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How FPL has become ‘one of the most important pillars’ of the Premier League’s digital strategy

With 11.4 million users around the world, Fantasy Premier League is a success story in fan engagement. Alexandra Willis, director of digital media and audience development at the Premier League, explains how the English soccer competition’s official fantasy game provides value for the organisation’s commercial partners and underlines its role in promoting the league globally.

12 Jun 2023 Josh Sim

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Mention the term ‘FPL’ to any Premier League soccer fan and they will quickly make a connection to Fantasy Premier League.

Established 20 years ago, last season there were 11.4 million people around the world that played the Premier League’s official fantasy game, from users based in Lagos all the way to the US. Players can range from the most clued-up supporters of a top-flight club, to those who aren’t as interested in the sport. This season’s winner, Ali Jahangirov, who is from Azerbaijan, finished five points clear to win numerous prizes from the league, including a week-long holiday in the UK that includes VIP hospitality tickets for two matches next season.

As well as being an addictive source of entertainment for fans, Alexandra Willis, director of digital media and audience development at the Premier League, explains that FPL has a greater purpose in terms of marketing and promoting the English top flight and its players.

“Fundamentally, what it’s designed to be is a broader marketing and promotional vehicle for the Premier League as a whole, and create things that are going to bring new people into the sport and competition,” says Willis, speaking at SportsPro Live at London’s Kia Oval in April. “These things are going to allow them to develop an affinity that then allows them to go on to do something else.

“And even though many people maybe don’t make it all the way to the end of the season, that’s OK. Because often Fantasy Premier League is the first touchpoint into engaging with us directly. People then go on to be immersed in our matchday live experience, or watching content, or most importantly, they develop an affinity with a particular club, and we’re able to direct and support them in that journey as they develop and broaden their fandom.

“So it’s become one of the most important pillars of our digital media strategy, because it is able to do that. Of the 11.4 million people who are playing Fantasy Premier League, nine million of those people then opted in to hear more about a club, and we’re then able to sort of demonstrate that level of value back to the business.”

Providing value for partners

FPL’s popularity and influence is impossible to miss several hours before the first game of a Premier League weekend, with fantasy-related content often trending on social media. As Willis explains, the league sees the game as a key community-building tool and reiterates that the game’s free-to-play nature is a “fundamental principle” that it wants to protect.

“What hopefully people feel is part of a community, and that community is so much broader than just having a single route in or a single appreciation for something,” she adds. “I think that’s very symptomatic of who we are as consumers today. We have the opportunity to engage in so many different things and in so many different ways. What we’re hopefully doing is giving people a place to be part of that community.

“And what’s brilliant is that the community responds. So not only our official partners that we work with, but the broader media industry, they now create content around this talking point of Fantasy Premier League.”

For the 2022/23 season, the league worked with its domestic broadcast partner Sky Sports to produce more FPL content for its channels. That included supplying the pay-TV network with feeds from the game for custom graphics, while the broadcaster is also able to incorporate FPL into its programming to build excitement about upcoming gameweeks.

“It allows [Sky Sports] to do that brilliant thing of bridging the gap between their match build-up,” Willis notes. “But it also allows them to talk about the Premier League more holistically than just individual matches. There are matches going on all of the time, and to be able to bring that more holistic view is something that they’ve been appreciative of.

“It’s something that we really want to try and expand and grow and adapt our approach for different media partners in different territories.”

As well as the Premier League’s broadcast and commercial partners, the game can also be leveraged by clubs themselves to deepen engagement with their fanbase. Manchester City produced their own dedicated FPL show to capitalise on interest in their striker Erling Haaland, who became a popular pick for fantasy players after arriving in England.

“They’ve taken a similar approach to Sky in that they have not just thought about fans as data records, but they’ve leveraged the narrative and the content,” Willis says. “They’ve built their own community, they’ve tied it into their membership programme for their Citizens.

“Ideally, we would love every club to be able to broaden the appeal of the game and create their own depth of engagement with their own fans around Fantasy Premier League.”

