everything gets counted. For most of us, these numbers are a record of events past; they tell us what happened as National Football League teams battle their way through a season. But for Winkenbach, Tunnel, and Starling, these numbers were not backward-looking. Potentially, they generated new events taking place in a new league. You could actually make this data the stuff of a new reality. Last week’s exertions and heroics on the field were creating the foundation of an alternate world in the ether.
It’s like the “discovery” of pineapple juice. There was a time when juice was treated as an extraneous accident of the canning process. Once the meat of the pineapple was in the can, the juice was thrown away. It was left to an outsider to say, “Could I have that, please?” Mixed cocktails and the International House of Pancakes would never be the same. The NFL was producing numbers with extraordinary but hidden value. Until Winkenbach and company came along, these numbers were being thrown away.
The economics are astounding. Winkenbach found a way to fund a new universe of professional sports for pennies on the dollar. The McCaskey family spends a couple hundred million dollars to put its team, the Chicago Bears, on Soldier Field every year. Winkenbach created his universe for whatever it cost to gather, store, program, and deliver the data. Compared to the physical world, the economic ratio was extraordinary, perhaps one fantasy dollar to $1 million in NFL currency. Or put it this way: The whole of a fantasy football league costs less to operate than the minimum salary of a single NFL player ($375,000).
Of course, Winkenbach was “exploiting” someone else’s resources for his own purposes and profit. But that’s the point of a Culturematic. He had found a way to extract new value from the existing world.
Like any Culturematic, fantasy football had no guarantee of success. If it was going to work, it would have to speak to the American sports fan. All Culturematics must satisfy this condition. They must speak to something in our culture. Fantasy football proved to be an excellent way of engaging the new breed of sports consumer.
Fans were getting smarter. Many of them had played the game at some level. Still more had been raised in a family that took the game seriously. Millions were listening to learned commentary on ESPN. This knowledge went deep. Many fans could describe the defensive formations that would work against Peyton Manning versus the ones that would work (God willing) against Michael Vick. Fans with this much knowledge were no longer satisfied with just sitting in the stands or arguing at barbecues. (Even painting their faces purple and putting on Viking horns wasn’t enough.) People with this much knowledge wanted more involvement. Fantasy football let them into the game.
Beneath the smarter fan was a still deeper trend. Americans as a group were moving from a passive, lean-back posture—couch potatoes waiting to be entertained—to something more active and engaged. In football, in sports, in popular culture, and in just about every other domain, Americans wanted more traction.
But for the three guys sitting in a New York hotel room, fantasy sport was merely a probe of the possible. At that moment, fantasy football was a will-o’-the-wisp, one of the millions of stray fancies that flow through American heads on any given day. Most of these ideas keep moving, passing back out to the sea marked as “Here Lie Wild Beasts” and, in some circles, “Don’t even think about it.”
A few of these ideas survive long enough to get a hearing. But not much of a hearing. Friends can be relied upon to offer discouragement, as in “Winkenbach, you are such a loser. You can’t win betting on real football, so you make up fantasy sports. In your dreams!” But some ideas survive the first cut. If they resonate with the culture, they can hope for wider adoption, and if they really speak to something in our culture, they scale up until they attract one in 12 Americans. That’s how many now play fantasy football. Culturematics are not expected to take the world by storm. But sometimes they do.