When this year’s National Football League season kicks off in September, a number of networks and digital players will be betting heavily that greatly improved fantasy football offerings will help them run up some impressive audiences and digital revenue.
Much is at stake in those efforts, which are particularly focused on improved mobile apps, cross-platform features and expanded fantasy football programming. With sports rights already well into stratospheric levels, a passionate fantasy sports fan base has helped create larger audiences for televised sports and digital platforms, executives say.
Overall there are some 56.8 million fantasy sports players in the U.S. and Canada today, double the 28.4 million that played in 2009, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Its research shows that football is by far the most popular fantasy sport, ranking as the favorite among 73% of the players.
“I like to call fantasy sports the greatest second-screen product of all time,” said Marc DeBevoise, executive VP and general manager of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive (CBSi). “We have millions of people coming to the site on a monthly basis and we have millions of people playing fantasy sports on the platform.”
While CBSi is one of the few players focused on subscription products, fantasy players also have a major impact on the digital traffic and advertising that supports most offerings. “About 40% of the people who come to our sites and apps play fantasy sports, but they drive 70% to 80% of the engagement,” DeBevoise said. “Fantasy players view seven times more pages than non-fantasy users and they spend seven times more time using our products. It has a huge benefit for both our subscription and our transaction and ad media businesses.”
Others agree. “Fantasy football is a very important part of our overall digital business,” and for the NFL’s overall popularity, explained Cory Mummery, VP of business services for NFL Media. “If you have a member of your fantasy team playing on Monday night, you might watch a game with two teams you might normally not be interested in. It means they are consuming more content, which is definitely good for the league.”
To build on the recent growth, all the major players are putting much more emphasis on mobile as a way of reaching fans. “Three years ago, mobile was used more as a way to follow your team,” said Mummery. “But in the last 18 months, we’ve seen a large transition of activity from desktop to mobile,” which he adds has helped boost engagement and activity.
Such cross-platform efforts have also moved onto connected TVs, where players can increasingly access fantasy sports apps on the big screen. The NFL’s alliance with Microsoft’s Xbox One game console, for example, allows “players to watch the content we are delivering to the platform at the same time they are following their fantasy match,” Mummery explained. “We are really trying to push the boundaries on connected devices and synching up next-generation stats to improve the viewer experience.”
Meanwhile, companies such as ESPN, CBSi, Yahoo and the NFL that provide fantasy football platforms are also ramping up their programming relating to fantasy sports.
ESPN, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1995 launch of ESPN Fantasy Football, is debuting a new “Fantasy Football Kickoff” episode each Tuesday. Like other players, ESPN has added a number of new features on its app, which has been downloaded more than 16 million times.
While all of this has increased competition, the NFL’s Mummery stressed that the rapid growth in fantasy football has been great news for both the league and the various networks that televise its games. “Our competitors, Yahoo, ESPN and others do a great job of growing the overall fantasy fan base, which we think helps the league as a whole,” he said.