As we get through Super Bowl weekend, there are few that understand the convergence of digital, fantasy and the NFL better than Chris Russo. Russo has been ahead of the curve in his time at the NFL, in his time as the founder of what was Fantasy Sports Ventures and became The Big lead, and now is back in the business with Fifth Generation Sports, a boutique agency with capabilities in marketing, research, digital and social media with access to investment capital that will again look to be ahead of the curve in the highly fluid and volatile world of sports and digital.
We caught up with Russo to ask him about his new venture, where the opportunities, and more importantly where the misconceptions are in the digital sports business. (his bio follows)
You have been involved in a number of startups in sports and digital, what will your latest project now be doing?
Fifth Generation Sports will be focusing on the business of sports and technology. We’ll provide a range of consulting and intelligence services. I’ve also completed a relationship with MESA Global, a boutique investment bank, and I’m excited about helping build a sports M&A practice at MESA.
Fantasy Sports ventures was ahead of the curve when it launched, are you surprised with the way pay fantasy has now exploded the business?
I am not really surprised that pay fantasy has become a huge business. The leading companies in the space have done a great job with their products and marketing. Also, the fantasy business was becoming stale and needed some type of major innovation. Daily fantasy is the perfect formula because it brings in new audiences and also makes daily sports like basketball, baseball, and hockey attractive, while football continues to be very popular.
What is the key to success in any fantasy opportunity going forward?
I believe that many new opportunities to be developed in the coming years will be tied to the daily fantasy ecosystem. I expect that there will be a number of new products and services that provide some type of value to the daily player. Also, products that best leverage mobile consumption will be more likely to succeed.
How important is mobile activation?
Mobile is critically important to any digital sports property. In many cases, more than half of the digital usage is driven via mobile. Unfortunately, the monetization of mobile sports is lagging, as it is in other sectors, but I do believe that the dollars will ultimately follow the eyeballs.
Who are some of the people you follow in the business and why?
I don’t necessarily follow specific people but keep an eye on areas of innovation in digital sports. There are many interesting developments in OTT, for example. We’ve already discussed the amazing growth of daily fantasy. Also, there has been a lot of excitement in the youth and high school sports space.
The NFL just announced their long-awaited YouTube deal. How important is that partnership for the YouTube brand?
YouTube brings an enormous audience, and I think it makes sense for the NFL and other sports leagues to leverage that platform for fan development purposes. While the audience has been there for many years, my sense is that the monetization opportunity for the Leagues in this context, and in social media generally, is increasing, which is why we see renewed focus on these types of deals.
How important is it for a digital sports brand to be global? Is hyper-local content enough?
I believe that being a global brand is important for many sports properties and businesses, but not necessarily for all. Digital gives virtually every sports property a low cost way of creating a global footprint, but making money overseas may only be viable in the short run for certain properties. Regarding local content, I think the most important trend is the creation of new software and publishing tools that enable the local sports entities to efficiently create their own content. This allows a bottom up approach to local sports vs. the top down approach was which used in the early days of the internet.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about the fantasy space?
The biggest misconception is that it’s very easy to make a lot of money in fantasy sports. While it’s true that several of the companies are doing very well, the space is extremely competitive and there are many companies that need to work hard simply to keep afloat. While I would encourage new companies to pursue their fantasy sports initiatives, it’s not an easy road.
Chris Russo is a recognized industry leader and innovator in digital sports media. Mr. Russo’s diverse experience in digital sports includes his tenure as head of digital media for the NFL, his entrepreneurial success as CEO of Big Lead Sports, and his current roles as President of consultancy Fifth Generation Sports, Senior Advisor at MESA Global and adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Business and Media. Highlights of his career include:
Mr. Russo served as Senior Vice President, New Media for the National Football League. In that role, he had broad P&L responsibility for the digital media business unit and oversaw all day-to-day operations, including content, advertising sales, marketing, and business development. He completed digital media transactions with total value in excess of $1 billion, including arrangements with Sprint, eBay, Yahoo, CBS Sports, AOL, and Sirius Radio. He launched the NFL’s first-ever fantasy football products and also played a critical role in the creation of the “NFL Internet Network” business model, aggregating NFL.com and 32 team sites into a unified property. Mr. Russo received the Sports Business Journal 40 under 40 Award for 3 consecutive years and is a member of the Sports Business Journal Hall of Fame.
Big Lead Sports (aka Fantasy Sports Ventures)
Mr. Russo served as Chairman and CEO of Big Lead Sports (aka Fantasy Sports Ventures), the largest independent online sports property in the U.S., reaching more than 20 million unique users and consistently ranking in the top 5 among all online sports properties. At Big Lead Sports, Mr. Russo aggregated 500+ sports sites via strategic acquisitions and business arrangements. He completed innovative ad programs with brands such as Coke, Sprint, Coors, and Gillette/P&G. Big Lead Sports was nominated for a “Best in Digital Media” award by the Sports Business Journal. In 2012, Mr. Russo sold the company to USA TODAY.
Mr. Russo currently serves as Adjunct Instructor for the Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Business and Media. In that role, he teaches NYU’s Digital Media course to graduate students. In 2013, Mr. Russo received the NYU Sports Business Society Media Award for career accomplishments.
Mr. Russo received his BA from Northwestern University and his MBA from Harvard University