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Major League Soccer looks to online fantasy game

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Major League Soccer hopes fans come to its new online fantasy soccer game for kicks and turn into even bigger lovers of the global sport.

MLS and partner Big Lead Sports are increasing marketing for the newly launched "Pro Soccer Picks" -- which asks players to select winners or who will score goals in each day's matchups -- in the run-up to the MLS Cup final on November 21.

The new game is more modest than its previous efforts at a traditional fantasy game, a typically time-consuming affair of drafting teams, following statistics and making trades. Major League Baseball, ESPN and others have introduced similar simpler games in recent years.

The idea is to build a consumer affinity for the sport that will ultimately translate to a more loyal and financially supportive fan base, said Chris Schlosser, MLS director of digital strategy.

"I see fantasy sports as a fantastic way to engage soccer fans," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Financial terms of the one-year deal were not disclosed, but MLS officials are viewing it as a start with more fantasy games planned before the 2011 season.

Fantasy sports took a huge leap in the late 1990s as the Internet made sports results more widely available and sites like Yahoo began to host fantasy sports leagues.

There are now about 30 million fantasy sports players in the United States and Canada, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, generating annual revenue of about $1 billion.

The potential user market for fantasy soccer games is in the millions, said Chris Russo, chairman of Big Lead Sports' parent company Fantasy Sports Ventures.

MLS created its free online game around real MLS and English Premier League games as a way to appeal to U.S. and Canadian soccer fans year round.

Next season will be MLS's 16th season and its ultimate financial success will depend on strengthening ties with fans, and fantasy games are one way to do that.

The appeal of the new MLS game is its simplicity, a growing trend in the online game world as a way to lure casual fans who don't want to spend hours every week on the more time-consuming traditional games.

Most fans think of fantasy sports as drafting a team of actual players, whose game-play and statistics then help determine a fantasy team's performance.

MLS hopes the new game fares better than the more traditional versions it previously offered, so it turned to Big Lead Sports, which ranks among the most popular online sports companies with monthly visitors to its 600 websites totaling more than 18 million.

"It's really our first foray into fantasy soccer and we think it's a pretty exciting opportunity because of the growth of soccer here in the U.S. but also over time the opportunity to tap into soccer all over the world," Russo said.

He said the MLS game follows in the footsteps of such popular casual games as Major League Baseball's "Beat the Streak" and ESPN's "Streak for the Cash," both of which require little time but offer potential rewards.

MLB's game, launched in 2001, asks fans to pick a player from that night's baseball games in the hopes he gets a hit with the goal of eventually topping Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak. While prizes are awarded each year for the longest streak, no one has ever won the grand prize, which has grown to $3.5 million.

ESPN's game, which takes a similar approach to the MLS game across all sports, was launched in 2008 and has awarded about $3.2 million in total prize money. More than 270 million picks have been made at the Walt Disney Co sports unit's website with soccer accounting for the second largest total at 51 million.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Derek Caney)