NFL Fantasy Football – A Missed Opportunity?

The beginning of September is like Christmas for many American Football fans, as the time for talking ends and the road to the Super Bowl begins. However, while teams were frantically finalising their 53-man rosters and practice squads in preparation, fans were busy too as they looked to create a team that would beat their colleagues and friends in NFL Fantasy Football.


For the uninitiated, the American Football version of Fantasy Football differs greatly to the round ball equivalent most play over here. Instead of a free-for-all with managers picking the same players for their teams, the American Football version mirrors real life with a NFL Draft ensuring each manager has to adopt a strategy in order to gain a competitive advantage against his league rivals.

With every single player available for selection (including those that are no longer active such as controversial Quarter Back Tim Tebow), the draft forces team allegiances to be put to one side as fantasy managers look to develop a team and strategy to emerge victorious.

As a fairly recent convert to the Gridiron, I was invited to take part in my first NFL Fantasy Football Draft and while my knowledge is limited, it represented a great chance to learn more about the league and players outside of my team, the San Francisco 49ers.

While football fantasy managers have until the first game of the Premier League over here (although nothing stops you entering later) to select a team on their own, the American Football version requires all participants to join a league – you can’t actually play individually – to take part in a draft together.

League commissioners (think League Chairman over here) organise a draft time and managers can either choose to take part themselves or simply use auto pick which takes the highest rank player available each round.

However, the biggest surprise I found wasn’t that someone took the Houston Texans defence in the sixth round, but that the entire process seemed completely devoid of any brands outside the NFL. In a sport and country that is highly commercialised, brands are missing out on a great opportunity to connect with American Football fans.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), approximately 33 million people play Fantasy Football in the US each year, with 49% paying to play through league fees, subscription advice sites and analytics apps, spending on average $468 a year - a truly staggering figure.

Although brands such as Volkswagen, who commit $3 million in fantasy football sponsorships with CBS, and Lenovo, who produce content around Fantasy Football as part of their official computer partnership with the NFL, activate around fantasy football, no brand really owns this space.

Given that Fantasy Football managers are keen to access the latest information and are willing to pay for it, it's strange that there hasn’t been a similar sort of platform to IBM’s Try Tracker, which is used during the RBS 6 Nations (in conjunction with the Daily Telegraph), that’s free and accessible to fans.

The NFL’s Fantasy Football offering is partnered by Lenovo, who do provide the ‘Fantasy Coaches Corner’, but while this does provide some tips and highlights successful managers, it doesn’t feel like an immersive platform that offers something for both the hard-core and casual fan. Similarly, the partnership between Volkswagen and CBS Sports offers more of the same, and while the content is perfectly fine, it doesn’t offer enough variety to ensure participants use their website rather than a competitor's.

Much like any sporting organisation, the NFL has a long list of sponsors covering all areas from cereal to data storage. With Fantasy Football such a huge part of the NFL, surely a natural extension would be for one brand to become the official NFL stats provider and then link them to Fantasy Football. This would ensure they create further brand awareness – especially when you consider the rise of TV consumption on two screens i.e. fans watch while playing on a phone or tablet.

The Fantasy Football market will only continue to grow, especially as fans in new markets such as the UK embrace the idea. Currently UK fans can play either the original, American versions which contain the draft system or the NFL UK version which is presented by Sky Sports - mainly due to their ownership of the broadcasting rights for the majority of games.

However, the UK version loses some of the appeal generated by its across-the-pond rivals as it tries too hard to simplify the process and mimic the soccer version here with a salary cap. While it's admirable they are trying to cater to the UK market, the majority of fans who play Fantasy Football associate the process with the American versions, and as a result take part in US based offerings.

But what US brands have seemingly neglected is that with more fans, both domestically and internationally, comes greater opportunities for brands to reach new consumers. It’s certainly an area worth exploring, as the US advertising revenues on Fantasy Football sites are estimated to bring in $2 – $5 billion annually and with every player having to participate in the draft, taking ownership could prove lucrative for any brand bold enough.