Fantasy football is booming. An estimated 28 million people now play a game that less than two decades ago was enjoyed by only diehard fans and stat geeks. And real football is doing just fine, too. The NFL likely surpassed $10 billion in revenue last season -- a record -- and it projects $25 billion is a possibility by 2027. This year's Super Bowl was the most watched television program in U.S. history.
Given these numbers, it's reasonable to think fantasy football is good for the NFL. But is it all sunshine and rainbows? A team of researchers investigated.
Fantasy football is good for the NFL, right?
Professors Joris Drayer, Stephen Shapiro, Brendan Dwyer, Alan Morse, and Joel White tackled the subject in a paper published in the Sport Management Review. After interviewing a sample of fantasy football users, the researchers found the game doesn't replace fans' support for their favorite NFL teams. "It is simply providing another outlet for NFL fans to enjoy following the league as a whole," they write. That's great news, because, historically, loyalty is a key driver of sports fandom.
In that same light, Drayer et al. discuss another benefit of fantasy football: It broadens fans' horizons. They write:
An individual's ''NFL experience'' changed from an individual team focus to a leaguewide focus. Our findings suggested that fantasy football participation helped to generate a broad interest in the NFL rather than a narrow interest in a specific team.... Team loyalty is not the only form of attachment that fans have; they also possess a degree of involvement with or attachment to the sport itself.
This is evident in an array of statistics. Last season, NFL regular-season viewership on CBS (NYSE:CBS) and Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) grew an average of 7% from 2012, and NBC Sunday Night Football was prime time's top show for the fourth straight year. Beyond TV, the usage of fantasy football apps also rose 15% in 2013, Nielsen reports.
A problem remains
Despite this growth, NFL attendance has remained flat since 2008. Attracting fans to live games remains a problem fantasy football cannot solve. Why?
They're simply more comfortable taking in the action at home, and to this point, stadiums have failed to adapt. Drayer et al. seem to agree, revealing that "participants indicated that they were less likely to attend games because of their involvement with fantasy football and their desire for instant statistical information."
I've written about this issue before. A handful of NFL teams -- the Falcons, 49ers, Jaguars, and Broncos -- are at the forefront of venue innovation. In Denver, for example, Mile High Stadium showcases fans' tweets on its scoreboard. And San Francisco is partnering with Yahoo! to build a fantasy football lounge in its new Levi's Stadium.
But that will only go so far. If the NFL really wants more fantasy users to show up on game day, it must ensure every single one of its teams is taking similar steps to modernize their stadiums.
The bottom line
Given the findings of Drayer and his colleagues -- and common sense -- it's clear football is benefiting from the fantasy boom. The NFL is already the world's biggest sports league by revenue, and this may be its biggest asset. The development of its own fantasy site and DirecTV's new fantasy channel are both steps in the right direction, and venue upgrades are worth keeping an eye on. As long as real football continues to embrace fake football, the future is bright.