SBJ/February 20 - 26, 2006/Marketingsponsorship

New stat for fantasy: More than 6M players

Major fantasy baseball publishers are predicting that the total number of players will spike beyond 6 million users this season, up from about 5 million last year.

Opening Day may be weeks away, but fantasy is
in full swing at MLB.com and other sites.
The introduction of several new, low-cost fantasy games and the rollout of heightened marketing initiatives are expected to propel the market in 2006, driving millions of dollars in new revenue for outfits such as MLB Advanced Media, CBS SportsLine.com and ESPN.com.

“This is unquestionably going to be a very big, critical year for the fantasy baseball business,” said Matthew Berry, who works with the fantasy operations of several pro leagues as The Talented Mr. Roto. “The universe of players definitely expands, fantasy gaming gets even more mainstream and beyond a geek thing, and we see a real battle to who has the best games.”

Some of the foremost changes in the fantasy baseball business stem from MLBAM, which last year purchased a set of interactive rights from the MLB Players Association. With little time to implement changes before last season, 18 operators of fantasy games held licenses with MLBAM. That number of will plummet by more than half by the start of this year’s regular season.

Only ESPN.com, Yahoo! and CBS Sports-Line.com hold broad licenses to operate baseball fantasy games with player names and team logos. A fourth significant licensee is expected to be named soon.

The Sporting News, formerly an MLBAM fantasy licensee, is also working with MLBAM in a technical capacity and is helping direct fantasy traffic to MLB.com.

“We’re now operating under the less-is-more strategy, getting fewer but bigger partners to do more business with us over a longer period of time,” said MLBAM spokesman Jim Gallagher.

Those MLBAM licenses are each worth in the low to mid seven-figure range, industry sources said. Last year, MLBAM generated about $2 million from all of its fantasy licensing.

MLBAM also bulked up its promotional efforts, holding an expanded fantasy Opening Day last Thursday that featured video content on MLB.com and celebrity drafting tips. The Feb. 16 launch date is roughly a month sooner than start dates used by most games as recently as three years ago.

Similarly, CBS SportsLine.com, ESPN, and Yahoo! each has planned a series of event marketing initiatives, title sponsorships or celebrity spokesmen to promote their fantasy baseball games.

EarthLink has signed on as a presenting sponsor of ESPN’s fantasy baseball draft activities, including a trio of draft events with ESPN talent in Chicago, New York and Atlanta. The company also will sponsor an upcoming fantasy draft special on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.”

Grooming products brand Mitchum inked a presenting sponsorship for CBS Sports-Line.com’s fantasy baseball launch.

“We’re looking to see some very good growth for fantasy baseball,” said Steve Snyder, CBS SportsLine.com general manager. “That’s good in its own right, of course, but fantasy baseball also has shown us to be an excellent feeder into our other fantasy sports games.”

CBS SportsLine.com this year is offering a free fantasy baseball game, joining no-cost offerings from the other key players.

MLBAM also is preparing several short-form fantasy games that will not require a full, 162-game season to play.

The fantasy baseball industry continues to await a decision on CDM Fantasy Sports’ federal lawsuit against MLBAM. CDM is trying to establish raw baseball statistics attached to player names as part of the public domain; MLBAM asserts the commercial use of such data without a license violates its rights.

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