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Sponsorships in a Fantasy (Football) World

AJ Maestas's picture

With summer ending, the sports world’s attention returns to the National Football League. Training camps are done, the preseason schedule is over and the first week of games is already in the book. While these events are used by thousands of players and personnel to shake off the rust from the long off-season, they are also used as starting points by millions of “armchair quarterbacks” as they prepare to play their upcoming season of the game based on the game, fantasy football.

Over the last 15 years, fantasy sports have grown from a fringe pastime, consisting of groups of friends tracking their teams with the morning newspaper, to an international, multi-billion dollar hobby with up to the second stats and scoring. In fact, this hobby has grown so big that there are entire subscription-based channels, magazines, and websites that claim to give their customers the inside knowledge needed to hold the slightest edge over their competition. It is no surprise that football is at the center of the fantasy sports world with over 60% of Americans saying they follow the NFL according to a 2011 poll by Adweek/Harris. These numbers have led to another growth year with over thirty million players trying their hand at being a fantasy GM in 2012 alone. While these numbers themselves are staggering, the most telling statistic is that players average roughly thirty-nine minutes a day on fantasy football websites according to fantasy football mastermind, a number that is over seventy-five times longer than the internet average. With an increasing number of players joining every year, and each one spending time tweaking, managing and setting their rosters, it was only a matter of time before major brands began to utilize the growing advertising opportunity that was created right under their noses. Examples of these sponsorships can be found on many of the smaller boutique fantasy hosting sites across the internet. The most expensive and prestigious deals, however, have been signed with the perennial big four fantasy football platforms: ESPN.com, NFL.com, CBSSports.com and Yahoo.com, who, according to Ipsos, together comprise 76% of the fantasy market.

Every year, major companies such as Subway, Castrol, Geico, Snickers, FedEx, and Pizza Hut race to claim the limited digital ad space available on these sites by paying upwards of “$750,000 for real estate on high-traffic data and news pages,” according to Newsweek. Traditionally, a majority of companies advertising in fantasy football spend their money on page banners. Lately, however, a number of sponsors believe that this method is ineffective since most fans are too engaged in the game to notice the same ad repeating during the four-month football season. This notion has forced advertisers to speak the language of fantasy football fans and create innovative ways to present their brand. As a result, a free-for-all has erupted, where everything from weekly awards, presentation sponsorships, trash talking areas, drafting tools, and even areas where you can compare your team to those of celebrities are now available for sale to the highest bidder. Of the numerous fantasy football sponsors who utilize both traditional and newer sponsorship models, two have really stood out as some of the most innovative and strategic, those being the automotive brands of Volkswagen and Toyota.

The strategic partnership with CBS began in 2011 when Volkswagen signed a three year deal to become the official automotive sponsor of CBS fantasy football. This affiliation seemed awkward at first, as Volkswagen tied itself to the only big four site to have a mandatory registration fee of $180, which resulted in the smallest amount of users and available impressions. However, Volkswagen was quick to defend their new partnership at the time, saying that the CBS fantasy football fan was “a more dedicated, premium fan” because of the required payment and that this demographic was more in line with their brand. This logic began to make more sense as Volkswagen used their inaugural 2011 fantasy season as a major cornerstone to help advertise their launch of the 2012 Passat in the US. Volkswagen described the typical Passat buyer as an NFL super fan, with fantasy football players being an even greater NFL super fan. After the Passat launched to domestic success, Volkswagen began to use their affiliation with CBS to help promote their company as a whole. Beginning in 2013, the last year of their contract, Volkswagen and CBS introduced the Coach’s Corner. This innovation allows for fantasy subscribers to compete with CBS personalities and heckle (or praise) their opponent in a customized video featuring an embedded Volkswagen banner. Following the success of their previous campaigns, as well as the launch of a new and highly integrated sponsorship idea this season, Volkswagen continues to be a leader in fantasy sports sponsorship. With the ever growing popularity of the game, Volkswagen’s partnership with CBSSports.com looks strong for the upcoming years.

Similar to Volkswagen, Toyota found success in the fantasy football sponsorship market and has been doing so since 2007, as a sponsor with Yahoo.com. Originally, Toyota started by placing banner ads around the site, but has since grown to become one of the most innovative sponsors in the fantasy sports world. The company first moved into more innovative sponsorship activation in 2010 with the creation of the Toyota Biggest Blowout of the Week. The premise was simple: each week, Toyota awarded an internet medal to any user who won a game in their respective league by the largest margin, a way to always remember his/her historic triumph. After this simple idea turned into a huge success, Toyota decided to go all out in 2011 by creating a variety of additional medals, (all bearing names of Toyota vehicles) as well as a Hall of Fame (http://www.toyotahalloffame.com) to honor fantasy football legends. This idea has proven to be successful with players competing with each other to complete various online tasks to fill their digital trophy cases. In 2012, Toyota added to their fantasy football sponsorship slate by sponsoring videos of celebrities competing to enter the Toyota Hall of Fame. These Toyota branded videos were complete with relevant fantasy advice and comical heckling between the famous competitors. Toyota has not stopped there. They have moved to the mobile arena becoming the title sponsor of Yahoo’s fantasy football iPhone, Android and iPad apps as well as the “Citizen Sports” app on Facebook. This, combined with weekly videos and original content available on Yahoo.com, mobile devices, tablets and Yahoo Connected TV, has made Toyota a leader in new activation ideas and prevents its brand from becoming stale in the eyes of fantasy football fans.

Fantasy football is here to stay; with years of annual growth and an increasing variety in gameplay, it is obvious that this once fringe pastime is now completely mainstream. However, the question remains: how do companies successfully reach the millions of North Americans who spend hours each week playing the game based on the game? Is it with a strategic model to reach the demographics associated with certain sites? An innovative model that involves consistently finding new and interesting ways to deliver your product? Maybe a cost effective model that involves maximizing your money on numerous banners or some combination of the three? It will certainly be interesting to follow the activation efforts made by major sponsorship companies involved in Fantasy football both this year and in the future.

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