Following the start of the NFL season and our prior post on the NFL superbowl [j1] , Jenna Paulat from the Capgemini US practice explains the phenomenon that is NFL fantasy football, and considers what opportunity this could present marketers.

How would you like to have 30 million customers actively engaged with your brand, regardless of their level of happiness with your merchandise?  Even when they are frustrated and even downright angry with the specific product they’ve chosen, these customers continue to invest time and money with you and your partners, actively engaging in social networks, devoting hours to watch related television programs, buying the latest mobile apps, and signing up for news alerts from anyone that can give them inside information about your product.  This is what the NFL (America’s ‘National Football League’ ) has accomplished through Fantasy Football – a phenomenon that, ironically, was only recently embraced by the NFL.  Just five years ago, the NFL seemed to think that fantasy football was tainting its league.  Starting this year, the NFL has ordered all 32 football clubs to display real-time fantasy statistics [j2] at its stadiums during games.

Thirty million [j3] fans will play Fantasy Football this season.  The average fantasy player belongs to 2.5 of the 70 million [S4] free and paid leagues operating in the US and Canada, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA).  The FSTA estimates that Fantasy Football generates $1 billion in revenue [S5] – in anything from money spent with online fantasy football sites to branded content.

Here’s how it works – a fantasy player joins a ‘league’, typically formed by 8 to 12 ‘team owners’.  Each owner takes a turn selecting an NFL player to join their fantasy team in a ‘draft’, looking to build a roster composed primarily of offensive players.  Ultimately your fantasy team is fielded by players representing many of the NFL’s 32 franchise teams.  Each week, then, you select your lineup from the players on your roster, and are matched head to head against another fantasy team in your league.  Each fantasy team scores points based on the individual statistics of their starting lineup; if your running back scores a touchdown, he might earn 6 points for that play.  A wide receiver with 90 cumulative receiving yards in a game would likely score 9 points for that statistic.   (Every league has its own rules, as customized by the league ‘commisioner.’)  Earn more points from your starting lineup than your opponent, and you win that week’s matchup.

A Pittsburgh Steelers [j6] fan myself, my 2011 team contains only one Steeler, Wide Receiver Mike Wallace.  Other top players on my roster include Dallas Cowboys’ Quarterback Tony Romo (have I mentioned I despise the Cowboys?), along with Tennessee Titans’ Running Back Chris Johnson, Detroit Lions’ Wide Receiver Calvin Johnson, Indianapolis Colts’ Tight End Dallas Clark, and 15 other players.  In all, I ‘own’ players from 17 different NFL teams on my fantasy roster.

And therein lies the beauty. In week one of the NFL season, my husband (co-owner of my fantasy team) and I greatly anticipated the Steelers Sunday afternoon game against the Baltimore Ravens.  But we also tuned in to watch last Thursday’s season opener between the Saints and the Packers, needing to root for our starting kicker, the Saints’ John Kasay.  Saturday night’s reading material was sourced through my ESPN iPad fantasy football app [j7] .   Leading up to Sunday’s Steelers game, we watched ESPN’s ‘Fantasy Football Now’ to get last minute hints on injuries and weather conditions which might affect our starting lineup decisions.  When our marquis Steelers-Ravens matchup went downhill quickly (the Steelers were pummeled!) we might have just turned off the TV in disgust.  But in our fantasy world, we instead changed the television to the NFL Red Zone, a cable station launched in 2009 that is a fantasy football player’s dream.  Red Zone shifts coverage from game to game attempting to show all scores in real time, sometimes airing footage from four games at once.  By Sunday evening, we could focus in on the lone game, the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Jets.  In truth, we really didn’t care which team won – we just hoped the Cowboys scored a lot of points!  Throughout the weekend, we had our laptops churning, tracking live fantasy scoring on our web page, and also watching real time updates from all games on  Heading into Monday night, only two NFL games remain, but our fantasy matchup is far from over.  We must tune into Monday night football, to be sure that New England Patriots’ BenJarvus Green-Ellis helps us hold onto our slim lead by outscoring the Patriots’ Chad Ochocinco, who is in our opponents’ starting lineup.

Just a weekend in the life of a fantasy football owner.  And yes, there are 30 million of us.

It is no wonder then, that at a time when viewers have increased access to more channels and more television programs, TV ratings for the NFL have been on the rise.  Between 2006 and 2010, ratings for NFL games rose from 9.3 to 10.6 on the Nielsen rating scale[j8] , accounting for an additional 3.5 million viewers per game.  Of the 20 highest US rated telecasts of any kind during the Fall 2011 TV season, 18 were NFL regular season games [j9] .  The NFL collects $4 billion annually for broadcasting rights to its games.

So what can marketers playing outside of the sports arena learn from Fantasy Football?

  1. Find your customers’ fantasy. The NFL’s ‘products’ are its games and its teams.  Traditionally, most customers allied themselves to one or two teams . But in the fantasy world, customers are part of the game, with allegiances extending far beyond their preferred city team.  Through active involvement in the fantasy that sits around the NFL’s core product, customers are now loyal to a much broader product portfolio.
  2. Accept the reality: we are all multichannel customers.  In the increasingly digital world, there really is no such thing as ‘too much’ information.  Customers demand to know more when and how they want to know it.  Whether through TV, online, mobile apps, retail outlets, or your partner networks, make sure the channels for customer engagement are available and easy to use, and let your customers engage on their terms.
  3. Let the cheerleaders and fans help spread the buzz. Sure, the NFL has its own fantasy website.  But so do Yahoo, CBS, ESPN and hundreds of other outlets.  So don’t fear those looking to make a profit on the ‘sizzle’ from your sausage.  Let them help to build the sizzle, which will make your product allegiances stronger.  Apple didn’t invent ‘Angry Birds’, but surely that app helps to sell the iPad.

And that is how a fantasy obsession can translate into real money.