Manchester City produced their own FPL-focused show as interest in Erling Haaland among users rocketed

Evolving the product

The widespread adoption of FPL isn’t something that has happened overnight. The platform is a 20-year-old product which has morphed into much more than a game, spawning new content opportunities and cultivating a wider fanbase for the Premier League in the process.

A fantasy offering won’t have the same impact for every sports property, particularly those annual events whose competitions last for weeks rather than months, but Willis believes all organisations can find a way of using digital to improve access and encourage people to engage more often.

“There is plenty of room amidst the different types of content, digital experiences and digital products for sports properties to create something that enables people to come in and is very accessible, but also enables that level of depth and repeat behaviour, which is ultimately what drives fandom that lasts forever,” she states.

“That’s what we’ve tried to create, but we also know that there’s a lot more we can do to it.”

Indeed, Willis highlights that there is another format of the game called Fantasy Premier League Draft, which is targeted at American users and performs very well among fans in that market. She also reveals that there is “a new format coming” for the start of the next season.

The 2022/23 season saw FPL undergo a rebrand and also included the launch of the ‘Second Chance’ league, which saw ran from gameweeks 17 to 38 and saw all users restart from zero. It gave existing players an opportunity halfway through the season to revive their fortunes and compete for the same prizes on offer in the overall global league. It also allowed those who had missed the start of the campaign to get involved further down the line.

“There’s lots of feedback from the community all of the time of small things that can be improved and enhanced,” Willis continues. “So beforehand, you’re in the phase of preparing and getting more excited while picking your teams. But then how [FPL] is acting as a compliment to the live coverage I think is something else to be explored.”

Growing the Premier League overseas

FPL is all about the players. Armchair fans are now just as concerned about the identity of the individual who assisted a goal as they are who scored it in their pursuit of precious points on the game. It also means that when a club makes a star signing FPL users are already thinking about how they can integrate them into their fantasy teams.   

Willis acknowledges the influence star players can have in expanding the league’s popularity among younger audiences but believes “it isn’t entirely true” that younger fans follow players rather than clubs.

“I think that star players can play a significant role in bringing somebody in,” she begins. “We’ve certainly seen that in some research that we’ve done in the US, India and China, given the cult of celebrity and the cult of personality that exists in those markets.

“But one of the things that’s fascinating is when a big player is signed to a team and this sort of avalanche of fans follows them in, is what the club and the league can then do to embed those fans in the heritage, the culture and the differentiators of that club. To make the same point, you don’t just lop off half of your brain when you stop being interested in something. You retain interest in it. And that’s our ability to capitalise on it.

“But certainly players are a tremendous asset, and making sure that we use their time really effectively to grab onto those kernels of interest is important.”

FPL has contributed to the growth in the Premier League’s popularity in the US, where the competition is taking its inaugural Summer Series preseason tour this summer. It will see six clubs, including Chelsea, Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion, play nine games during a week in July across cities such as Philadelphia, Orlando and Atlanta.

“That’s another example of trying to understand what resonates with fans in that market,” Willis says. “And one of the things that’s bubbled up from them is that they crave physical proximity to the product over here.

“So there are lots of ways that we can help them feel closer. We can do that through storytelling, our broadcasters can do that through their coverage, and the clubs do a brilliant job of making people feel like they’re in the stadium.

“But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing up close. And while the Premier League’s in the US, some of the other clubs will also be there. So I think it’s going to be really interesting to see the reaction and response.”

The Summer Series will also provide an opportunity for the league to market some of its clubs to those who are yet to choose a team to support, which Willis sees as a growth opportunity.

“One of the other things that’s interesting is that it’s proven that same point, that people’s affinity is multi-layered,” she adds. “I think over 60 per cent of the people that registered for tickets follow multiple clubs. Of that 60 per cent of people, 80 per cent have a favourite club. So it’s not that they’re saying, ‘I’m just going to be a generalist’ – they have a passion, but they want to keep an eye on lots of things.

“Where we think there is this growth opportunity, again, for us to be this broader marketing vehicle, is 22 per cent of people don’t yet follow a club. That’s our growth opportunity and that’s really exciting.”

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