While football, at all levels, is too far entrenched in the culture of American sports for anyone to reasonably isolate individual causes for the NFL’s astronomical growth, it’s no secret that fantasy football has been instrumental in turning casual fans into avid ones – and moreover, avid fans into rabid ones.
More than 33 million men and women participated in fantasy football leagues this past NFL season alone. And while some of them stopped caring after week two, and probably attempted to dodge ever paying their league commissioner – you know the type – almost all of them became actively interested in a whole new roster of players, spread across the NFC and AFC. That’s the beauty of fantasy football, and fantasy sports in general. Plenty of us grew up watching only local market games and marquee weekly match-ups. Aside from my hometown Lions, there’d only be a game or two a week that I’d have my eye on. With the advent of the 24-hour sports news cycle, NFL Red Zone and fantasy football – each reliant on the other to succeed in some way – fans are now hungry for content and coverage from all corners of the league.
How can this same winning formula be transferred to other sports? After an exciting World Cup that ignited a passion in Americans for the beautiful game, is the answer to sustained growth of a sport in building out an exciting fantasy game model? It might be.
From a marketer’s perspective, fantasy football is a dream. There’ve been those in our industry who have expressed doubts over inflated estimations of the value of fantasy football, which can sometimes reach the billions, but there’s no denying how much value is created by a league-branded vehicle that works around the clock to familiarize fans with teams, players and yes – title sponsors. As sports fans, we’ve become invested in the personal success of players two and three slots down the depth chart on losing teams.
Having one of your marquee running backs or wide receivers active is a perfectly good excuse to watch the fourth quarter of a four-touchdown blowout. We’re more interested than ever in the 31 teams that we don’t call our own. All of these things are good for the game, good for ratings, great for sponsors. As for the football players themselves, it probably depends on who you ask.
All of this, then, is in sharp contrast with what’s going on in fantasy sports in the “other kind of football.” While 2.5 million people worldwide registered to play fantasy soccer through the English Premier League’s fantasy.premierleague.com, just over 30,000 people are currently playing Major League Soccer’s official fantasy soccer game online. ESPN offers a game as well, but no numbers as far as participation are made available.
Fantasy soccer operates much differently from fantasy football; you work against a salary cap as a rule – and players may be active on more than one league roster at a time. Because games are played with a more fluid schedule, and because of that schedule, fantasy soccer players focus on putting together the best possible “dream team” each week; it’s not about being the better team head-to-head. On top of that, the scoring system is slightly harder to understand – especially in real-time. Whether or not these differences downgrade the player’s fantasy sports experience is really a matter of preference, but I’ll go as far as to say they’re prohibiting fantasy soccer’s growth in America.
Why should fantasy soccer be a focus for growing the sport? The answer is simple, and is the same as it was for fantasy football: creating league-wide fans. Fantasy sports have the power of building fans’ knowledge and interest in teams outside of their regional alliance. Whether it is for soccer stateside, the Premier League or another league, the more knowledge the fantasy player has about the league’s players and the game, the better.
Fantasy soccer is a way of involving casual fans with the sport and turning them into fans that crave knowledge – of players, teams and leagues. Bending some of the best-loved parts of fantasy football – the draft, head-to-head matchups, trades and the waiver wire – to make them work in a similar way within the framework of soccer may not be the easiest thing, but it will go a long way towards helping casual fans get into the game as a whole.
Five years ago, folks started making claims that fantasy football was boosting the NFL ratings. At the time, these claims were greeted with light skepticism. Now, it has become perfectly clear – the games, whether fantasy or video, surrounding the game have tremendous power in creating and sustaining fans. Not only are these avenues where fans can compete amongst one another, these are the gateways to creating die-hard league fans. The interest is flowing upstream now – from the simulation to the product it’s simulating – and every league concerned with the growth of its game, had better make fantasy a reality with the quality of its game’s games.