Nothing Fake About The Business Of Fantasy Football
By Tim Richardson
It's that time of year. Players are pulling out their jerseys, reviewing their performances from last year and putting in the prep work for another season. … But this is not the schedule of an NFL player at training camp. Instead, this is the checklist for the millions of Americans participating in fantasy football leagues.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, the average fantasy sports enthusiast is 41 years old, college educated and earns more than $50,000 a year. The FSTA estimated that 36 million people in the United States and Canada played fantasy sports in 2011, up 13 percent from the previous year. Football is the most dominant category, as it captures 75 percent of those playing fantasy sports. The fantasy football category generated approximately $1 billion in spending last season, according to the FSTA.
The FSTA was founded during the late 1990s to provide a forum for interaction among hundreds of existing and emerging companies in the fantasy sports industry. The association services fantasy sports-based companies of varying sizes, while also providing guidance to investors, advertisers and sponsors looking for opportunities in the growing world of fantasy sports. According to its Web site, FSTA represents more than 120 member companies in 2012 and states that its research defines the fantasy sports market size in America at 35 million adults.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the origin of fantasy football can be traced to a bar in Oakland, Calif. "Ground Zero," formerly known as Kings X, introduced the game to its patrons in 1969 as a hobby. More than four decades later, numerous online properties -- including ESPN.com, Yahoo.com, CBSSports.com and even NFL.com -- provide leagues. The convenience created for players through these online vehicles has been credited with helping spawn the massive growth of fantasy football. Sirius/XM Satellite Radio even has a fantasy sports channel dedicated solely to the industry.
The Internet makes it easier to track statistics the players compile in actual NFL games. The concept is simple. Fantasy football players "own" teams of actual NFL players and compete weekly against other owners in leagues, with points awarded based on the real players' performances. A typical starting fantasy football lineup consists of a quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, kicker and defense/special teams. Most fantasy leagues run from Week One to Week 14 of the 17-week NFL regular season, with the 15th and 16th weeks designated as playoff rounds. Traditionally, the final week of the NFL season is not used, because many of the best teams rest players in preparation for the real NFL postseason.
Leo Whitehouse of Baltimore has been competing in fantasy leagues for nearly a decade and said he participated in 4-5 leagues each season. He is the reigning champion in two football leagues, and also plays in multiple fantasy baseball leagues. Whitehouse said fantasy football had evolved from a hobby to an obsession, as it has for many others.
"It's amazing how engrossed I have become with fantasy sports, especially football," Whitehouse said. "I buy the fantasy draft books, search the Internet for player rankings, follow injury reports online, watch the fantasy TV shows. … It's insane."
Whitehouse said it had even changed the way he watches NFL games.
"My Sundays have almost become work days," he said. "I open my laptop as soon as I wake up to see if there is any breaking player news involving either my team or the guy I'm playing. I will go back and forth on roster moves, and then follow live stats online once the games start so I can track my individual players while I watch the Ravens' game on TV. Games that I wouldn't normally care about now mean something, because I have a fantasy stake in the action."
Fantasy diehards like Whitehouse have the NFL seeing dollar signs.
"Users are often fans of one team," Cory Mummery, senior director of fantasy football and digital product for the NFL, told CNBC, "and maybe they are more casual, but as soon as they start playing fantasy football, we find they become more attached to the league as a whole."
Although the NFL does not release how many users participate in the fantasy leagues at NFL.com, the league disclosed that there was a 50 percent increase in players in 2011, compared with the number of participants in 2010. That interest leads to fantasy players purchasing merchandise of their favorite players. A Ravens NFL replica jersey at NFL.com averages about $100 apiece. For the fiscal year ending Feb. 1, 2011, the NFL reported total sales of league-licensed merchandise in excess of $2 billion.
The optimal goal for online fantasy leagues, as cited by CNBC, is for fantasy players to return to the fantasy site to view other pages that contain fantasy blogs, polls and analyses. According to data the NFL provided, fantasy users make 28 page views per visit, four times more than non-fantasy visitors. They also return twice as often and stay six times longer.
Users between ages 13 and 29 account for 54 percent of registered fantasy players on NFL.com. Like most sites, fans can play in NFL.com leagues for free, which helps attract a larger consumer market and generates revenue opportunities for sites via advertising dollars.
Fans aren't the only ones with an interest in fantasy football. A number of NFL players also have teams, and Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings told attendees of a panel discussion at SXSW Interactive earlier this year that players were aware of how their performances impact the fantasy world.
"When a player says it doesn't really bother them, they're lying," Jennings told Jeff Bercovici of Forbes.com. "That's the politically correct answer. As players, it puts pressure on us to make sure we're the liked player in that category. It plays with your mind."
Jennings said fans even yelled at players during NFL games if they were not having a productive fantasy season.
The popularity of fantasy football has also had an impact on network programming. Four years ago, FX launched "The League," a show that profiles a group of old friends in a fantasy football league. The Hollywood Reporter said producers had rushed season one into production because they were concerned that someone else would capitalize on the popularity of fantasy football by creating a show about the phenomenon.
According to TVnumbers.com, which tracks developments and ratings in the television industry, "The League" averaged series-high ratings in 2011. On a first-run basis, the show averaged 1.7 million total viewers and 1.5 million adults in the18-49 demographic, up 25 percent and 32 percent, respectively from the previous season.
"It's a little embarrassing when I think about how much my life revolves around fantasy football," Whitehouse said.
Posted Aug. 9, 2012