How Fantasy Premier League went from niche hobby to mainstream boom

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Picture the scene; you’re doing your Fantasy Premier League team selection at the last minute on a Friday afternoon, and you’re unsure whether your star striker is going to be fit for his side’s match on Saturday. There’s just one problem: you have no way of verifying his fitness until Saturday’s newspapers are published. And instead of confirming your team’s changes with a swipe of your finger on an app, you have to phone them in before the deadline.

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Desperate times call for desperate measures. You contact the Premier League club the striker plays for and pretend to be a local journalist. Somehow you get through to the assistant manager, who tells you the forward will be available to play tomorrow. You call up the fantasy football company and confirm your team for that weekend with a person on the other end of the line, smug in the knowledge you have gained an advantage over your rivals.

If that sounds like overkill — because, well, it is — it’s also proof of the dedication shown by fantasy football players in the game’s early days in the UK The above story is real — it happened in the 1990s in the league of Tim Benson, a business consultant, when a Liverpool striker was doubtful for the weekend.

That analogue version of fantasy football could not be further from today’s official Premier League product, played by almost 11 million users around the world, including armchair pundits, chess grandmasters and top-flight players themselves. For the game’s early adopters such as Benson, however, the version where friends held draft-style auctions for fantasy players in person, phoned in or faxed their team changes and only knew their total points the following Tuesday will always hold a special allure.

“A friend of mine said it summed it up perfectly when he was in his kitchen and a game was on,” Benson told ESPN. “He only realised how important the whole thing was to him when he [was] shouting out to his wife: ‘Who crossed the ball for a Wigan goal?’ … Nobody cares, but of course we care — because it matters.”

That will be a feeling familiar to many virtual managers. With the Premier League ready to kick off again after the 2022 World Cup and fans turning their attention back to their fantasy teams for the second half of the season, this is the story of how the game first captured the imagination of English fans — and paved the way for the global phenomenon it is today.

Magazines and fax machines: The beginning of fantasy football

Long before fantasy football started to make waves in the UK, its predecessors in the US were hugely successful.

American sports fans wasted little time in tapping into the average fan’s love of statistics. Bill Winkenbach, the part-owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, set up the first fantasy gridiron league as far back as 1962. Meanwhile, author Dan Okrent created “rotisserie baseball” in 1980, a fantasy game named after the Manhattan restaurant Le Rotisserie Francais, where he and his friends would meet. But it was not until the 1990s that fans across the Atlantic truly sat up and took notice.

Andrew Wainstein is the man widely credited with having introduced fantasy football to the UK Inspired by a fantasy baseball game he was shown by a family friend from the US, he realised football had yet to take full advantage of statistics in the same way as American sports. In 1991 — the year before the Premier League launched — he set about compiling a database of top-flight players, which could be used for a fantasy game.

“The drive was just sort of enthusiasm for football,” said Wainstein, who was a 25-year-old computer programmer living at home at the time. “I was a massive football fan; it’s obviously by far and away the No. 1 sport in the UK and I just thought, ‘People are so opinionated about it and so passionate about it — the stats are maybe a bit basic, but it could work.’”

Wainstein was right, although he played no part in the official Premier League game that has since taken over. With more stats than ever before, incentives such as “Free Hit” tokens to keep players interested and prizes, including a seven-night break in the UK and a Hublot watch for the overall winner, that version is a world away from the original created by Wainstein.

It took Wainstein about four months to devise a points scoring system for his game, called Fantasy League. Defenders and goalkeepers would be rewarded for clean sheets while goals scored was another easy metric, but Wainstein also introduced the concept of assists — the pass before a goal is scored — following basketball’s example.

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Once Wainstein had settled on the game’s format, he placed advertisements in football magazines. Prospective players would send off a subscription fee and receive an information pack with which to start their league. The members of the new league would meet in person — in pubs or conference rooms — to hold an in-person auction in which they would bid for top-flight players. Much like today, the idea was to assemble a competitive squad on a budget while knowing which stars were worth splashing out on.

