MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The fantasy football playoffs are in full swing, part of those cultural touchstones that most sports fans take part in like the Super Bowl and March Madness.
Whether or not your team is still alive, the reason you’re playing at all is largely because of two Minnesota men you’ve probably never heard of.
In the basement of his duplex in Maplewood, Cliff Charpentier is literally digging through the past.
“In the early days of fantasy football — the 80s, way before the internet, when there were maybe one-fiftieth of the number of players there are now — there was almost nothing published about fantasy football. There was nothing on TV, there was nothing on radio. And if you wanted any kind of advice on fantasy football, the only place to go to was Cliff Charpentier’s digest,” Paul Charchian said. “For those of us who were playing back then, it’s hard to overstate just how important that one book was.”
Charchian is the president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and a lifelong Minnesotan. That means he had a front-row seat back in the beginning, when Minnesota was the Mecca of fantasy football.
And Cliff Charpentier and Tom Kane were the kings.
“Those guys were absolute pioneers,” Charchian said. “They deserve a lot of credit for helping popularize fantasy sports.”
That reputation comes with a catch: 98 percent of people playing today have never heard of them because, as Charchian said, almost all fantasy players got into fantasy sports within the last decade.
“I presented it to him, as I think this is going to fly. This is going to be big. I’m telling you, we’re at the forefront of something,” Charpentier said.
He was the writer; Kane was the business guy. Old school buddies from St. Paul Johnson Senior High, they had an idea to put out a book detailing all the fantasy football advice you could want, to make the game more accessible.
“I’m going to rate all the players for you … make it so easy so the average NFL fan could play,” Charpentier said. “We took away the work for you.”
Nobody else was doing it at the time.
“Our primary purpose was to prepare people to get through their draft,” Kane said.
Working out of Charpentier’s mother’s basement, they put their first one out in 1984, self-published.
“The first year in the Twin Cities we sold 3,000 books, and we knew we were on to something,” Charpentier said.
Then came a call from a prominent publisher, and before long, Fantasy Football Digest was a national sensation, something USA Today has called the Bible of fantasy football.
Their book made it so easy to play, participation soared. After the book came magazines, launching in 1997. They added subscription newsletters, cheat sheets, a telephone hotline and fax machine updates.
“We are showing our age here,” Charpentier said.
“The fax machine was very lucrative. It was very lucrative,” Kane added.
But as technology continued to evolve, so did the challenges — and the challengers. In 2003, they put out their last issues and called it quits. The age of the internet had fully arrived.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” Kane said.
To compete with free, they were faced with a choice: change their entire business model or get out. So they got out. Neither has played fantasy football since.
“It burned us out,” Charpentier said. “I just can’t play ever again.”
But the legacy they left behind — putting fantasy football on the map, and the map being in Minnesota — is something people might not know.
“It was fun to promote the game,” Kane said.
The number of people playing fantasy football went from a few hundred thousand when they started to 5 to 7 million when they finished. It’s now around 60 million, nationwide.