June 17th, 2010

Athlon Blends College, Pro to Stand Out in ‘Saturated’ Market

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

There are plenty of places — big, well-known places — already on the Web where someone can go to play NFL fantasy football. Even a brand with as much history behind its name as Athlon Sports faces a daunting task in trying to break through.

Their solution: innovate. The result: Pro+College Fantasy Football.

“We wanted to create additional value,” interactive director Nathan Karp told FSB.com. “Having a multi-level dynasty type game was a good fit for us. It builds off of our brand identity, which is stronger in college than pro, and our history in the fantasy game market where we pioneered the college fantasy football angle in 1996.”

Any college football junky knows that the Athlon season preview magazine has been around awhile. That pioneering history in college fantasy games was actually acquired by Athlon just more than a year ago when it purchased U-Sports.

U-Sports fantasy college football ran last season under the Athlon label, and Karp said it was actually easy to add a pro platform to the existing infrastructure. The NFL, after all, with its 32 teams and about 40 eligible players per team (sorry, O-linemen) presents a universe probably not even one-quarter the size of the 120-team Division I field (I refuse to call it the Bowl Subdivision).

“The big challenges were more about the game play itself,” Karp said. “The two biggest issues were how to accommodate the different starts and ends to the pro and college seasons and how to refer to the team names.”

Athlon is avoiding the use of team nicknames to steer clear of any trademark infringement. Instead, debate finally settled on displaying NFL teams in all caps (e.g. ARIZONA) and colleges in normal case (Arizona).

Otherwise, the game does just what it says, combining college and pro players in the same pool and giving users the ability to drain that pool a bit if desired. Those creating leagues can include any number of teams from the entire field — meaning your dream of a game comprising only the Mountain West and NFC South can finally come true. (The Big Ten, unfortunately, thought these rules applied to real life as well.)

“You can play with all 152 teams if you are so inclined, or create an All-Texas league featuring everyone from the Dallas Cowboys to the Baylor Bears,” Karp said. “We have found over and over again that our users want flexibility above anything else.”

Karp said that it’s hard to develop any real expectations for signups, since this is the first time such a model has been brought to market. He did say, however, that the effort particularly targets two groups of fantasy players:

  • dynasty leaguers who want to extend their rosters to college players before they get drafted
  • those with college and pro leagues looking to combine

Karp concedes that these aren’t large user bases, but again, entering a saturated market calls for something unique.

“We realize that those are both niche/hardcore audiences, but we also hope to draw attention to our more typical fantasy games and content through this unique offering that again blazes a trail in fantasy sports,” he said.

Athlon offers pro- and college-only fantasy leagues for free, while Pro+College costs $100 ($130 after July).