In the early '90s, fantasy football was the equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons -- an addictive but not-so-cool hobby you didn't discuss in public, enjoyed mostly by those with a passion for sports and keeping track of statistics using paper, pencil and calculator. Two decades later, high-speed internet and easy to use apps have made it an extremely popular blood sport with bragging rights. This year, 25.8 million people will play, according to market research firm Ipsos, and generate $1.1 billion in revenue.
So it's no surprise that marketers and media outlets continue to invest in it. Volkswagen and Snickers now commit as much as $3 million in fantasy football sponsorships with ESPN, CBS, the NFL or Yahoo, which together comprise 76% of the fantasy market, according to Ipsos.
"Our dream user that we talk about is, we get an 18-year-old kid going into college, get nine of his friends to play fantasy football, and we have them for the next 30 years," said John Diver, ESPN's senior director of product development. And, of course, they spend a lot of time reading and watching sports news to get the latest updates on players.
The typical fantasy player is in a demographic that makes marketers salivate: a college-educated professional, often a male, in his 30s or 40s with an average household income over $90,000, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. He also has disposable income; of the 49% of fantasy users who pay to play, most spend an average of $468 on league fees, subscription advice sites and analytics apps.
"Part of it is the excellent mousetrap for the game," said Tom Brady, VP of content for the NFL Media Group, whose 2013 fantasy sponsors include Verizon, Snickers and Dodge.
"People want to come," Mr. Brady added. "They're making adds, drops, trades or any sort of transaction with the game. Sponsors and advertisers and marketers, they realize that. They've seen the voracious appetite that fans have for any and all things fantasy. That means they're spending that much time with the NFL, and if a sponsor can be tied to that, all the better."
Marketers do their homework before linking their brand to a fantasy enterprise. CBS's platform theoretically attracts a more invested fan, the company said, because its leagues cost $180 to join. The NFL offers both free and pay-to-play versions and is the sole provider of video, delivering a more satisfied fan to sponsors, Mr. Brady said. ESPN hangs its hat on unrivaled analysis and advice.
But sponsors say fantasy can be a double-edged sword: Fans are engaged in the game, not the ads surrounding it, forcing marketers to speak their language or lose them.
"When you go on a site on a frequent basis and you continue to see the same piece of advertising, especially when you consider over a four-month period of a football season, you can very easily begin to tune these things out," said Jeff Sayen, advertising manager at VW, which signed a three-year fantasy sponsorship with CBS in 2011.
This season, VW will introduce the Coach's Corner: Fantasy users can compete with CBS Sports personalities to see whose team does better, and the CBS personality will then heckle or praise his opponent with a custom video response embedded in a VW banner.
Marketers also want to dig into the mobile side, where 25% of fantasy players access the game. CBS's redesigned fantasy app saw usage increase 133% in July versus a year ago, and ESPN said the rise of the smart phone has refocused the company on building out its apps. Predictive fantasy tools in particular are surging in popularity as the core demographic, people who deal with data every day in their careers, want to dig deeper and do their own analyses, said Diane Bloodworth, CEO of Competitive Sports Analysis, which has a predictive fantasy app in CBS's store.
"Fantasy fans want and are looking for more fantasy information than any other NFL user," said the NFL's Mr. Brady. "Let's give it to them. Let's feed the beast."