Fantasy Sports Ventures encompasses 350 of the most active and engaging fantasy and sports news sites on the Web, but that is just part of what Russo and his crew do to align such marketers as Sprint, Gillette and Coca-Cola with consumers and digital sports marketing.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted April 15, 2009)
If you are marketer trying to reach a core demo of 18-49-year-old males, and you don't have a spokeswoman who looks like Gisele Bundchen (Tom Brady has dibs) or Bar Refaeli (last seen dating Leonardo DiCaprio), almost the next best thing would be to align with fantasy sports. The category has topped $2 billion and is still rising, with 29.9 million participants 12 and older in the U.S. and Canada in 2007 (up by 10 million from 2006) according to the Fantasy Sports Assn. So it's not just a niche hobby for gameboys, but a legitimate and burgeoning industry that has attracted the likes of Sprint, Coca-Cola and Gillette into its marketing ranks, as well as those billion-dollar sports companies known as the NFL, NBA, MLB, Nascar and NHL. It also has attracted some of the best and brightest digital marketing executives. From 1999-2005, Chris Russo was svp-new media/publishing for the NFL, where he was responsible for Internet, satellite radio, wireless and traditional print publishing, including managing all day-to-day operations in programming, marketing and advertising sales. In 2006, Russo founded Fantasy Sports Ventures, New York, which oversees two main divisions: the Fantasy Players Network, which is an aggregation of more than 300 Web sites covering fantasy sports, sports news and other related properties; and FSV Digital Sports Advisors, which provides consulting and advisory services for brand marketers, media companies, sports leagues, teams and associations. Russo's crew includes such experts as Clay Walker, FSV general manager, who formerly was svp of NFL Players Inc. and was the founder of the Fantasy Sports Assn.; and Evan Kamer, evp, who from 1998-2005 was senior director-new media/publishing for the NFL. Russo spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about fantasy sports, digital marketing and aligning brands with consumers.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What was the motivation to form Fantasy Sports Ventures?
Chris Russo: We formed Fantasy Sports Ventures in 2006 as a marketing and media company. As a way to bring digital sports marketing to the brands. I brought four of my colleagues from the NFL with me, we have a couple of people from Yahoo! Sports and a couple of people from CSTV. So we really have a company of digital sports professionals who are focused on solutions. Fantasy sports broadly defines fantasy games. A lot of our sites are fantasy sites, but some are information and news sites for basketball, football, baseball, hockey, auto racing. But they are all relevant to the fantasy category. Over the past couple of years we have aggregated about 350 of what we think are the best independent sports sites on the Web. We own about 25% of the traffic; we have long-term affiliate arrangements with the other 75%. We monetize through advertising and integrated marketing programs. We had 11 million unique visitors in December 2008, which was up 79% from the previous year [the second-largest growth by percentage among the top 250 Web sites] according to comScore.
NYSJ: How did your experiences at the NFL help you develop your strategies about digital sports marketing?
Russo: When I got to the NFL in 1999 there wasn't much of a business around NFL.com so I built that up. We weren't even doing fantasy football because there were some concerns about "What is this?" "Should we be doing this?" So over several years we built that up. Then around 2004-2005 I started getting more queries from the league's marketing partners asking about fantasy sports and digital sports. They wanted to know if they should sponsor the NFL's [fantasy] platform, establish their own games, have their own interactive experiences on their own site, should they tie these games to other events? So one of the reasons I created FSV was that I saw more brand marketers beginning to look for ways to capitalize on engagement online and not just make that an afterthought. In 2001 the feeling was, Here's our big TV thing and let's just throw some media online to support it. But by 2005 there was more of a sense that because the audiences online are so big and because there is a way to measure it and because there is real engagement, maybe the online and digital piece should become a centerpiece. One of the pivot points during my early days at the NFL was not only did we start to run fantasy games on NFL.com but we actually removed the prohibition on broadcasters mentioning fantasy football during NFL games. Previously, broadcasters could not talk about fantasy football during NFL broadcasts. Once that was removed, and there was talk about fantasy football during the games, and we worked with the NFL Players Association to get players to promote fantasy football, then it became more widely known and became less of a niche activity and more of a community activity.
