It’s football season here in the United States (for those of you reading this from outside the U.S., I’m talking about the kind played with the oblong ball and guys wearing lots of pads). That means one thing: fantasy football leagues are forming at a record rate. According to a recent Business Week article, over 15 million people now participate in fantasy sports leagues, and 90% of those play fantasy football. The article also notes that web sites supporting fantasy football leagues have grown 20-25% a year for the last five years -- an astounding rate. Fantasy sports are big business, estimated at generating between $1 and $2 billion in revenues annually.
So why bring up fantasy sports in the context of collaboration? Simple, much in the way the adult film industry drove growth of technologies such as video tapes and the Internet, I’m convinced that fantasy sports will drive the growth of online collaboration.
The market for web sites hosting fantasy football leagues is increasingly competitive, with ESPN, Yahoo! and CBS Sportsline all adding collaborative features as a way to differentiate their services from each other.
For example, Yahoo!’s leagues include integration with Yahoo Messenger, enabling team owners to see if other owners are currently online (a great tool for negotiating trades). CBS Sportsline recently added chat room capabilities enabling players to hold their player drafts virtually, with player selection capabilities integrated into the chat service. ESPN offers a similar capability. Most leagues allow you to publicize your IM “handles” to other league members as well.
I expect that collaborative features will continue to increase within each of these (and other) fantasy sports services. I also expect that we’ll see an increasing amount of partnerships between the popular sites, and tools that enable real-time collaboration. For example, it would not surprise me to see integration announcements between IM/VoIP/presence providers such as AOL and Skype, with sites such as ESPN or CBS Sportsline (though AOL is trying to build up its own fantasy sports services). By the start of next year’s football season, I expect all the major fantasy sports sites to offer capabilities to enable participants to collaborate via IM, voice, and perhaps even video. I also expect to see additional tools, such as a feature that allows you to collaborate with another player to arrange a trade by creating potential trade scenarios that both members can view in real-time. (Today, most leagues require you to send your trade proposal to another team via e-mail)
For many individuals, their fantasy sports leagues will be their first exposure to unified communications, as real-time collaboration tools and services converge with non-real-time applications. But there is also potential for a backlash. In one fantasy football league that I’m part of, a rule change was proposed this weekend banning roster moves between 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM, since not all players have access to e-mail during the day. Obviously those who have access to real-time collaboration tools will have a distinct advantage to those that don’t.
For those of you developing tools for real-time collaboration, follow the fantasy sports market, it may be your ticket to a championship.
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