MLS Kicks Off Into The Digital and Fantasy Spaces
It is spring across North America, and with the warm weather sports fans, especially those interested in the numbers crunching of fantasy, usually turn their thoughts to the baseball diamond. Along with football, the fantasy world has been dominated by the intricacies of baseball since its inception as rotisserie baseball almost 30 years ago. With that fantasy niche and a long season rich in content, baseball also grew as a dominant player in the digital space while most other sports were feeling their way along. MLB.com became such a large player in the digital space that it was able to expand its focus, and literally its bandwidth, to help other sports and properties launch their digital footprint over the years. CBS Sports got a boost from MLB.com in its early adaptations of “March Madness” to the web, and others like Figure Skating, Pro Volleyball and even soccer turned to “BAM” and their leader Bob Bowman for help in understanding and managing the digital space.
However over time, most sports have done some great self-examination to understand their consumer and find ways to best manage and then streamline their digital presence on their own.
The NHL was one of the first to realize that their demo and their core fans were more first adopters driven to the web for content than to traditional media. The league tested and embraced various platforms and as a result they have become one of major sports’ leaders in online fan activation and engagement. Baseball continues to be an innovator, while the other majors also invest more and more time and effort in finding the balance between the traditional and the digital ways to best address and embrace the improved fan experience.
One property that is looking to step up its digital fan engagement platform and get more in tune with the emergence of fantasy in 2011 is Major League Soccer, which began its season last week. MLS has arguably been the fastest-growing overall sports property in North America in the past five years, as the young people who grew up with soccer as their primary sport become avid consumer and purchasers. The league has benefited from cost controlled growth and a market by market approach to expanding and improving the quality of its business over time, the next step of which is in the digital space. Last fall MLS partnered with Big Lead Sports, the leading independent sports site on the web, to launch the first-ever year-round fantasy sports game of any kind. The game uses the assets of the Premier League and other elite properties to give fans some fun choices to follow the sport in the MLS offseason and also build an affinity between soccer fans in general and MLS, which is growing but still not completely accepted. So how will an expanded and concentrated digital push and a push into more fantasy play help MLS specifically and soccer in general continue to increase its reach in North America?
“A successful digital strategy is critical to building the sport of soccer. The new generation of soccer fans wants to experience the sport through the web, their phones, their tablets and other new platforms. By providing unique digital content, MLS will continue to grow its fan base and the popularity of soccer overall,” said Big Lead Sports CEO Chris Russo, who helped the NFL build out a similar digital plan when he was a top executive there. “There is a big opportunity to grow fantasy soccer games around the world. While baseball and American football have been the largest fantasy sports to-date, the worldwide popularity of soccer provides a great opportunity to attract new fantasy players and serve brand advertisers with high impact sponsorship platforms.”
MLS agrees with Russo’s assessment, and is fully behind the expanded digital play and activation through fantasy, added Chris Schlosser, the leagues’ director of digital strategy.
“We are investing significant resources in the digital area and are now creating four times the content we did in 2009 (when MLS took their digital platform back from MLB.com) and we are investing heavily in the mobile and social space. We are also bringing more stats to MLS, and as part of this we recently signed a deal with Opta Sports to significantly track more stats for each game,” Schlosser said. “For example, we now track every touch of the ball and its outcome. We believe that over time this enhanced data will allow us to better analyze and cover our games.
These enhanced stats also open up a window into some pretty exciting fantasy opportunities as we now can have fantasy games that score points with a myriad of categories, rather than just the simple goals, assists, wins, and saves, that historically have been used by soccer fantasy games. We believe that a range of fantasy options allow our fans to decide how they would like to interact with MLS in the gaming space. “
Schlosser also pointed out that other emerging leagues in the digital space, like the aforementioned NHL, can also set the standard for what MLS can do with their fan base and help them learn and grow other opportunities. “The NHL has done great things in the digital space,” he added. “ We look at what all of the Leagues are doing as a baseline for what we should be providing our fans. Over time our hope is not to simply do what the other Leagues do, but also to create some unique and innovative experiences for our fans across our digital platforms. One example of this is our recently released iOS applications. They are the first pro sports apps to fully feature Apple Air Play to allow our users to connect their devices to Apple TV.”
So with all this increased activity in the digital space comes the fantasy play, which really began at a higher level with the first game launch this past fall. The issue with fantasy in soccer is the way the space is both perceived and activated against not just by Americans used to fantasy in other sports, but by other cultures who may not be so tied to what fantasy is all about. The Hispanic market for example, has been slow to really embrace the nuances of fantasy baseball, and that may also happen in soccer. “Fantasy is a very different product internationally,” Schlosser added.
“Features like live drafts, head-to-head play, and expansive stat categories are really not a part of the international market. In fact our League Manager game may be the first-ever full featured soccer League Manager game anywhere in the world. As far as the Hispanic market goes, we are looking at all our options and partners there too, to see what can best work, since a good portion of our growth is tied to the Hispanic marketplace here in North America.”
With all that in mind, MLS is launching a series of additional fantasy games to try and find the added content and fan engagement that will help grow digital market share. They have turned to California based Fast Point Games, a leading white label developer of sports and entertainment games, to help find a series of games that will engage current MLS fans while not alienating the fan base which may not have yet embraced fantasy soccer.
“We can look at American football as an example of fantasy’s impact on a major sports league, and it’s incredibly important,” said Kelly Perdew, Fast Point Games CEO. “Fantasy games help the fans learn more about players from the entire league and not just their favorite team. This makes EVERY game exciting. MLS has some similar dynamics (weekly games) and some different dynamics (games on different days of the week and a long season). There are slightly different game dynamics / settings that make each sport a unique opportunity when it comes to fantasy play – we are powering both a salary cap style game and a league manager style game for MLS to appeal to a large and diverse audience. The more engaged fantasy players become in the games online, the more knowledgeable they become about the league.”
Perdew, whose company has also built white label games for entities like the NBA as well as for entertainment media properties like US Weekly and The Bachelor, also added that the balance among competitive, detailed games and simple game has to be struck for the play to be effective for fans. “It’s important in all sports to offer simple and complex games because fans range from very knowledgeable to just getting into the sport, “ he added. “Not only do we want to offer products that appeal to the avid MLS fan, but we like to make the sport, teams and players approachable for a broad audience. We’ve found that once a fan understands any single type of fantasy sports game, it’s fairly intuitive for them to pick up alternate game styles.”
Fast Point has created two games, a League manager and a Salary Cap game, for fans to try at the start of this season. The hope is that both these, along with other efforts in the digital space with platforms like Twitter and Facebook, continue to move MLS further up the charts in fan engagement, which naturally leads to more brand affinity for players and teams and more offerings for partners.
The audience for fan engagement in the digital space for soccer is certainly growing, and with it comes the added interest in gaming and other platforms, and with soccer in the North America is growing in interest and fan engagement, with MLS and its partners leading the way. Baseball and football in the fantasy space are still kings, and if the digital overall growth of a soccer property can properly engage in the the gaming space, maybe there will be a day when the casual fan will be crunching his soccer numbers as a fantasy rite of spring, just like he or she does this time of year with baseball.