By: Jason Del Rey
Chris Russo launched a successful fantasy sports business. Would rebranding help the business to grow?
Chris Russo had a healthy business. The only thing holding it back, he thought, was its name. Three years after its launch in 2006, Fantasy Sports Ventures’s revenue was increasing 40 percent to 50 percent a year, a pace that surprised even Russo. But by the fall of 2009, he was uneasy. Despite the heady growth, Russo felt the company’s brand positioning was pigeonholing the business and would soon limit further expansion. What started as an online fantasy sports company had morphed into a business that owned and partnered with all sorts of other sports websites, numbering in the hundreds. The growth of the network had helped FSV amass millions of monthly visitors and placed it among the Top 10 sports online networks, right up there with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Its name no longer reflected what the company had become. “Advertisers make judgments on new companies in a snap,” Russo says, “and if they don’t want to advertise on a fantasy site for whatever reason, it gets tough because of our name.”
Still, Russo was reluctant to tinker with a business that, for the most part, worked. Should the company, he pondered, risk upsetting its trajectory on the bet it might do even better with a new strategy and brand?
When Russo launched Fantasy Sports Ventures, he brought with him a sizable Rolodex and six years of experience running the new-media division of the National Football League, where he oversaw the release of the league’s fantasy football games. With FSV, he wanted to purchase a handful of prominent fantasy sports sites, then partner with a broader network of independent sites by selling ad space for them and splitting the resulting revenue. “There was a real opportunity to aggregate a whole bunch of niche sites that together would have a large audience and then sell sponsorships and ad programs to big brands that wanted to reach passionate fans,” he says. His connections helped him raise an initial $6 million from angel investors and, later, additional funds from USA Today.
Almost from the start, though, FSV’s name was a bit of a contradiction; its first acquisition was Hoopsworld, a basketball news site that Russo felt would appeal to fantasy basketball players. The company continued to branch out from fantasy sites — signing on, for example, blogs targeted to sports at specific colleges and universities. By 2009, FSV was selling advertising space and securing promotions for hundreds of sites, forming a network that attracted as many as 16 million visitors a month. But the Fantasy Sports Ventures name sometimes confused advertisers. “We reached a point where marketers and advertisers were asking for things beyond fantasy,” says Evan Kamer, FSV’s chief operating officer, “but because of the fantasy moniker, it increasingly became a hurdle for our sales team.”
By last fall, Kamer and others were pushing for a name change, but Russo remained conflicted. The business was growing, and it had taken considerable resources to build the brand it had. Was hitting Reset really the best move? At one point, Russo proposed the idea of refocusing exclusively on the fantasy sports market. FSV’s continued success, though, was forcing his hand. “Traffic continued to grow, and I saw that we had a chance to be a top one or two site,” Russo says. “The chance of being bigger than ESPN online started to become a goal to shoot for that two years ago wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.”
In October 2009, Russo invited the managers of five of FSV’s most popular sites to New York City for an all-day meeting with the executive team to discuss the company’s future. In a rented conference room in the Marriott Marquis hotel, Russo laid out the company’s growth trajectory. He also hit on the difficulties the sales team was having with tapping into lucrative big-brand advertising budgets for general sports sites. He said he believed that FSV, with its collection of college sports blogs, an overall informal voice, and several sites rich in sports stats, had an opportunity to stake a claim as the indie-voice alternative to sites such as ESPN and Fox Sports. That would mean renaming the brand.
The mood in the room was at times tense. “There was some concern,” says Whit Walters, general manager of the fantasy football site The Huddle. “When we came into a fresh company in 2007, we were told we were going to be a fantasy company and were told that was the best positioning for FSV.” Still, he had faith in Russo and FSV and was willing to hear him out. The others were willing to listen, too, but the idea of a new brand name took time to digest. “You could see the gears turning in lots of people’s minds,” says Ron Shandler, editor and publisher of Baseball HQ, another fantasy site, “trying to figure out what this meant and project out the ripple effect.”
