NFL fantasy football goes global from Nigeria to the Philippines

It was 2018 and Jon-T Vergara sat a couple of rows back in a small Manila courtroom the week before Christmas as a hearing proceeded in front of him. Vergara, a litigation attorney who focuses on intellectual property cases, had time before his case, so he opened a fantasy football app on his phone.

Vergara passed time by scrolling through the list of free agents, nabbing New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson, a move that paid off. Anderson scored 20 points, helping Vergara win his league championship by four-tenths of a point.

"Gotta love those fractional points," Vergara said with a smile on a Zoom call from the Philippines.

Fantasy football may be American born, but it's become an international hobby.

Vergara has played fantasy football from the Philippines for the past 18 years, watching the game grow around him. About 40 million people play fantasy football in the United States, according to reports. In India alone, another 20 million play fantasy sports, a number that could increase to 150 million next year, according to Business Wire. Daryl Michael Lim, who plays in the same league as Vergara in the Philippines, estimates the number of Filipinos who play fantasy football is "safely in the thousands."

Although the number of fantasy football players continues to grow around the world, it's still a niche market. Just more than 5% of ESPN's fantasy football players are from outside the United States. Expats, by and large, established the game on foreign soil, and its growth has been driven by the NFL's expanding popularity in other countries.

ESPN talked to fantasy football players in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, South Africa, Germany, the Philippines, Guatemala and Canada to learn about the fantasy football cultures around the world.

Time zone troubles

By and large, playing fantasy football isn't much different elsewhere than in the United States. Leagues hover around 10 teams, commissioners have to decide whether to use PPR or standard scoring, players stress the waiver wire and strategize about where to pick a quarterback or running back compared to a wide receiver. And players pay to play, whether it's in naira, shekels, quid, euros, quetzal or the Philippine peso.

But the time difference can become a nightmare for those playing anywhere from Europe and Africa, to the Middle East or Asia.

In the Philippines, there's a 12-hour time difference ahead of the East Coast of the United States. When the 1 p.m. ET games start, Vergara usually is awake, powering through the 1 a.m. kickoff. He'll wait up to monitor the inactives for the early window of games because they're in by 11:30 p.m. his time and tries to stays awake through the first half of the 4 p.m. games. But if the effort fails, he runs the risk of keeping a player in his lineup who may not play.

"If I'm not up and I don't bench a questionable player, a doubtful player, I'm toast," he said.

It can be utterly frustrating.

"You pull your hair out because you lose sometimes in the head-to-head battle with the guys because you couldn't quickly make a change before the game," said Bryan Nicol, who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, which is six hours ahead of the East Coast.

Lim's current league grew to 20 teams during the pandemic. Most of the managers are from the Philippines, but there's one guy from Los Angeles and one from the Bay Area. If Lim wakes up to use the bathroom around 2 or 3 a.m., he'll find 30 or 40 messages in the league's Facebook Messenger group chat.

"It's all fun," he said. "We talk about fantasy football, we talked about the NBA, MMA, politics, everything. So, it's basically like, really, family. Like, it's fun to have a bunch like that."

Malisa Pfeifer, who lives in Frankfurt, Germany, can watch the first window of games relatively easily because of the six-hour time difference. But she'll go to sleep on Thursday and Monday nights with her fingers crossed because an 8 p.m. ET kickoff means it's 2 a.m. in Germany. That's too late for her so she won't know the outcome until the next day.

In Israel, which is seven hours ahead of the East Coast, David Wiseman, an Australian who moved to Israel in 2005 and started playing fantasy football about seven years later, refuses to check on his team before going to bed on Sundays. In countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, the workweek starts on Sundays, keeping football fans behind their desks or being responsible with their sleep schedule when games are being played. Wiseman, who plays in a 12-team league with a majority being American, knows he can't control what's happening with his team at that point, so he'd rather get a good night's sleep than toss and turn while his fantasy outcome racks his brain overnight.

"If I'm ahead, then I'll be nervous, like 'What's the lead?' I'll be nervous about that," Wiseman said. "And if he's ahead, then I'm like, 'I don't want to know about it.' So, now I'll wake up Monday morning, I just have a look at it without worrying, like riding every pass, every run."

