As the National Football League prepares for its regular-season kickoff on Sept. 8, more than 30 million consumers and a raft of major marketers are quickly gearing up for the game based on the game: fantasy football.
Fantasy players and brands had both been waiting to see what happened with the nearly five-month lockout. Its sudden conclusion in late July unleashed a free-agent frenzy among teams and players without binding contracts, but also unleashed advertisers from Volkswagen and Toyota to Subway and Pizza Hut to fill the digital ad space on CBSSports.com, ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports, the three major online players in fantasy football.
Other fantasy football sponsors this season include Sprint, Geico, Dodge, Corona, GMC, Miller, FedEx and Snickers.
It took less than two weeks for CBS and Yahoo Sports to sell all the online ad inventory around their fantasy football properties. According to buyers and industry executives, fantasy sponsorships typically range from the high six figures up to $3 million for presenting sponsors.
Consumers flooded back as well: Yahoo Sports has seen a 15% increase in player sign-ups for its main fantasy football game.
"When the lockout ended, there was a tremendous rush into football," said Ken Fuchs, VP of Yahoo Media Network. "As soon as football was back on, we had four straight days of six-figure registration, which had never happened before. It was an intense period of activity."
More than 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada play fantasy football, in which consumers play in leagues with around 6 to 16 other players, all of whom select real NFL players for their fantasy teams and accumulate points based on those real players' on-field accomplishments.
Fantasy players wage battles each week over the course of a season, with top performers winning cash -- usually a percentage of the buy-in fee for the first, second and third highest scorers.
Consumers already shell out an estimated $1 billion per season for fantasy football fees, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Throw in ancillary spending -- on everything from the myriad fantasy-football magazines and draft guides, to purchasing DirecTV's Sunday Ticket package that includes the ability to watch multiple games at once to track fantasy players, to draft-night parties, some of which involve trips to Las Vegas or renting out bars and restaurants -- and that $1 billion figure grows significantly.
Fantasy football has been around since 1962, became more popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the NFL's own popularity grew, and then skyrocketed in the 2000s once the league finally got comfortable with the tacit gambling involved. The league now even allows one of its players, Jacksonville Jaguars runningback Maurice Jones-Drew, an avid fantasy player, to host his own Sirius XM radio show on Fantasy Football.
"Ten years ago, Fantasy Football was like Dungeons and Dragons: Everybody did it, but nobody wanted to talk about it," said Gian LaVecchia, senior VP and group media director for Publicis Modem, where he buys media for Subway. "Now all these channels have these super-slick, wonderfully produced shows, Maurice Jones-Drew is behind it, and it continues to be one of the most optimal ways to reach a younger male audience. Heck, I've been playing for 15 years and I know how emotionally invested I am in my own team. To be able to connect my brand to that passion is amazing."
Fantasy football players visit sports sites twice as much as the average online user and spend three times as much time there as non-fantasy players, according to studies done by Nielsen Net Ratings and ComScore.
"I think our advertisers see the engagement metrics and see the benefit of sponsorships with Fantasy Football," said David Morris, chief client officer for CBS Interactive. Mr. Morris cut a three-year deal making Volkswagen the exclusive auto sponsor of Fantasy Football, a deal that carries over into other platforms on CBSSports.com.
Volkswagen wanted to use the NFL to support its 2012 Passat, one of its biggest introductions in more than a decade, according to Charlie Taylor, general manager-digital marketing for Volkswagen Group of America. "When we looked at the typical Passat buyer, it was an NFL super fan," he said. "When you look at the fantasy football player, it's an even greater kind of NFL fan."
Volkswagen also liked that fantasy players pay to use CBS's platform. "We consider them a more dedicated, premium fan," Mr. Taylor said.
Each provider has its own merits to stand on. CBS players might stick with the game longer because they've paid to be there, but Yahoo has more players and ESPN has perhaps the best editorial content built around the game.
"I think the obvious thing is that it's built around the NFL, and the game speaks for itself," said Lisa Valentino, VP-digital sales for ESPN. "But we like to believe ESPN is also fueling fantasy football in general. From the editorial, to the analytical, to the players using ESPN's tools, we believe our content is actually being used to play every game that 's out there in fantasy. There is an opportunity there and our sponsors are able to take advantage of being on board."
Marketers have tried to get creative to leverage players' passion without getting in the way.
"We know that fantasy football players are very invested in their team and focused on managing and making the right moves, so we've maintained the strategy of developing contextually relevant creative, content and tools that enhance their experience," said Kim Kyaw, senior media strategist for Toyota, which is a primary sponsor for fantasy football on Yahoo. This year, the automaker is building on the success of Toyota's Biggest Blowout of the Week module by awarding users with medals that relate to vehicle product features and creating a Toyota Hall of Fame for Legends of Fantasy Football.