BY Adam Kelsey
In the private rooms of bars and restaurants across Midtown Manhattan — spaces often used for business lunches and client negotiations — a new type of transaction is taking place. Devotees of fantasy football are taking their game offline, opting for face-to-face settings instead. And restaurants couldn’t be happier.
Last year, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association reported that 33 million people played fantasy football, a game in which fans handpick their own customized fantasy teams based on the statistical performance of NFL players. After tallying up the team with the most points, a winning fantasy player can end up making money on bets — and restaurants and sports bars that have started to host events, where participants pay to choose their teams in a social setting, see new profits as well.
In recent years, the concept known as the “draft party” has been popularized as local businesses have spotted an opportunity to cash in on the growth of fantasy football, an industry worth at least $11 billion according to statistics compiled by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Three hours for a private room for up to 20 people starts at $45 per person in New York City, and this does not include alcohol and extras that are ordered throughout the night. Restaurant and bar owners advertise their private rooms as the ideal setting, free from distractions, for gathering with one’s competitors to pore over statistics and select their teams.
At Mustang Harry’s on 7th Avenue, the fantasy football parties didn’t start as a moneymaking venture.
“A friend of mine just wanted a place to hold his draft,” explained owner Niall Conroy. “The next year we thought we could do it for everyone.”
Mustang Harry’s is used to hosting football lovers, like fans of the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos who watch games at the bar throughout the season. However, fantasy players represent a new customer base; they watch the games but they also pay money to compete against other fantasy football players.
For Mustang Harry’s, hosting a draft party every day during the busy season in late August can total an additional $5,000 per week in revenue. And fantasy players who have a good time are likely to return throughout the football season.
Chad Kilinski, a 23-year-old electrical engineer, has been playing fantasy football for eight years. At first, his leagues selected players online, but for the past six years they have been drafting in person. They still keep track of everything on computers, but he says that being around everyone else provides a competitive advantage because of the ability to “talk [trash] while we keep our eyes on the screen.”
Fantasy football players tend to look a lot like Kilinski: two-thirds are men, with an average age in the mid-30s. More than half are college-educated and have an income of $70,000 or more, which provides disposable income to pay for entry fees, wagers and research material.
In a 2010 edition of Sport Marketing Quarterly, researchers Brendan Dwyer and Joris Drayer found that fantasy football players were more likely to watch the NFL at a bar or restaurant than the average fan. Bars and restaurants often subscribe to packages that allow them to show multiple games at once, appealing to fantasy devotees who can keep track of all their players.
National restaurant chains like Hooters on 33rd Street have caught on to the draft party trend as well. The restaurant provides fantasy league organizers with a card that provides perks and rewards if they return to the restaurant throughout the year.
“We want every customer to be a regular,” said Andrea Hill, Hooters Manhattan Director of Marketing.
Kilinski, who attends draft parties at Hooters, appreciates the added benefits, but admits they aren’t a motivating factor. The winner of his fantasy football league will walk away with $1,000 – the biggest incentive of all.
“I love gambling and the chance to win money.”