For some international fantasy football players who are in multiple leagues, which seems to be the norm, with players from around the globe, the time changes can drive them mad.

Chuma Onwuka, a native Nigerian who has lived in London but now lives in Saudi Arabia, played in four or five leagues in 2020 -- he can't remember at this point -- with players from Nigeria, England and the United States. He was constantly checking his watch to see what time it was where.

Living in Saudi Arabia gave him an upper hand by a couple hours because he is seven hours ahead of the East Coast while England and Nigeria are just five. Those two hours can come in handy.

"When these guys are sleeping and I hear about some news, if there's free agency, waiver wires, I start getting on there before these guys wake up," he said. "Which is pretty good for me."

The drafts were a nightmare Onwuka said, because the commissioners ran them on whatever time they lived in. He's dropping down to two or three leagues this year to make it easier to handle.

"What tends to happen on draft night is the London guys tend to meet super late at night because they always meet up at a pub or like they're doing a late-night drinks thing," Onwuka said. "So, it ends up being like super late at night their time which is super early in the morning my time and even the Nigeria guys, the same thing.

"So I end up staying up early into the morning for draft night yeah, for sure. You can't avoid it."

Taste of the world

It takes Steve Janikowski about five minutes to walk from his apartment in Cologne, Germany, to Weinhaus Vogel, a 123-year-old pub in the center of the city. Last August, as the ebb and flow of the pandemic trended downward in Europe, Janikowski and eight of the other people in his fantasy football league found a large table in the outdoor beer garden and settled in. They had their draft kits laid out in front of them and their traveling trophy on display for everyone to see.

Four hours of drafting was ahead of them.

"The draft is one of the most beautiful days in the whole year, I guess for me," he said.

But first it was time to eat. And drink. A lot.

Like almost every other fantasy football draft that's held in person, food and drinks are as integral as cheat sheets and laptops. That night in Cologne, Janikowski's table drank Kolsch style beer out of small glasses -- a lot of it, he said.

"The most important part is the beer," Janikowski said. "In Cologne, we have our own beer. It's a Kolsch. Those glasses are pretty small. So, we drink several of them but it's very refreshing and you don't get too hammered."

They eat "typical pub grub," said Pfeifer, who's in the same league as Janikowski. That means schnitzel, sausage, Mett -- minced raw pork on half a bun with onions, sauce and pepper on top -- fries and maybe a salad for a side dish.

Local delicacies show up at in-person drafts around the world, such as suya in Nigeria, a thin strip of beef that's grilled and folded onto a stick like a kabob and wrapped in newspaper.

However, among the fantasy football players whom ESPN talked to from around the world, the most common food at their draft parties was as American as fantasy football: wings.

Sometimes, the sauces are traditional American, like buffalo or barbecue. Sometimes, they're not.

In Nigeria, buffalo sauce is too expensive to import, Bimbo Bankole said, but mayonnaise and ketchup are two popular ways to dress wings, along with a seasoning mix of curry, pepper and garlic.

Chicken is the easiest food to order in Lagos, Bankole said, making it the most popular option for drafts.

In Guatemala, Jose Andres Ardon picked up wings from Pollo Campero, a chain that began in Guatemala in 1971 and has expanded into the United States.

Local beers usually also reign supreme, such as San Miguel in the Philippines, which goes for about a $1 a bottle; Gallo in Guatemala; or Star in Nigeria. Bankole usually offers Heineken to the non-Nigerians at his draft parties -- a safe choice for those from other countries.

Wherever the draft party is and whatever they're serving, they seem to be growing across the globe. In Canada, Paul Guilbeault thinks fantasy football for the NFL is "more prominent than you think" and said it dominates the Canadian sports conversation until about October, when hockey starts.

When Vergara started playing fantasy football in 2003, he estimated his league was an 80-20 split of expats and Filipinos. Now it's more like a 50-50 split, with more people who had no prior connection to the game getting involved.

"These past few past few years, that's actually caught me off guard," Vergara said. "I've been in a keeper league for around 10 years now and most of the guys there are local Filipinos. Now they're expats in another country somewhere, living in the States, but almost none of them have any actual playing experience or are just fans of the game, and they all started here in the Philippines."