SBJ/Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011/In Depth

Fantasy football could face harsh reality

The fantasy football business, which has soared in popularity in recent years to an estimated market size of more than 27 million adults, stands to lose a significant chunk of its audience and revenue if a lengthy NFL work stoppage occurs.

With gross revenue from fantasy football in the U.S. and Canada estimated at more than $1 billion per year, nearly every sector of the booming industry will suffer if there is no 2011 NFL season. Specific segments under threat include operators of both paid and free leagues, magazine and fantasy content publishers, high-stakes event producers, fantasy product vendors, and even bars and restaurants that cater heavily to fantasy players.

Games that don’t rely on real-world events and statistics, such as CBS’s Franchise Football on Facebook, could be positioned to grow further in the event of an NFL lockout.
Like many economic schisms, larger entities such as ESPN, Yahoo! and CBS Sports will be more insulated against negative effects. But independent, mom-and-pop companies that played a significant role in helping turn fantasy football into a mainstream industry stand particularly vulnerable.

“You can see the landscape changing already. People are definitely under increasing pressure with what’s going on,” said Greg Ambrosius, past president of the Fantasy Sports Association and founder of the National Fantasy Football Championships. “If a lockout happens and you don’t have that income coming in, some people in the space simply are not going to survive. I’m very, very concerned.”

The first wave of direct impacts will occur in the early spring, when magazine publishers are actively selling advertising for preview titles that typically hit newsstands beginning in May. Those publishers will likely look to push back their deadlines as much as possible, but following the NFL draft in late April, publishing of fantasy preview content and league registrations typically begin in earnest — key events that will be blunted heavily without a labor deal in place.

“There is a ton of selling to advertisers, marketing, registration and so forth that all occurs in that February-March to late May time period, and without a deal, the impacts could definitely be significant,” said Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and owner of LeagueSafe.com. “And if there’s no season at all, we’re definitely looking at companies scaling back and job loss.”

To stem against these potential losses, many operators are looking to fantasy games based around college football. CBS Sports first introduced player-based college fantasy football in 2008, and college fantasy games have since been introduced by many other companies as well and grown markedly in popularity. Both players of NFL fantasy football and advertisers will be noticeably directed toward college fantasy if an NFL work stoppage extends into the summer and fall.

“A lot of people will definitely play college fantasy as sort of a backup, and it makes a ton of sense,” Charchian said. “College fantasy is already drastically underrepresented in the industry given the popularity of the sport at large.”

Also poised to grow further in the event of an NFL work stoppage are various football-themed games on Facebook, such as CBS’s Franchise Football, which are not reliant on real-world events and statistics to play.

Another labor-related pressure point on the industry is one of technology. Fantasy football is already an activity that taxes computer servers to extreme degrees. But an altered or abbreviated NFL schedule would force commensurate adjustments to millions of fantasy leagues and the software and hardware that supports all of that play.

“All of us have this situation in our minds constantly,” said Jason Waram, ESPN vice president of fantasy games and customer management. “We’ve already begun to walk through all sorts of different potential scenarios. We’re obviously based now on a 16-game schedule with a bye week for our traditional, commissioner-style leagues. But what would a 14-game schedule look like, for instance? A 12-game schedule? We’ll be playing very close attention to all the various scenarios as this evolves.”

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