Like the real game, fan­tasy sports now worth bil­lions


Fan­tasy sports were once just a fun way for diehard fans to ex­press their love of the game to­gether with other zealots, with­out ac­tu­ally get­ting out on the field them­selves.

Now they are a multi­bil­lion-U.S.dol­lar busi­ness whose tech-savvy clien­tele in­creas­ingly drive how the pro leagues op­er­ate and the way big games are broad­cast.

The in­dus­try’s as­cen­dancy was on dis­play at the Fan­tasy Sports Trade As­so­ci­a­tion’s sum­mer con­fer­ence this week, where sports giants like broad­caster ESPN and the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion cham­pi­oned fan­tasy leagues and promised more fan­ta­syfriendly steps to feed the boom.

In fan­tasy sports, a par­tic­i­pant cre­ates his own team, se­lect­ing play­ers from a real-world sports league like the NBA, Na­tional Football League or Eng­land’s Premier League soc­cer.

As real games are played, a fan­tasy team com­petes and is ranked against oth­ers based on the ac­tual-game per­for­mance of its play­ers.

Fan­tasy com­peti­tors once matched their dream teams against oth­ers to suss out their nose for tal­ent and for sim­ple brag­ging rights.

To­day, with


mil­lion Amer­i­cans par­tic­i­pat­ing in fan­tasy sports leagues, ac­cord­ing to the FSTA, play­ers can pay to join com­pe­ti­tions that award prizes of US$1 mil­lion or more.

Fan­tasy play­ers spend an av­er­age US$ 465 per year on their imag­i­nary com­pe­ti­tions, up markedly from US$95 in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the mar­ket re­search firm Ip­sos.

That is a big change from the old days when fan­tasy play­ers were dis­missed as sta­tis­tics geeks and rel­e­gated to the fringes.

“When there were any men­tions at all, it was sort of a sneer­ing dis­re­spect for fan­tasy sports,” FSTA pres­i­dent Paul Charchian said in an in­ter­view. “Now we are cov­eted.”

Fan­tasy Sports on Steroids

Fan­tasy sports date back to the 1980s when a small group of base­ball- lov­ing aca­demics and writ­ers es­tab­lished “Ro­tis­serie Base­ball.”

Af­ter pick­ing their teams, they would pore over the scores and other data pub­lished in news­pa­pers af­ter games, rank­ing their imag­i­nary teams against oth­ers.

But in the fast-evolv­ing era of smart­phones, big data and in­stant news, to­day’s con­tests are a kind of fan­tasy sports on steroids.

And the in­dus­try got a boost when, in 2006, the U.S. Congress — which has mostly banned online gam­bling — ruled fan­tasy sports did not fall un­der that cat­e­gory, al­low­ing a surge in play­ing for money.

A typ­i­cal fan­tasy con­tes­tant now keeps one eye on an ac­tual game and the other on a tablet or smart­phone that ag­gre­gates fan­tasy- league points in real time, spit­ting out the stand­ings of vir­tual teams play-by-play.

Many fan­tasy game sites can send alerts if a key player scores a touch­down, or gives up a goal.

Com­pe­ti­tions have spread from base­ball, bas­ket­ball and soc­cer to sports like golf and rugby. Con­tes­tants can pay to play for an en­tire sea­son, or just an evening’s worth of games.

De­liv­er­ing that kind of ac­tion has made two lead­ing fan­tasy com­pa­nies, DraftKings and FanDuel, each worth an es­ti­mated US$1 bil­lion.

Show­cas­ing the in­dus­try’s grow­ing clout, DraftKings has an ex­clu­sive mar­ket­ing part­ner­ship with Ma­jor League Base­ball while FanDuel has a sim­i­lar con­tract with the NBA.

Broad­cast­ers Tak­ing Note

Sur­vey data sug­gest the in­dus­try has hit the mar­ket­ing sweet spot, with more than half of play­ers in the cov­eted 18-34 age group and with above-av­er­age in­comes and ed­u­ca­tion.

The real sports in­dus­try is tak­ing them more se­ri­ously be­cause, ac­cord­ing to Ip­sos, they watch more live sports and con­sume more sports news than oth­ers.

That al­lows real sports leagues to sell fan­tasy play­ers more pre­mium-view­ing prod­ucts and to com­mand higher rates from ESPN and other broad­cast­ers due to higher rat­ings. Those broad­cast­ers in turn are able to at­tract more money from ad­ver­tis­ers.

Sports media has re­sponded by re­port­ing more news sought out by fan­tasy leagues, such as in­juries that keep a real player out of his team lineup — which hits any fan­tasy team with that player on its ros­ter.

Ro­toWire is a news ser­vice that pep­pers sub­scribers with the latest on which play­ers have a sore shoul­der or an­kle in­flam­ma­tion, for ex­am­ple.

Bob Vor­wald, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of WGN-TV in Chicago, is push­ing his sports an­nounc­ers to do more fan­tasy-ori­ented news: “Ev­ery tele­vi­sion sta­tion pro­gram­mer wants to get a younger au­di­ence, but we’re not there yet.”

ESPN se­nior pro­ducer Seth Mark­man said the net­work was work­ing to “fully in­te­grate” fan­tasy into all pro­gram­ming.

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