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Living in a Fantasy World

As sports leagues expand into growing markets, fantasy sports go with them. In the past few years, global fantasy sports participation has skyrocketed, including 10% of the US and UK populations as of 2010, and emerging markets growing strong.

Enthusiasm for fantasy sports helps leagues augment existing fan loyalty and prime the pump in new markets. And because fantasy leagues are changing the way people watch and consume sports, brands have a big opportunity to tap into this new form of fan engagement.

The Changing Fan Experience

Almost 85% of NFL supporters we surveyed would rather watch a game at home than in a stadium, with 37% admitting to regularly checking the progress of their fantasy team on a second screen while watching on TV (Source: GMR proprietary research).

This trend has led many fantasy players to lose some interest in their favorite teams, instead focusing on the individual athletes on their fantasy team. And it’s not just a distraction: the emotion runs deep. A recent survey from Turnkey Sports found that 28% of participants “feel worse when their fantasy team loses than when their favorite NFL team loses.”

“I cannot watch football the way it was meant to be watched,” wrote fantasy football advocate C.D. Carter for the New York Times’ football blog, The Fifth Down. Since first starting a fantasy team in 2006, Carter wrote, “I watch for stats. I fret about fantasy points, not game outcomes. The game, in short, is meaningless.”

Is Fantasy Helping Drive the Game?

It’s not just individual fans: fantasy’s impact on the game is replicated on a larger scale. Typically, the popularity of a fantasy game within a particular market has depended on that market’s underlying interest in the sport: the real world leads, and fantasy follows. But the rise of fantasy platforms (and digital obsession in general) is helping these sports introduce themselves and their stars to new fan bases all around the world: it’s becoming a reciprocal relationship.

For example, Fantasy League, a market leader of English Premier League fantasy football, now boasts users from more than 99 countries. And as more players from around the globe are signed by British clubs to play in the Premier League, those home markets then become potential new markets for the league’s fantasy game.

“The Premier League now sees developing countries as a major growth market — and that will benefit fantasy games,” said the company's commercial director Richard King, singling out sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia as important areas for growth.

Brands: This Is an Opportunity

As consumers continue to adopt fantasy sports – and the live sports that inspire them – brands have a big opportunity to integrate themselves into the evolving fan experience. But surprisingly, they’ve been slow to tap into it.

One exception is Microsoft, who’s begun a strategic partnership with the NFL to tie fans’ TV experience to their fantasy league teams. Xbox One users can watch live games on one side of the screen and access their fantasy league data on the other.

This is a great example of a brand getting in on the ground floor. And as entities like the Premier League use fantasy to expand into growing markets, we expect to see many more strategic successes. The fan experience is not static – neither should be brands’ and sports marketers’ approach to reaching those fans.

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