SBJ/September 8 - 14, 2003/Special Report

Media pour resources into fantasy coverage

While waiting for a plane in New York, nfl.com fantasy writer Gil Brandt discovered the reality of his column's impact.

"A guy came up to me and said, 'I'm mad at you.' I said, 'I don't even know you,' " Brandt recalled. "He said I suggested playing [Cincinnati wide receiver] Chad Johnson in my column, and he didn't do well."

Media coverage of fantasy sports is exploding, and the always-zealous players are eating up each syllable. Magazines, books, TV shows and radio programs are targeting the predominantly 18- to 34-year-old male audience, whose average annual income exceeds $50,000 a year, according to research by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

In August, SportsLine.com introduced a nationwide fantasy radio show on Westwood One. On Saturday, Fox Sports Net unveiled its first fantasy football show, "The Ultimate Fantasy Football Show." In print, The Sporting News is devoting two pages each week to fantasy sports for the first time. Fantasy site rototimes.com started a print magazine that's selling for $10 apiece online.

Fantasy Sports magazine started in 1989.
"Everyone seems to be getting involved in fantasy," said Adam Caplan, editor of Pro Football News & Injury Report. Caplan should know — he's expected to partner with fantasyguru.com publisher John Hansen on "Playbook," a five-day-a-week fantasy-dominated show scheduled to launch on the NFL Network in November.

Why the sudden media embrace? The perception of gambling that once dogged the fantasy industry seems to have passed. Also, once considered geeks, fantasy players — all 15 million of them, up 50 percent from 2000 based on the trade association's estimates — are now seen as basic sports fans who should be coveted by advertisers.

So far, though, few mainstream advertisers are biting. While McDonald's is sponsoring the "CBS SportsLine Fantasy Football Forecast" radio show, other big companies have shied from advertising around fantasy stories and shows.

"We've tried to get Coors and Visa, but it's been a tough sell," said Greg Ambrosius, editor of Fantasy Sports magazine. "There are still a lot of unknowns about the fantasy sports industry [among mainstream advertisers] — whether it's the misperception of gambling or the misperception that these are unusual sports fans."

Founded in 1989, Fantasy Sports magazine is the grandfather of the industry. Published four times a year and boasting a circulation of 110,000, the magazine brings in about $500,000 annually from ad and newsstand sales, according to Ambrosius, and is profitable. Once it enjoyed a monopoly on industry news — now, at least a dozen magazines cover fantasy football, with four more devoted to baseball.

Even magazines that don't cover fantasy sports want to attract its players. Starting in July, Sports Illustrated offered a free "NFL Fantasy Preview" DVD — where Ron Jaworski and Spencer Tillman give advice on fantasy picks — to new subscribers. And on si.com, anyone signing up to play fantasy games now receives a free subscription to Sports Illustrated.

"We felt this was a great way to add additional value to our fantasy games in a very competitive marketplace, and we feel fantasy football players will be great new prospects for our magazine," said Gordon McLeod, president of si.com.

On Web sites, where the majority of content is free, fantasy coverage is becoming a way to generate revenue. At sportingnews.com, those who buy games must pay extra ($19.99 a year) to read the site's fantasy columnists. "We take the tack that we give you information that's worthwhile, regardless of whether you play our games or not," said John Rawlings, editor of The Sporting News.

On espn.com, visitors must subscribe to ESPN Insider ($39.95 a year) to access the majority of the site's fantasy content, which includes five fantasy columnists. Those who have downloaded free video service ESPN Motion receive fantasy updates from Brandon Funston and Eric Karabell.

"That's the kind of thing we'll be expanding," said John Kosner, general manager of espn.com. "We have the advantage of being able to integrate with TV."

To expand upon the $11 million in revenue (trade association estimate) generated by fantasy products in 2002, SportsLine.com introduced "CBS SportsLine Fantasy Football Forecast" on 145 Westwood One radio affiliates in August. The one-hour program serves up fantasy news and analysis to an estimated 175,000 households weekly.

"This is one way to expand our brand and our reach," said Mark Mariani, president of marketing and sales for CBS Sports-Line.com, which also has been in discussions to develop a SportsLine-branded TV show about fantasy.

Despite all the expanded media coverage for fantasy players, at least one person doesn't pick his team based on the information — Gil Brandt. The man who talked fantasy on more than three dozen radio shows in North America this summer refuses to play.

"I have a lot of good friends in the NFL," he said. "If I see [Minnesota quarterback] Daunte Culpepper in the off-season, he'll say, 'Why did you take [Indianapolis quarterback] Peyton Manning over me?'"

David Sweet is a writer in Chicago.

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