With a week of college games on the books and a new NFL season set to kick off Thursday night, an upstart category is pouring tens of millions of dollars into televised football.
According to iSpot.tv estimates, the Boston-based fantasy sports site DraftKings.com in the past week alone plunked down $7.97 million for inventory in and around college football games on ESPN and the Big Four broadcasters, as well as on cable outlets including FS1, NBCSN and CBS Sports Network. When surrounding programming, news/studio shows ("SportsCenter," "Fox Sports Live," et al) and general-entertainment fare are tossed into the mix, DraftKings' overall TV spend between Sept. 3 and Sept. 9 was a tidy $21.3 million.
Network sales execs who have the luxury of moving a lot of sports inventory say the emergence of the relatively new fantasy wagering category has been nothing short of a godsend. "It's money that only a few years ago didn't exist," said one ad sales chief, who acknowledged that the coziness of fantasy and football ratings wasn't exactly lost on him. "Fantasy in many ways may be responsible for keeping the interest in the NFL at these historic levels -- you have guys who obsessively track their fantasy rosters and so are consuming more content than ever before -- and at the same time, it's bringing in a lot of money on my end. … It's got a lot of juice."
Unsurprisingly, ESPN accounted for the lion's share of the DraftKings spend, laying claim to 45% of the seven-day outlay. And the relationship between the Disney-owned sports colossus and the wagering widget will only get cozier; per an agreement hashed out earlier this year, DraftKings in 2016 will become the exclusive fantasy sports site on ESPN, its sibling networks and all associated digital platforms, effectively shutting out rival FanDuel.
Even a casual fan of college football would have noticed the sheer volume of DraftKings spots, which seemed to pop up at least once per quarter in every nationally televised game. ESPN's Monday night Ohio State-West Virginia telecast featured no fewer than seven DraftKings ads, all of which focused on a pair of Patriots fans hoisting an oversized novelty check for $1 million. In a rare show of restraint, the Dropkick Murphys anthem "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" does not appear on the soundtrack.
But DraftKings wasn't limited to ESPN games. For example, the brand popped up seven times during Fox's Saturday afternoon Virginia-UCLA game, appeared five times during Norte Dame's blowout of Texas on NBC, and made a single cameo in CBS's Chick-fil-A Kickoff game (Auburn vs. Louisville).
At the same time, FanDuel was keeping itself busy, showing up four times in the Fox game, thrice during the NBC broadcast and another three times during FS1's Sept. 3 Michigan-Utah skirmish. (DraftKings sat that one out.)
FanDuel was a bit more reserved than DraftKings, spending $7.33 million on broadcast and cable inventory from Sept. 3 to Sept. 9, of which some 36%, or $2.61 million, was earmarked for college football games. Together, the two fantasy properties over the past seven days have pumped $28.6 million into the TV ecosystem.
With more than four months of college and pro football on the horizon, that early investment is expected to increase dramatically. Per iSpot estimates, DraftKings last season ponied up $32.8 million for TV time, with much of those dollars landing at ESPN, NFL Network and Fox. FanDuel in the same period sunk $46.8 million into TV, with ESPN, Comedy Central and CBS claiming the biggest chunk of the pie.
In fact, some insiders are confident that this year's fantasy spend will far out-strip those year-ago estimates, with DraftKings and FanDuel's combined NFL commitments for this coming season expected to approach the $200 million mark. All told, the two brands are likely to more than double their overall football investments.