- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

While NFL players gear up for training camp, fans are starting prep work for the annual fantasy football draft. And though the major online sports sites - ESPN, Yahoo, Fox Sports - remain go-to destinations to sign up for leagues and get the latest news, a growing group of smaller sites is collectively gaining traction.

New York-based Fantasy Sports Ventures has assembled a network of more than 400 sports-related sites, most of them independently run, that together attract millions of unique users a month.

Largely through affiliate relationships, the company has helped direct revenue to ultraspecific mom-and-pop sites that otherwise might never survive in the competitive sports landscape.

FSV was founded in 2006 by Christopher Russo, a former head of new media for the NFL. In helping to build the league’s digital presence (and bring the league on board to the fantasy craze), Russo noticed a host of independent sites that offered great content but had no real way to make money.

“I thought there was an opportunity to create an independent marketing and media company focused on fantasy sports,” Russo said. “Part of the way I could make that proposition interesting for advertisers was to aggregate all of the fantasy niche sites that had really great content but weren’t monetizing themselves all that well.”

In other words, FSV does most of the marketing dirty work, setting up cross-promotions and selling advertising.

The Fantasy Players Network, as it is called, includes some well-known names - The Huddle, KFFL and Hoopsworld.com, for example.

FSV owns about 20 sites and holds affiliate agreements with hundreds of others ranging from the popular sports blog The Big Lead to stats-oriented sites such as Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. Most recently, FSV purchased popular fantasy baseball site BaseballHQ. Even the official Web sites of the ATP Tour and Harlem Globetrotters have arrangements with FSV.

“These sites are for avid fans. You go to big sports portals, it’s a combination of avid fans and casual fans,” Russo said. “You can go to a site that’s just baseball statistics, or just football injuries, or just the NBA Draft. The specialization that’s happened has been great for fans because they can get a depth of content that wasn’t available before.”

FSV’s most important partnership might be with USA Today, which purchased a minority stake in the company last year and promotes FSV’s sites online and in print.

And it helps, of course, that fantasy sports is a booming business. The company estimates that 15 million people, largely younger males, participate in fantasy sports, including as many as 11 million in fantasy football alone. The average fantasy sports player spends more than five hours a week managing a team and 12 hours on the fantasy league “host” site or a site featuring fantasy sports content.

Every deal is different, but under a common affiliate agreement, FSV holds a multiyear contract for exclusive rights to market and monetize a site and splits revenue evenly with the site owners.

Altogether, the FSV network of Web sites drew more than 10 million unique visitors in June, trailing only Foxsports.com, MLB.com, ESPN.com and Yahoo.com.

Russo said the company’s goal is to place the network in the top three of all online sports properties by this fall and reach No. 1 within two years. SportsBusiness Journal named FSV one of the top five digital sports media companies of 2008.

“We’ve grown very quickly, and the scale is important,” Russo said. “For advertisers, being able to reach a large audience of avid fans as a good thing.”

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