There is something that I have to get off my chest. A confession, if you may.
I used to be a casual rugby league fan; one that only watched football on free-to-air TV (i.e. Channel Nine) and one that thought the Brisbane Broncos were the bees’ knees (I still do in fact, but I am a long-time Broncos fan as I’ve grown up in Brisbane). I didn’t even know the name and face of every single Broncos player, let alone players from other teams.
Now, in comparison, I am a rugby league nuffie; one that tries to watch every game possible, reads up on statistics for teams and players, and one that follows team movements (injuries, suspensions and the like) on Twitter and Facebook. I could probably tell you off the top of my head the starting first-choice 17 of every team in the NRL, and be able to tell you which centres, wingers and edge backrowers played left or right side of the field.
Why? One reason alone – fantasy sports. More on this later.
I was always just a casual rugby league fan, and casual was my attitude when I was first introduced to NRL SuperCoach courtesy of an invitation to join a head-to-head league from a former colleague at work. I moved jobs soon after but still kept playing, albeit still quite casually.
Eventually though, that interest grew and grew, and before I knew it I was starting to watch games that didn’t feature the Broncos. I started wanting to watch all the games which featured players from my SuperCoach team. I started to read the stats lines of the players in my team, to understand how they were scoring their points and that started to feed the addiction! I started to read news articles and follow late mail to know whether my players were struggling with injury, or in doubt to play that week. Heck, I even started wanting to know whether there were issues going on in the team or even in their personal lives which might affect their output on the field.
Fast forward another year or two and I was now deeply committed. My knowledge of rugby league had grown at an exponential rate as I watched more, and read more, and learnt more – about the game itself as well as about NRL SuperCoach. I knew how many minutes my forwards were playing. I knew how many runs my outside backs were making each week. I knew which teams were scoring the most points and which teams were leaking the most points; which specific players were weak defensively and which teams often adopted a playstyle which meant the games would often result in a real grind up and down the middle of the park – perfect for a forward-based slog.
Long story short, here I am – the 2016 NRL SuperCoach overall winner, and now regular writer of weekly NRL SuperCoach content for the Daily Telegraph (who run the NRL SuperCoach competition). I also produce other SuperCoach content for some other websites.
I can honestly say that without my interest in NRL SuperCoach, I would not be the rugby league fan that I am today. And to be honest, it’s the fans like me that you want – hardcore committed, watching games at the stadiums, watching multiple games a week on TV, getting involved with rugby league on social media platforms, engaging in conversations and generating content that talks about rugby league, and (in my rather unique situation) helping produce content that fellow NRL SuperCoach and rugby league fans read (and hopefully enjoy…!).
Call it a narrative if you want, but my own experience and journey as a rugby league fan tells me the NRL needs to ‘cash in’ on the fantasy sports cash cow in a bigger way. Yes, I’m obviously aware that the NRL has done this in some respects, with an official NRL Fantasy game. But it can be so much bigger and better – which will pay off in the long run with a larger, more committed fanbase.
We don’t even need to look far to see why this is relevant. In the US and Canada, the fantasy sports industry is big business. We’re talking a multi-billion dollar industry that enjoys participation from 16% of the combined US and Canadian population. This 16% (or 57.4 million people!) is made up of a combination of traditional fantasy sports and daily fantasy sports players.
I’m not going to go into the specifics of these terms for now. What’s important to understand though, is what was commonly-regarded as a niche industry aimed at “stats nerds” is, thanks to the internet primarily, now well and truly a mainstream pastime that a significant chunk of the US and Canadian population enjoys.
In stark contrast, fantasy sports in Australia is still an industry that’s very much in its infancy. Estimates (as of June 2016) suggest that there are approximately 1.65 million traditional fantasy sports players in Australia. This roughly translates to 6.8% of the Australian population, which is actually higher than I expected. This is across all the various sports, including the most popular AFL and NRL formats, and the increasing popularity of A-League, Big Bash League and even horseracing fantasy games.
Here’s the really interesting data – from a poll conducted amongst fantasy sports players in Us and Canada, more than 60% of respondents said they watch more live sports and read more about sports because of fantasy sports. To put it simply, they engaged more with sports, because of their participation in fantasy sports. Furthermore, more than half of the respondents said that they would cancel their league supported media service (what I would assume would be ‘the sports package’ of the US equivalent to Foxtel) but for the fact that they were fantasy sports players.
Extrapolating the 60% number, that’s effectively just shy of 34 and a half million people who are watching, reading and consuming information about sports primarily as a result of their fantasy sports involvement. And 28.7 million people signed up for sports media packages just so they can feed their fantasy sports addiction!
In other words, my own personal journey from fantasy sports to rugby league nuffie is hardly unique. Plenty others have walked that same path, even if it’s in the NFL, the NBA, the MLB or any other sport.
So, let’s bring it back to Australia and the NRL. Currently the two largest NRL-based fantasy games (NRL SuperCoach and NRL Fantasy) have approximately 132,000 and 100,000 teams registered. Entry is free. Of course, not every single one of these teams are active and there is likely to be double-ups from fantasy aficionados (like myself) who have a team in both games, but it is an indication of how much growth there could be.
Imagine the games were improved in terms of functionality and prizes increased overall (currently first place receives $50,000 for NRL SuperCoach and $15,000 for NRL Fantasy) and that the games could be run as professionally as the US fantasy sports platforms are. The fanbase will definitely grow, and with that a greater fan engagement will result. The more committed the fantasy sports player, the greater their engagement and interaction with rugby league in all its various mediums.
The beauty of this is that there does not really need to be a significant investment into fantasy sports to see it become more popular. What is $500,000 to the NRL? Bump up the prize money to $100,000 and put the rest into marketing/development/staff and you’ll easily see registrations increase significantly. The flow-on effects would be broad and wide-ranging, impacting game attendance, television ratings, internet traffic, social media and other fan engagement, merchandise and potentially even junior participation.
Maybe I’m being too simplistic, or naïve. But to me, it seems to be a fairly cost-effective means of attracting fans to the game. Surely it’s worth some consideration. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or via Twitter: @CatfishSC