True Football Fans Live in a Fantasy World

Analyzing online conversations to identify differences between fantasy football and NFL audiences

National Draft Day marked the official beginning of the fantasy football season. Millions of Americans coordinated complicated drafts to pick the players they think can take them to their own “Super Bowl.”  

There’s no denying that fantasy football has had a real-world impact on the NFL, but how similar are the two ‘sports’? Are there differences between those who watch football and those who play fantasy? Are fantasy athletes just more passionate than average sports fans? And, crucially, what should businesses know about these two important groups of consumers?

NFL conversation peaks during the playoffs. As the season ends, and the stakes raise, social conversation about the NFL grows. The fantasy season ends at the end of the regular season, also impacting social volume as fantasy talk hits its lowest point of the years during the playoffs.

Interestingly, fantasy conversation begins to pick back up after the Super Bowl. Once the Super Bowl has taken place, NFL fans have nothing more to discuss, but fantasy players are already scouting their next teams. Fantasy football conversation peaks just before the beginning of the season, as fantasy owners announce to the world who they snagged for the season.

Two Distinct Fanbases?

It seems safe to assume that the the fantasy football and NFL audiences would be pretty similar. In fact, there are some key differences.

The audience discussing fantasy football is much younger than the audience talking about the NFL — less than a quarter of fantasy fans are over 34, while almost 40% of people discussing the NFL are.

The audience interests also vary between fantasy football and regular football conversations.

While fantasy football players and football fans are equally interested in most sports, both audiences have their own other interests. Fantasy football aficionados talk about Aaron Rodgers, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Miami Dolphins at much higher rates. This isn’t to say that all fantasy-ers are from Florida or the Midwest, just that they’re much more likely to discuss individual players and teams.

On the other side, NFL fans have less relevant interests, suggesting that the NFL attracts a broader audience. However, one of the most distinctly NFL topics is the Republican Party, showing that football fans as a whole are much more conservative than fantasy players.

Top Players

What about interests within football? Fantasy football fans have very different football-related interests than the general population, at least when it comes to players.

Tracking the most discussed players within each respective conversation is a much different group of athletes and positions.

The key difference between these two lists, like so much of football, comes down to quarterbacks. Namely that the fantasy audience devalues QBs, while the NFL audience obsesses over them. In many ways, this isn’t surprising: quarterbacks aren’t as important to fantasy teams as receivers and backs, but in the real world, quarterbacks dominate both the NFL and the online conversation about it.

The fantasy football conversation’s top mentioned player online is Le’Veon Bell, the power house Pittsburgh Steelers running back, followed by Saquon Barkley and Antonio Brown. Of the top 10 most mentioned players in fantasy football, only 2 of them are quarterbacks.

The most mentioned players in the NFL conversation are almost all quarterbacks, aside from goofball tight end Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski of the New England Patriots. Interestingly, all of the top mentioned quarterbacks are notoriously pocket quarterbacks, with only slight exceptions of Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz, and some of the best pocket QBs in the league.

So when trying to find differences between football fans and fantasy football fans, fantasy players are notably younger and much more informed, and much bigger fans of football than the average football fan.

Fantasy football, real business

But what does this mean for marketers and businesses? Comparing the fantasy football online conversation to the NFL discussion shows that audience analysis is key for advertisements, because two audiences that might appear very similar on the surface could actually have key differences between them. Understanding the respective interests and demographics of the two groups can help you improve targeting, engagement and loyalty. Running an advertisement during a football game in an attempt to reach hardcore football fans would likely be more expensive, and less effective, than a banner ad on a fantasy site.

Fantasy football owners spend $1.7 billion annually in order to vie for the coveted fantasy title, all of whom are going to a few centralized websites. For a football company, a football game isn’t the best ad medium, but instead its where all these superfans come to meet every Sunday, not at the arena, but online.

For more football analysis, read our blog: The Most Optimistic Fanbases for the 2018 NFL Season

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