Football fans tuning in to early-season NFL action probably can’t help but notice a marketing audible: Long the domain of beer ads and commercials starring Peyton Manning, the games are suddenly blitzed by promotions for daily fantasy sports leagues.
Boston-based DraftKings Inc. has aired more television ads over the past month than any other brand — more than 25,000 nationwide, according to the ad tracker iSpot.tv Inc. DraftKings’ chief rival, FanDuel Inc. of New York, ranks 12th, with more than 10,000.
Daily fantasy (a slight misnomer, since some contests span five days) has been a fast-growing business for several years and is familiar to sports fans who put money on the line for a chance to win millions by trying to predict which combination of real players from different clubs will perform best in upcoming games.
But recent marketing has elevated the two leading sites from the realm of statistical nerdom to mainstream visibility on par with some of the biggest companies in America.
During the seven-day period that began with the NFL’s season opener between the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, DraftKings and FanDuel combined to spend $26.1 million on TV ads, iSpot estimates, placing each among the top eight US advertisers, along with Verizon, Warner Bros., and Geico. The ads certainly got noticed — and not always for the better.
Remarking that fans watching the first week of NFL games were “inundated by commercials for fantasy sports websites,” US Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey last Monday called for a congressional hearing to “review the legal status of fantasy sports.”
Fantasy leagues now claim 56.8 million users in North America, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Days later, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said she was conducting a review of fantasy sports, though a spokesman said he could not say if ads spurred the action.
DraftKings and FanDuel maintain their businesses are protected by an exemption to the federal Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act, which distinguishes between betting on point spreads — illegal in most states — and entering fantasy sports contests that “reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants.”
In a handful of states with strict laws, DraftKings and FanDuel prohibit residents from entering contests. But both operate in a majority of states.
Many professional leagues and teams — historically averse to gambling — have bought the argument that fantasy is different and have either invested in DraftKings and FanDuel or signed sponsorship agreements. Kraft Group is a Draft-Kings backer, and the Patriots this season christened the DraftKings Fantasy Sports Zone, an outdoor bar on Gillette Stadium’s main concourse.
Similar bars also opened in Dallas and Kansas City; meanwhile, FanDuel billboards have gotten TV exposure at stadiums in Chicago and Charlotte.
Don’t expect marketing budgets to bust soon. FanDuel got a $275 million investment in July, led by KKR & Co., Google Capital, and Time Warner Investments. Two weeks later, DraftKings raised a $300 million round led by Fox Sports.
“You definitely need the capital, so that’s obviously part of it,” DraftKings chief executive Jason Robins said of the ad campaign. “But it really was more about the opportunity. When you know the best time of year and you know the right messages to get people to try your platform, you’ve got to go for it. We had huge numbers we were projecting.”
Robins reported that on the day of the Patriots-Steelers game, Sept. 10, and on the first Sunday of the season, Sept. 13, his company hit an ambitious target: acquiring 10 times more new customers than on the same two days last year. He declined to provide actual figures.
A FanDuel spokeswoman did not comment.
Combined, users of the top two daily sites plunked down over $60 million in entry fees in the first week of the season, according to Eilers Research LLC, which tracks the industry. “These companies are certainly a trending topic,” said Adam Krejcik, Eilers’ managing director. “ This viral attention is exactly what they want.”
While traditional fantasy football leagues stop accepting entries once the season starts — requiring contestants to draft an imaginary team of real NFL players and manage the roster all fall — DraftKings and FanDuel hold drafts every week. The companies, which also run daily contests for other sports, including baseball and golf, can pick up customers all season.
In true Boston vs. New York fashion, DraftKings and FanDuel can keep the rivalry going, blasting the airwaves with one commercial after another, for many weeks to come.