Since its rise in the Nineties, fantasy football has grown into an $11 billion industry — completely altering how fans watch the game. From the Red Zone channel to ESPN’s extensive fantasy coverage, fans are obsessively tracking player stats to get an edge in their office-pool leagues. Alongside the ascent of fantasy — a stats-heavy game that rewards big offensive numbers — the NFL has noticeably changed its rules to become a passing league: The past five seasons have been the most prolific passing years on record.
Which begs a question: Is fantasy running the NFL these days?
“I don’t think that you can sit in the competition committee meeting with Jeff Fisher, Bill Belichick or whoever and tell them to change the rules to enhance fantasy football,” says former quarterback and current CBS game-day analyst Boomer Esiason. “But I think it’s an unintended consequence that the rule changes have impacted the advent of fantasy football — no question.”
Nathan Zegura, a former McKinsey consultant who became a pro fantasy expert and now works for the Cleveland Browns, agrees. “The rule changes have been very much pro-offense, so maybe on a subconscious level, fantasy has impacted the game,” he says. “It’s just hard to separate that from the fact that people like watching offensive football games.”
Regardless, Zegura has seen firsthand that fantasy has changed how teams evaluate players: “Some of the stats you see — like yards per target and air yards per pass — were developed for fantasy. And they’re now being used to help judge prospective free agents.”