Leagues would send off their teams to Wainstein, who was then responsible for recording points and updating sides with substitutions each week. Working out of his older sister’s bedroom in Highgate, London, he often found himself inundated with phone calls and faxes on a Friday afternoon as league administrators called in to confirm teams before that weekend’s deadline.

“From 12 ’til five o’clock on a Friday afternoon it was sort of nonstop, and then the fax as well — sometimes the fax would run out of paper so you’d run over and change the fax paper while you were on one or two phone calls,” Wainstein said. “It was good fun — it was busy, but every call was generally a laugh, so I didn’t resent it.”

With no internet and football stats few and far between, it was up to Wainstein to watch the games on Match of the Day to identify which players had scored, provided assists or contributed to clean sheets. Fantasy managers had to wait until Tuesday to receive the updated league tables, posted by Wainstein.

Fans bought into the game for professional as well as personal reasons. For Benson, it became a way of interacting with potential clients and offered an easy way into conversation that didn’t centre around business.

“This way you can say: ‘Hello, how are you doing? I can’t believe you got a hat trick last week; I can’t believe you won again, I can’t believe you’re going to win the league or you’re going to finish last — and by the way, is there anything else?’” Benson said.

Wainstein also looked forward to those conversations.

“The bit that I think was very magical about it was you got to speak to a lot of these people who were running leagues every Friday afternoon,” he said. “Not only did they say, ‘Oh, how’s your week been?’ and ‘Oh god, my team’s bottom of the league,’ you’d also have this sort of banter around, ‘I’ve got these two players and I’ve got them on my bench and I can’t decide between them.’”

Fantasy football’s roaring success gives rise to the modern game

The game proved to be a hit. The first version in the 1991-92 season attracted about 600 to 700 players who were part of 80 leagues. But participation numbers really started to take off when the game was regularly referred to on a new BBC Radio 5 Live show.

Wainstein worked with the Daily Telegraph newspaper to create the first mass-market version in January 1994 and interest was stoked further by the TV show, “Fantasy Football League,” presented by comedians and future writers of England fan anthem “Three Lions,” David Baddiel and Frank Skinner — which featured a character called “Statto” in the mould of the game’s creator, a role Wainstein turned down.

That proved to be a turning point as the game’s popularity soared. Out of a total circulation of about 900,000, Wainstein estimates that 350,000 of the Telegraph’s readers signed up to the paper’s version. According to Peter Suchet, the then-director of the Telegraph’s sports marketing department, the first winner was a 14-year-old boy who won two tickets to any football match — he chose a cup final in Brazil.

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As Suchet says, those who took their football seriously were rewarded — although some took it too seriously.

“I can remember in research one guy saying, ‘I go into my bedroom, I lock the door, I look at all the scores that the footballers in my team have made over the weekend … and I get really worked up,” Suchet said. “I have imaginary conversations with them — I say to them, ‘You’re s—, I’m transferring you.’ “

Other newspapers took note and started producing their own versions — with some showing more effort than others — and there was another sea change when Wainstein launched the first online version of his game in 1996. It meant fans no longer had to rely on phone lines or fax machines to push through substitutions — but it also signalled the end of the game’s “magical” analogue days.

The Premier League followed suit, with its official version launching in the 2002-03 season. It is more popular than ever now, and not just among average fans: world chess champion Magnus Carlsen’s Twitter bio still boasts he is a “Former (live) #1 Fantasy Premier League player,” while one website claims to track the teams of Premier League stars, including Bukayo Saka, James Maddison and Kalvin Phillips.

All virtual managers will be faced with the same dilemmas following the World Cup break — will Erling Haaland pick up where he left off having missed the tournament in Qatar? Should fantasy players use their wild card and switch up their entire team with many players fatigued after Qatar? And how to replace Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus following his knee injury during Brazil’s campaign?

None of those questions would matter as much were it not for the game Wainstein created 31 years ago — and which many of its early adopters have stuck with despite the rise of the Premier League version. So, why has fantasy football been such a roaring success in the UK?

“It’s the nearest any young guy who loves football will get to managing a team,” Suchet said. “They get lost in the romance of that game and they become managers for a moment in their lives — they’re managing their own team. It’s sad but true.”

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