How to Have a Good Idea

A unified theory of fantasy football; Eat, Pray, Love; and Burning Man.

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

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.

Reality TV

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  • Enough About Palin||

    RELEASE THE MCCRACKEN!!!

  • D.D. Driver||

    Unfortunately, Grant is still living in the shadow of his brother Phil.

  • Voros McCracken||

    When I heard that joke for the first time in 6th grade about 30 years ago it was a laff riot.

    One time when I heard it from some knucklehead in a bar, I told him a long story about the Irish martyr Henry Joy McCracken and how my family's name was a proud reminder of the long struggle for Irish freedom and how none of us are willing to just sit still and let someone treat it as some kind of joke.

    I'd try and act like I was getting more and more upset as I'd go through this until at the end when I'd suddenly smile and shrug my shoulders.

  • Marshall Gill||

    If I just get high, then I will have some good ideas.

    What was the question?

  • CE||

    People with this much knowledge wanted more involvement. Fantasy football let them into the game.

    My experience with fantasy sports is exactly the opposite. The people who play fantasy sports are the least knowledgeable and the least interested in the outcomes of the games. They want something to make the games more interesting. Juggling the stats and the lineups becomes its own game for the nerdy, most of whom certainly did not play the game.

    They do, of course, pick up some knowledge of the actual sport while playing the fantasy version, but only so far as it improves their fantasy team -- they know the backup running backs and quarterbacks on every team in the league, but don't really know many of the plays those players run.

  • iggy||

    I haven't seen this. I play fantasy football and my buddies are all incredibly knowledgeable. I do agree that so many people play fantasy sports that some of them have to know nothing about the game, but that's probably a minority.

  • CE||

    Oh, there's plenty of people playing fantasy sports who know the sport very well, but the fantasy sports universe, especially fantasy football, brings in people beyond the core fans.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "The people who play fantasy sports are the least knowledgeable and the least interested in the outcomes of the games."

    Least knowledgeable about certain aspects of the game--probably.

    Fantasy players know a lot about offensive players. They know a lot about who his backup is, too. Fantasy football players in Seattle know who the Michael Turner's backup is. Old school fans didn't know that.

    So, I wouldn't say they're the least knowledgeable; I'd say they're typically not as knowledgeable as fans used to be about things like formations, defense, and who's playing gunner on special teams of their hometown team.

    They don't know as much about the game, and their hometown team as the old school guys, but they know more about offensive players all around the league.

  • Delroy||

    If you want to see how Morgan Spurlock lied in his "Supersize Me" movie, watch the movie "Fat Head" by Tom Naughton. I think it's available on Netflix.

  • Disgusted Dem||

    I had the same negative reaction to Spurlock in this article. I've not seen the movie you mentioned Delroy. But I assume it covers the assertion from nutritionists that Spurlock had to have eaten twice the amount of food he claimed.

  • juris imprudent||

    Within a couple of years, Web 2.0 was coin of the realm, the term you could use in a meeting to a chorus of nodding heads.

    Holy vapid corporate anthropologic bullshit Batman. This is approaching Thomas Friedman metaphor abuse.

    Speaking of another self-proclaimed deep-thinker, the fail in this is just spectacular.

  • Sevo||

    "This is an abysmal failure of free market forces to converge the end price with the cost of production."

    I don't think this person has even the slightest familiarity with the terms s/he is using.

  • juris imprudent||

    Aside from the abysmal ignorance of economics, consider that the dweeb can't even distinguish between a simple point to point communications link versus a cellular mesh.

  • joey89924||

    They want something to make the games more interesting.
    L7805CV

  • anon||

    Culturematic

    I know made up bullshit terms when I see them, sir.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The other thing fantasy football freed us from was the tyranny of Monday Night Football.

    It used to be that if your hometown team wasn't playing on Monday night, then Monday night football didn't really matter to you.

    When you're in a fantasy league, the chances of someone playing on Monday night either being on your fantasy team or on your opponent's fantasy team are very high. As a fantasy player, you end up watching and being interested in games you wouldn't care about otherwise.

    As a Redskins fan, I wouldn't give a damn, normally, about Kansas City playing Tennessee. But since I have Jamaal Charles on my fantasy team, and my opponent is playing Chris Johnson, I care very much about watching the Chiefs play Tennessee.

    So, playing fantasy football frees me from the tyranny of the programmers, who decide which games are on regular TV. It's hard for a fantasy football player to find a game with no fantasy relevance whatsoever. But before I started playing fantasy, I didn't give a damn about three-fourths of the games on TV.

    In fact, fantasy has created a market for satellite television where there was none before. Before fantasy, there wasn't a market for people who wanted to be able to watch every single game being played every week--because people only cared about their own home teams.

    Subscription satellite TV is now a huge business. Sports bars where you watch the games you want are likewise a huge industry.

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