For Fantasy, Is Soccer The Next Football?

by Tanner Simkins, Guest Contributor

The rise in interest in soccer in the United States in the past few years has been well documented. Record numbers for World Cup, thousands upon thousands of young people taking to the soccer pitch, new TV deals for Bundesliga, La Liga, and Barclays Premier League with broadcasters like FOX and NBC, huge crowds showing up for summer North American “friendly” tours by the world’s elite clubs, and the continued steady growth of Major League Soccer are all part of the story, and why you will continue to see more young people, and even adults, walking the streets and stadia of America these days with Messi and Ronaldo shirts almost as much as you will with shirts for Madison Bumgarner  or David Ortiz. Soccer is part of the culture now in the United States, and its presence will continue to grow.

That growth in recent months has been great for MLS, which has seen new partners enter the league on the business side, and even for some global clubs like Bayern Munich, which has aggressively started marketing in the US with their brand partners and has even put boots on the ground with a full blown office in New York.  Still, for all the success and buzz, soccer still takes a back door to professional sports like the NBA, the NFL and MLB in terms of mainstream consistent media coverage and TV ratings. The needle is moving a bit, but it is only a slight move, not yet a massive one. Is there a niche that can help move that needle further with engagement? Maybe.  And maybe that move is in the fantasy analytics world.

While soccer statistics are not quite yet to the level of MLB or the NFL, the interest in analytics and gaming engagement appears to be growing, not just in the United States but in Europe as well. This past week, Chelsea FC became the latest club to announce a pay fantasy platform partnership with Mondogoal, a UK and Boston based company that has now built pay fantasy games for a growing number of elite clubs, ranging from FC Barcelona to AS Roma to Manchester City, all with the hopes that the daily and weekly pay fantasy area will provide a new engagement platform for their millions of supporters, not just locally but in the US as well, a place where fantasy sports are much more accepted and part of the mainstream in sports like football and baseball.

Mark Bell, Head of Licensing at Chelsea FC, said in a release last week,

As a club we always looks to engage our global fan base in new ways, we see fantasy as a next great opportunity, and are proud to partner with Mondogoal on this new venture. We have seen studies that show US daily fantasy sites get 70% of their revenue from NFL games, but around the world 70% of global sports wagering is directed at soccer, so this partnership should be well received by our followers.

If those numbers hold up, fantasy as a massive new revenue driver could become a reality in just a year’s time, especially if the education process on what fantasy is and how it works takes hold in Europe, with a culture in many places that is already used to wagering. Mondogoal, and its CEO, former AS Roma official Shergul Arshad, has said that they believe the market is there and the risk is worthwhile, although most reports have indicated that thus far the early engagement of fantasy with clubs like Liverpool and Man City is probably in the low thousands, not the millions that could be forthcoming. Also for some clubs there is the issue of other forms of wagering that are already in place and are very lucrative. You would be hard-pressed to find an EPL team that does not have a formal arrangement with a traditional bookmaker, and those companies can look at fantasy not as an enhancement, but as a hindrance to their business. The millions that some clubs make in revenue from legal bookmaking is much more than what they will pull in from fantasy at the outset, and most clubs, if not all, will stay where the money is in terms of promotion. However there is a growing feeling that fantasy will pull in new consumers and engage that younger audience that is not part of the traditional betting equation.

Chris Lencheski, CEO of sports marketing firm Phoenicia, who has worked with several global clubs on marketing and sales throughout his career, stated,

Fantasy as we understand it in the US is different than what is traditionally done in betting parlors and casinos elsewhere. The clubs are looking at fantasy as new money, a growing of the pie, not as a way to take another slice. Especially now that you have American fans engaged in the business of your club, pay fantasy can be seen as a healthy, legal and growing engagement platform in the States, as well as a new offering for your fan base around the world. It has huge potential.

So what about in the States, the home of big time pay fantasy, a place where companies like DraftKings and Fan Duel are waging marketing wars every week with consumers to get them engaged in the legal games of chance and skill with partners like the NBA and the NHL, and in non-affiliated but large scale games with the NFL and MLB? Can fantasy soccer be the next big play to grow the awareness of the sport and out more dollars in the coffers of MLS? It’s hard to say. Right now FanDuel and DraftKings have seemed to center their next efforts on sports like MMA, where the UFC has entered into the fantasy sports world. And while Mondogoal sees the massive engagement potential of more global clubs as the next big thing no matter where their fans are, the fantasy engagement and investment by MLS and interested parties appears not to be there just yet. MLS does have a growing league, but overall the widespread engagement for club-specific pay games or for large scale adoption is still in the distance. Lencheski added,

 When you look at the potential audience size at this point, MLS as a whole is growing and its clubs for the most part are very digitally savvy, but compared to the four major North American sports and even NASCAR, their footprint is still smaller. While it makes great sense to start looking at and investing in fantasy as a bigger way to engage your fan base, you have to look at the risk vs. the reward, and it seems like the bigger bang for MLS is not quite there yet. It will get there, but there are probably bigger awareness platforms that need to grow before fantasy soccer with their clubs can be really impactful and profitable. It will be at some point, but it’s not quite there yet.

There are other factors that will go into seeing if soccer is the next fantasy play as well. In the US, mobile connectivity, a key part of fan engagement, at least in the betting space abroad, is still not fully functional in some places. There are still a handful of states that do not allow pay fantasy games, the biggest of which, Washington, is the home of one of MLS’s most engaged clubs, the Seattle Sounders. There is also the issue of man hours vs. return on fantasy. It largely becomes a numbers play for investors in games, meaning you need thousands, or in the case of the NFL, millions, of casual fans to be engaged in order to make the investment financially viable. A good part of that audience comes from traditional marketing through television, a place where MLS numbers have grown only slightly, though have potential with new TV deals, and are still a fraction of the other major leagues in the US.

Still the potential for fantasy overall as a growth platform for the sport of soccer is huge, and the fact that many global clubs are investing initially in the space is a great sign that the adoption of fantasy is on the rise in cultures that did not embrace the idea before. There is also a strong possibility that brands looking for engagement platforms, Microsoft with MLS for example, may see fantasy as a way to extend their brand and engage a larger group of fans, especially if the MLS-branded fantasy offering continues to grow, and can lead to clubs investing in team-specific games like Chelsea, Liverpool and others have done.

It will take time, as has everything with MLS and soccer in general in the States. But for those who have engaged in any way with the business of soccer in the US in recent years, the upside is big and fantasy may be worth the bet.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.