When fantasy football started exploding in the early-1990s, the NFL wanted nothing to do with it. At the time, it was viewed as gambling. Given the NFL's tawdry past with the darker side of the gambling community – point spreads are there for a reason – fantasy football was viewed as a demon, not an ally.
When television technology redefined the prerequisite for being a "big screen" TV, the "big event" of being inside a stadium wasn't nearly as important. Technology, combined with the mass appeal of fantasy football, has merged to make the NFL rethink its approach to presenting its product. It has become a sport that some fans prefer to watch from the comfort of their own homes rather than attend.
Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf appeared on ProFootballTalk's "PFT Live" program Wednesday. When asked about having a unique stadium design, Wilf was hit with a series of aesthetic questions by Florio that ranged from the Metrodome roof collapse to heating and cooling issues. But when the line of questioning got around to whether the new Vikings stadium was going to become the norm in the future – Dallas raised the bar absurdly high – Wilf was quick to get on point for the stadium message.
"We hope so," Wilf said. "That's the goal here. You can put San Francisco (which was awarded Super Bowl L) into that mix. I know that they are on the cutting edge on a lot of technological fronts. Hopefully, each generation of stadiums and, year by year, we're all going to learn from each other."
Where the fantasy football impact came in was when Wilf elaborated on his point. It would seem he was giving a glimpse behind the NFL curtain – sellout streaks aren't as automatic as they used to be (another topic for another day). The quality of the at-home product, in many ways, is superior to the in-stadium product, especially at the Metrodome. Stadiums are now Wi-Fi accessible – not because fans want to alter their Facebook status, but because they can't keep up with their fantasy teams. Wilf confessed that the in-stadium fan experience is being challenged by the couch-and-Doritos crowd has.
"We have hi-definition television – a lot of experiences the fans have," Wilf said. "We want to make the in-stadium experience something that people want to come to. We have to be cutting edge and we have to be out there to make sure people come with their families and experience the game in a unique way, where they can follow their fantasy football or watch the (NFL Network) Red Zone (channel) from their seats or other ways to make it visually to be in a place that is unique and special."
There was a time when the NFL hated fantasy football and hi-def TV was in its genesis stage. The two have combined to make a corporate giant like the NFL bow its head in deference and admit that they are the new co-partners with the product being presented. Future stadiums will be running off the Dallas-San Francisco-Minnesota footprint.
The NFL is king for a reason – it identifies the enemies to its product and either eliminates them or embraces them. The league website has a fantasy section – less than 20 years removed from viewing fantasy football as "the McCoys." Technology has made big screen the norm and massive screens the envy. The televised NFL product has become so good that it has threatened the live gate receipts. Blackouts don't have the same impact.
Wilf seemed like a Joe Frazier-style counterpuncher in his PFT interview. But when he was throwing honest left hooks, he let other owners know that the league marching orders of aesthetics and fan-accessibility are critical to the NFL riding the business end of the wave when it comes to stadium construction. San Francisco got Super Bowl L. Minnesota will get one. The price of poker has gone up, but the players at the final table have changed.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.