Fantasy Football Now … And Forever?
Absent the blathering and shtick so prevalent in traditional pregame shows, ESPN2's 'Fantasy Football Now' gives viewers exactly what they want—info and advice—and is our choice for The MMQB Midseason NFL Show of the Year
We’re at the halfway mark of the 2013 season, so The MMQB is pressing pause to take a look back at the storylines, teams and players that made an impact or headlines in the first half of the season. Here, Richard Deitsch names his show of the year so far.
I recently received a note from a well-known sports broadcaster.
“You keep mistaking these programs as news shows,” said Broadcaster X, who has a long career in NFL broadcasting. “Stop that. And you’ll be far happier on Sundays.”
This is good advice, but I can’t help myself. While watching last Sunday’s NFL pregame fare, I charged in optimistically hoping for thoughtful and comprehensive discussion on NFL bullying within the context of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito story. What I got instead on CBS’s The NFL Today was far more focus on Mike and Molly actor Billy Gardell, with FOX’s NFL Sunday punting on the topic in a way that would make Ray Guy proud. Thankfully, ESPN provided a comprehensive look at the story and the NFL Network did good work as well outside of Michael Irvin’s usual weekly blather.
Last weekend reminded me, once again, why I consider ESPN2’s Fantasy Football Now the best pregame show for viewers. I’m awarding it the just-created title of The MMQB Midseason NFL Show of the Year and I do so because it fulfills its charter for viewers weekly.
“Our host Robert Flores says it at the top of every show—we are here to get you a win,” says FFN coordinating producer Scott Clark, who has worked on the show for the past two years and has worked at ESPN since 1999. “Everything is geared toward fantasy football and helping people with their lineups. We also try to be entertaining doing it. The questions we ask our reporters in the field are very different than the ones reporters are asked on Sunday NFL Countdown or SportsCenter because our questions are geared toward individual players. We will hit on players that will not be discussed on other shows because we will discuss the Top 50 wide receivers or running backs each week.”
This year, 25.8 million people will play fantasy football, according to market research firm Ipsos, up from two million in 2000. It’s a monster business (the Fantasy Sports Trade Association reported that approximately $1.67 billion was spent on fantasy football in 2012) with a prized demographic and such growing interest is why fantasy football programming on television is exploding. Along with Fantasy Football Now, which airs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET on ESPN2 each Sunday, the NFL Network airs NFL Fantasy Live weekdays from 5-6 p.m. and on Sunday from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. They also have fantasy segments on NFL AM, NFL Total Access and Around The League. The NBC Sports Network airs Fantasy Football Live every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. while CBS Sports Network has a dedicated fantasy football hour from 12-1 p.m on That Other Pregame Show. (FOX Sports does not have a dedicated fantasy football-only show on its television platforms at the moment.) Worth noting is Sirius XM has a dedicated channel to fantasy sports—Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio—where 85-90 percent of its 134 hours of live programming is dedicated to fantasy football talk.
“We serve a very specific audience,” says Fantasy Football Now analyst Matthew Berry, one of the show’s fulltime staffers along with Flores, co-host Sara Walsh, medical analyst Stephania Bell and analyst Tim Hasselbeck. “It’s a large, passionate audience but also a very specific one that looks at football differently than traditional pregame shows. On Sunday morning, more than anything else, fantasy football owners are looking for answers: Who to start, who to sit, who’s injured, who’s playing, who’s inactive, who to pick up or trade, how teams are planning on using specific players. So everything the show does is geared specifically towards answering those questions.”
What’s particularly refreshing about FFN is the absence of traditional pregame standards—the over-the-top chuckling at everything a panelist opines to the awkward hawking of products or movie tie-ins. FFN is heavy on information and informed judgment and light on shtick. Think about this: Berry and Hasselbeck have to discuss hundreds of players weekly compared to other pregame shows. Last week’s show included information on Brandon Bolden, Garrett Graham, Marcel Reese, and Timothy Wright—names unlikely to be heard on other shows. “Your instincts have to be different as a producer,” says Clark. “As someone who has worked on NFL Live, SportsCenter and Monday Night Countdown, your initial instincts when there is news isn’t to spin it toward fantasy football. This show takes a little bit of a different approach as a mindset and a second level of thinking to get to the fantasy angle of it.”
FFN has averaged 476,000 viewers in 2013—up 19 percent over 2012—making it the most-watched show on ESPN2 outside of college football coverage. It also has huge social media engagement every Sunday—something all sports networks are craving at the moment. Sure, the viewership numbers are niche compared to the industry leader FOX NFL Sunday—which was averaging 5.0 million viewers through October—but a weekly audience of close to a half-million with room to grow is a very promising story for ESPN.
“I don’t feel any outward ratings pressure to hit a specific number but our core talent group is really invested in the show and is interested in how the rating is,” Clark says. “We feel like we are together trying to build a show but we are in a different universe from the network shows and Sunday Countdown.”
CBSSports.com fantasy analyst Dave Richard—a longtime figure in the online space—believes this is only the start of the televised fantasy football revolution. “I think fantasy football will continue to be on television because the audience demands it,” Richard says. “The popularity of the game, the challenge of the game and the connection fans create between themselves and NFL players through the game isn’t going anywhere.”
If so, you’ll see more people like Berry on every network that airs sports. In addition to FFN, Berry has a fantasy segment in the 11:45 a.m. slot on Sunday NFL Countdown (right after inactives are announced), a fantasy segment on Monday Night Countdown (for the first time this year) and fantasy segments on NFL Live, SportsCenter, Olbermann, SportsNation and Colin Cowherd’s new football show. I was curious if Berry considered Sunday NFL Countdown—which he appears on—his competition for FFN. He said he did but was more worried about more online competitors.
“Honestly, for me, the biggest worry is Twitter or our own fantasy football mobile app,” Berry says. “Between those two things, you can get rankings, you can set your lineup, you can get breaking news and advice all on your phone or tablet. So that’s our biggest challenge—making sure we add enough to the conversation with our analysis, news and on screen chemistry—to make it worth someone tuning into us before a long day of watching football.”