Fantasy football is unique: It combines something incredibly masculine with something incredibly nerdy. It’s like the high school quarterback and the captain of the Dungeons and Dragons Club got together, became best friends and created the most popular game in school.
Surprising to some, fantasy football first started back in 1962 when the late Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach created a private eight-team league called the GOPPPL (Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League). While acronyms were not his strength, Bill was the first fantasy football commissioner and is considered the father of the modern fantasy football we enjoy today. Fantasy football was played offline for years until the advent of the Internet rocket-launched it in the late 1990s from a niche hobby to a multimillion-dollar industry reaching 30 million online players last year in the United States and Canada.
So how did it happen? How did a product like fantasy football go from being an idea to a best seller? What can we learn from fantasy football that can help us get our customers to participate more with our brand? Here are five lessons we can take away from fantasy football:
1. It’s participatory and social. Before Facebook became Facebook, there was fantasy football. From the beginning, it brought people from various locations and backgrounds together around a common interest. Fantasy football players invite everyone they know to participate, becoming brand evangelists for the NFL, bringing in people who might not otherwise be interested in football, but are interested in participating in the social aspect of it.
For example, the female demographic, a group the NFL has historically had trouble attracting, are signing up for fantasy football in record numbers. Of the 30 million users last year, 6.5 million of them were women. This fact could be one of the big reasons why more and more women are becoming NFL fans in recent years.
2. It gives NFL fans a place to “geek out.” It’s like Comic-Con for jocks. Or like writing your own Harry Potter fan fiction. Fantasy football players are essentially creating their own NFL fan fiction. They are building a make-believe team with their favorite players and creating a make-believe season all their own. Fantasy football is the vehicle that lets participants not just watch their favorite sport, but also control it, personalize it and make it their own.
Brands need to create a place like this where fans can become fanatics and share their fandom with others—a breeding ground for brand evangelists. The benefit of giving your best customers a place to expand on their love is that it keeps them engaged long after the initial experience is over. The games don’t have to be over after Monday night anymore. The games continue 24/7. And the more your audience is engaged with your brand, the better business will be.
3. It was created by fans and embraced by the NFL. The NFL could have been threatened by fantasy football leagues, viewed it as a competitor, had it shut down or at least stifled. But it didn’t.
The NFL has been a continual supporter of fantasy football since it exploded online. It hosts its own fantasy football platform, devotes a huge chunk of its website to fantasy football news, articles and blogs, publishes a fantasy football preview magazine and, in 2011, directed clubs to post fantasy football points on their scoreboards at the live games next to the other typical scores and stats.
Why? Fantasy football is the single most important marketing tool used by the NFL.
Fantasy sports players watch more games, buy more tickets and spend more money at stadiums than other sports fans. Fantasy football has had a significant impact on rising popularity and prosperity of football, and the NFL knows it. And supporting this type of user-generated content has yielded huge returns.
4. It’s not dumbed down. Fantasy football can get very complicated. Winning your league’s championship requires a lot of study, work and strategy. But here’s the beauty of it: Fantasy football attracts droves of new users because of its complexity, not in spite of it. It’s a real challenge, a game worth mastering, a game that’s never the same twice, not a throwaway gimmick created in five minutes by an overworked marketing manager late for a meeting. At the same time, however, the idea is simple enough that even people who don’t know football can still understand and enjoy playing it.
Granted, overly complicated ideas are out there, and, in general, keeping things simple is a good rule of thumb. My point is not to ignore or discount something simply because it is complicated. Respect the intelligence of your target market, and if the game or tool is designed well and married with something familiar (like the NFL), complication can win you more users and fans, not fewer.
5. Simply put, it’s just fun. Fantasy football is just plain fun. You get to build your own football team from your favorite players and compete against your friends. It’s a great idea. And when it comes down to it, the most important thing is having a solid idea.
I’ve seen a lot of marketing materials, initiatives and tools that are all facts and sales, but no solid idea, nothing to engage the target market or stand out from the information overload. To grab and hold people’s attention, you need a solid idea that includes one or more of the following elements:
-It should be interesting, not just informative.
-It should be entertaining and fun.
-It should be useful, or function as a useful tool.
-It needs to be different and unique, even something common done in a truly unique way.
If your communications aren’t based on a solid, humanly relevant idea with benefits that draw people in, then why would I waste my time with it?
Fantasy football has changed the very game it was based on, and for the better. Marketers can learn a lot from the rise of NFL fantasy football in their own marketing efforts—how one great idea that lets your best customers take the reins of your brand can change the way you do business forever. And, yes, that’s a good thing.