The Decision In December 2009, Russo enlisted the branding firm SME to help him come up with a fresh concept for FSV and explore the possibility of coming up with a new brand name. (The company’s name would remain Fantasy Sports Ventures.) To start, FSV’s executive team worked with SME’s Ed O’Hara to explore repositioning the company. O’Hara ran the team through an exercise to articulate what made FSV different from other sports sites. Russo recalls saying, “What we have is really unparalleled breadth and depth of sports knowledge and insight that helps make fans smarter. And we’re also independent, a little bit irreverent, and entrepreneurial.”
Next, O’Hara began discussing the brand name. “Fantasy Sports Ventures was not a long-term, sustainable, public-facing brand,” O’Hara says. “It felt more like a holding company and was too heavily weighted on the fantasy side.” O’Hara, Russo, and Kamer worked through dozens of possibilities for a new name. Sports Drunks, Gutcheck, and Big Air Sports were floated and then, one by one, shot down. So were Fanarchy and Fantology, though Russo felt a special affinity for the latter. But Kamer, his COO, hadn’t loved any of the names and confronted his boss. “What’s really the difference between Fantology or Fantalicious?” Kamer asked Russo. “Either way, it’s going to be very difficult for us to make a completely new brand mean something to somebody. Why don’t we just borrow from one of the ones we already have?”
That got Russo thinking about a blog FSV was in talks to acquire. The Big Lead, whose founder, Jason McIntyre, signed it on as an affiliate in 2007, had carved out a bit of a cult following for its provocative coverage of sports, sports media, and pop culture. The following year, FSV bought a minority stake in the blog with an option to buy, and in June of this year, Russo acquired the blog outright.
Kamer’s suggestion made a lot of sense, Russo figured. The company could rebrand around The Big Lead. “It already has relevance in the online community and is already seen as an independent spirit,” Russo says. The group had some reservations that The Big Lead’s brash and snarky tone could come off as too strong for the overall brand but liked the name’s potential for brand building. By June, Russo, Kamer, and O’Hara agreed on Big Lead Sports as the new brand name. “Big Lead Sports is about being ahead of the news, it’s about the big headline,” Russo says, “and it also means getting more information and analysis in fantasy so you can be smarter than your buddies.”
Now that the new name was in place, the company set out to reinvent its sites’ overall image. SME developed a new logo to be carried on all FSV-owned and partnering sites. And Russo and his team went to work on redesigning McIntyre’s blog, on which the best content from around the Big Lead Sports network will be showcased daily.
Will the rebranding make a difference? Before the October kickoff, FSV previewed new marketing materials and the website design with key advertisers. But it will take many months before Russo and his team will know if Big Lead Sports will measure up to their expectations. For now, they are putting on their game face. “We have the potential,” says McIntyre, “to grow into a beast.”
The Experts Weigh In
Build the Brand
Strategically, FSV is making the right move. It has a core audience of real fantasy gamers that are certainly very valuable, but every major sports property or network has a fantasy gaming component, and those companies have the bonus of adding footage and having substantial resources to market themselves. As an independent venture, Fantasy Sports Ventures doesn’t have access to those same assets. So it makes sense for it to come up with a brand that has better awareness and more flexibility, and that can help it build audiences more effectively.
CEO, LHB Sports, Entertainment, and Media
Scarsdale, New York
It Won’t Be Easy
When we first launched our business, we had huge traffic and were one of the top sports sites, but it was really hard to get business from the top advertisers. That’s because all the advertising goes to the very top, and brand managers always like to play it safe. If they have a $10 million budget, they’re not going to get fired if they spend it on ESPN. But if they take some risk advertising on a smaller dot-com company and it doesn’t work out, it looks really bad. You need to have a really good reputation, really good content, and a really good sales team. It’s a tough game to play.
The Name Matters
I agree with the overarching strategy. From my media planning and buying experience, in many cases it’s difficult for us to go through a whole media plan in detail with our advertiser clients. Sometimes the plan is sent over informally in a list or mentioned in a larger presentation. So there are definitely times when our clients make assumptions on just a name. For Fantasy Sports Ventures, making its name more broad positions it to advertisers as a property that’s much larger than just fantasy sports and should allow it to capture much more of the sports market.
Media supervisor, Digitas
New York City