"When the NFL removed the prohibition on broadcasters mentioning fantasy sports during NFL games and we worked with the NFL Players Assn. to get players to promote fantasy sports, it became less of a niche and more of a community activity."
NYSJ: How do you merge fantasy with marketing and make it work for companies seeking to reach consumers?
Russo: It is all about engagement. What is interesting about what we do, and what is the hallmark of the company, is that we focus on digital sports marketing solutions. Digital sports marketing is a concept that is just evolving. Sports marketing 30 years ago was athlete representation. Then it became sponsorships and corporate alliances. Now, sports marketing is really helping marketers leverage their brands in sports online, and doing it in a way that is creative, measurable and well beyond banner advertising. So what we've been able to do is develop custom programs for companies such as Gillette, Sprint, Coca-Cola, Coors and others that is advertising, but really goes beyond advertising. Last year, Gillette wanted to find a way to leverage its Nascar "Young Guns" program online. We we created a "Young Guns Fantasy Challenge" on the Gillette Web site, which was promoted across our 350 sites. Gillette also promoted it on other sites, such as Nascar.com. It was a way of engaging consumers with their brand using sports. We worked with Sprint on a fantasy news widget, where we had content from our six best fantasy football news sites and put it into a widget, which we distributed across our sites. Sprint also took the widget and put it in social media outlets such as MySpace to generate extra exposure. Sprite did an interactive game last year around the NBA draft which was supported on a digital basketball channel.
NYSJ: Even with digital media and new methods of marketing, it seems key to what you are doing and what marketers seek to do is very basic: be where the consumers are.
Russo: Marketers follow the audience. And audience numbers on the Web and around engaging online activities are still growing. Part of that is fantasy football and baseball, but it's also March Madness and college basketball, where more people are filling out their brackets online. We define fantasy sports around windows: the Super Bowl, Nascar launch, baseball launch, college basketball championships. So the notion of what is an interactive activity or an engaging activity has broadened. And marketers like to be in environments where consumers are excited and engaged. What we are doing, and what is still evolving, is working with customers and clients to create integrated programs online that are really an inversion of the typical sports marketing model.
NYSJ: It seems as if going online and getting involved with fantasy sports and engaging with challenging games is low-cost for consumers and won't be hurt by the current economy.
Russo: Today, as the economy is tough and it's harder to justify expenditures on just buying marks and logos or buying traditional media, we think there is a real opportunity to grow the digital sports marketing segment. And that's where we are focused. There is a phenomenon online line about getting involved, being a general manager, testing your skills and knowledge. Marketers want to be part of that. And that's what we work to provide. The numbers among visitors continues to grow. It is a relatively inexpensive hobby. There is some subscription, and those continue to grow. But the business is still ad sales, which in this economy challenging. About a year ago we took a minority investment from USA Today, so they are a minority holder in our company. So we have the opportunity to promote what we are doing online in traditional platforms. We are up 200% in the first quarter of this year versus the first quarter of last year. Part of that is due to the growth and development of our company. But part of that is that advertisers still want to be involved in programs that are very highly engaged and are engaging. But we'd all rather be in a boom market than a recession.
NYSJ: Have you seen any push-back from the core group of fantasy players who see what had been their private domain now going mainstream, where ESPN, USA Today and other media devote significant time and manpower to covering it?
Russo: The growth in numbers is certainly why marketers began to embrace it. Back in 2005 marketers began to see it not just as a niche group but one with mainstream growth. What fantasy sports are today are fundamentally for groups of people to interact: College buddies who stay in touch by being in a league or people at work who do something together outside of the office. People talk about social networking and the integration of social networking into sports. I would argue that the original social networking in sports was fantasy sports. A community of millions is really a lot of communities of 12 cobbled together. It's a way for people to connect and stay in touch.