Why you should care
The booming fantasy sports industry could drive more millennials to watch NASCAR.
We’ve all been there. A friend hosts a watch party for the big game, putting out a tasty spread and rustling up extra seats in front of the TV. And yet, once the action begins, everyone is glued to their phones, playing fantasy games. If you uttered the terms millennials and fantasy sports in the same breath, no one would bat an eyelash. Of the 59.3 million people who played fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada last year, the average age was 32, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA). Millennials and NASCAR, however? That combination might raise some eyebrows. Not for much longer, though, if NASCAR has its way.
The racing giant has long struggled to capture the attention of a younger demographic. In the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship — the sport’s crown jewel race — only 22 percent of the 4.66 million viewers were between the ages of 18 and 49, the key demographic. But the organization is hoping that an embrace of digital — and fantasy sports in particular — will help drive that number up.
Way up. TV ratings alone don’t tell the full story of how many people consume the product. According to NASCAR’s digital media department, the total consumption of content on NASCAR’s digital platforms on race day has increased by 29 percent in 2018 compared to 2017. NASCAR introduced its first fantasy product back in 2001, but when the association made significant changes to its race structure in 2017 and moved to a stage-racing format, it decided to revamp its fantasy product as a result. Add in the fact that fantasy sports giant Yahoo decided to cease its NASCAR offering last year, and the racing association realized it had an opportunity to dramatically increase its stake in the fantasy sports market.
It’s a tested route to success. The FSTA confirms that players watch more live sports if they play fantasy — to the tune of 64 percent. It stands to reason that if NASCAR can reach millennials where they are — playing fantasy football, baseball, hockey and basketball on multiple platforms — then it can develop a new audience of viewers through its fantasy game. Though NASCAR declined to disclose its user numbers for NASCAR Fantasy Live, it saw the number of players more than double in 2018 with the new game, as opposed to the average over the past three years under the old format, says Tim Clark, vice president of digital media at NASCAR.
“We certainly have the data and the research that suggest that younger fans on our platform who have fantasy as an entry point can use that as a way to kick off … or enhance their fandom,” says Clark. Anecdotally, per Clark, the demographics on the social and video platforms are younger than the TV audience.
NASCAR’s new turn and the early success it’s seeing are part of the larger explosive growth of the fantasy sports industry. The number of people playing fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada has grown by 23.4 million in the past five years, and has tripled in the past decade. But the move to embrace fantasy sports is also resonating with drivers, who see NACAR’s decision as a smart bet aimed at securing the sport’s future.
“I love fantasy sports; it’s something that we definitely need to keep continuing to grow,” says NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano. “People really get into it and become a student of the sport.”
To ensure wider appeal, NASCAR.com has sought to simplify its fantasy offering. “We spent a lot of time talking to fans and getting feedback from current players and ones who had played more inconsistently or who have never played,” says Clark. “What we learned is as much as we tried to be true to the nuances of the sport, from a fantasy perspective, we needed to make a simple game. The first step was making the gameplay and the scoring more simple.”
In the new format, players select five starting drivers for their team each week. These selections don’t carry over from week to week, and players may only use a single driver up to 10 times over the course of the 36-race season. And because the association now scores drivers on a points system in conjunction with its move to stage racing, the fantasy product, for simplicity, works exactly the same: Points earned in fantasy are the same as the points drivers earn during the race.
One thing fantasy players across multiple sports want is the ability to swap out a player after an event has begun, and NASCAR added that feature to its fantasy game, with the option to select a “garage driver” and swap him or her into the race at any point. It’s one element that gives NASCAR a leg up on many other fantasy sports products, which tend to lock starting lineups after a game, match or race begins.
“It’s fun and interactive, and it makes you feel more like you’re part of the sport than just watching it on TV,” says driver Martin Truex Jr., who calls the fantasy game “definitely a positive thing for the sport.”
If NASCAR’s initial gains with fantasy sports continue to grow, they could provide a blueprint for other non-major sports leagues and associations to follow as they all target the ever-important 18-to-49-year-old demographic, say experts. Internationally, there is an increased demand for fantasy leagues for soccer and cricket. Daily fantasy sports leagues have attracted an arguably even more passionate following than traditional season-long games, partly because of their breadth — players can submit lineups in sports as diverse as golf, MMA, tennis and, of course, NASCAR, without being familiar with their intricacies. If fans get hooked on these sports through fantasy, the leagues can build toward commanding the kinds of lucrative TV deals that sports’ big dogs — football and basketball — do.
The legalization of sports betting on a state-by-state basis is expected to only add fuel to the fantasy sports fire. “When betting operators are looking for customers, their first stop will be fantasy sports companies,” FSTA President Paul Charchian said in a press release. “This research strongly suggests that the value of most fantasy sports companies will rise significantly, even when the companies themselves don’t take legal wagers.”
NASCAR is already “evaluating the sports gambling space and will look for opportunities to evaluate the audience and better serve the fan in that regard,” Clark said. “Fantasy will be a big part of that.”
Gone are the days when fans simply sit on the couch to watch a game, match or race on television — but it’s up to the leagues to meet the fans where they’re at, and keep them coming back. NASCAR is starting to do that.