Interest in women’s soccer, and women’s interest in the sport more generally, has grown steadily over the last decade. However, a conscious push by the Football Association (FA) to strengthen the success of the women’s game, seen principally through its ongoing Positive Change initiative as well as momentum from England’s triumph at the Women’s Euros last year, has seen match attendances and sponsorship deals soar.
As the top-tier women’s league in England, the focus has fallen on the success of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in particular, with records being broken this season for match attendances and television viewing figures. So far this season, the WSL has attained an average of 6,000 fans per game across the league, a huge 200% increase from the 2021-22 campaign.
Adjacent to this surge in the popularity and success of women’s soccer is the continued growth of the Fantasy Premier League (FPL) game owned by the English men’s top-flight which has seen an increase in its user base from 8.2 million in the 2020-2021 season to almost 11 million this year.
In addition, the FPL has also seen a considerable rise in female users from 165,000 in 2015-16 to over 355,000 in the 2020-21 season. The number of female players is up significantly from 95.3% since 2016-17, almost double the growth of male players.
What does this mean for the potential development of a fantasy league for the women’s game?
GlobalData Sport spoke to CSM Sport & Entertainment’s women’s sport lead Victoria Monk and senior communications executive Cameron Scott, and Tom Subak-Sharpe, associate analyst for GlobalData’s sports team, to discuss whether an official fantasy league will emerge for the WSL and what this might look like.
Given the popularity and support for women’s soccer since the Euros last summer, why isn’t there an equivalent fantasy football league for the WSL?
Victoria Monk and Cameron Scott: The rising popularity of women’s football among male and female fans lends to the thinking that a women’s fantasy football league would garner a lot of appetite. However, while ShePlays is an independent women’s football fantasy league, an official version for the women’s leagues has yet to be established.
This is partly because any fantasy football league requires substantial technology and infrastructure behind it. All these things require resource (time, people, money). Starling Bank dedicated resources last summer to create the first-ever fantasy football league for the Women’s Euro.
Herein lies a tangible opportunity for a brand to come in and own this space in the domestic female game by launching a Women’s Super League fantasy football competition… watch this space!
Tom Subak-Sharpe: For years the WSL was finding its feet and trying to develop into one of the leading women’s soccer leagues in the world, but its popularity really took off after the success of the Lionesses last summer which led to improved match attendances.
The profile of most individual players in the league for many years was relatively low, therefore a fantasy league would not have taken off. The WSL has also been concentrating on building awareness and support for its competition rather than potentially developing a fantasy game.
However, with the rise in popularity of both the English players and other European players that play in the WSL, a fantasy league is now an interesting proposition. Unfortunately, with the Premier League being independent of the WSL there is no possibility that the WSL could have a fantasy game linked to the FPL.
Should plans be in the offing to create an official fantasy league for the WSL?
Monk and Scott: We strongly believe there is a real and exciting opportunity for the right brand to launch a Women’s Super League fantasy football competition. Creating the opportunity to have complete ownership and brand IP in this space, deriving value from the subsequent audience data capture while also helping to propel the WSL forward in terms of an enhanced fan experience and granting a more in-depth understanding of the WSL fan profile.
Is there a demand for this?
Monk and Scott: The 2022 Euros was watched by a record-breaking 365 million globally, while the competition smashed the overall in-stadia attendance record (574,875). These striking statistics epitomize the rapidly rising interest in the women’s game. Not only is there such high interest in watching the competition itself, but there is also growing engagement and discourse surrounding the players off-pitch, too.
There were more than 450 million social media interactions with the 2022 Euros, while newspapers and media outlets featured almost wall-to-wall coverage. This illustrates how fans are going beyond simply just watching the game – they want to read around it (on the field of play, as well as off it) and engage, support, and interact with their favorite teams and players.
A fantasy football league would provide another opportunity for fans to engage further with the women’s game and its players. From our experience – picking up conversations with fans of the WSL – there is a definite appetite for this and a recent study even found that one in five people say they would play a women’s fantasy football league.
Subak-Sharpe: There is some demand to have a state-of-the-art WSL fantasy league accessible for fans. A petition was created six months ago called “Start WSL Fantasy Football” on change.org. As yet, the petition has not taken off. Fans of the WSL do have access to ShePlays but the experience of the game is not up to standard compared to the FPL. With the WSL attracting many young girls to the league, it would be expected that these fans would later be regular players of a WSL fantasy league game.
When could we expect a fantasy league to be introduced?
Subak-Sharpe: I believe a WSL fantasy league game could be arriving in the next few years. The league continues to grow year in and year out and the WSL would be hoping for fans to have access to a fantasy league game of some kind sooner rather than later to allow fans to become further engaged with the players, improving their knowledge of the league. The WSL would benefit by having a game accessible to a huge audience which could be key to attracting further eyes to the league.
What might it look like? There are fewer teams in the WSL than in the Premier League by almost half, so will it differ in structure from the FPL?
Monk and Scott: A women’s fantasy football league doesn’t have to follow the exact blueprint of the FPL. In fact, there is an exciting opportunity to differentiate it by leveraging the USPs of the women’s game. Women’s football has a more family-skewed audience, so the game could be devised in a way that is easy access and child-friendly (we conducted some research with younger fans to suggest there would be an appetite amongst children to engage with a WSL fantasy football game).
This could involve ‘power-ups’ or collectible items that children enjoy when playing more traditional video games. Engaging children with a women’s fantasy football league would also play into growing the sport’s fanbase for generations to come.
Another thought would be to use tokens instead of monetary value to sign players. This would avoid any negative discourse around the lower wages and transfer fees and overall finances in women’s football, while the women’s game is still in relative infancy.
While many players in the WSL now carry an extremely high profile, there is still some work to be done to raise the profile across the board – particularly those toward the bottom of the league. Fantasy football provides an opportunity to raise the profile of these players and for fans to engage with the breadth of players in the league.
Perhaps the female version of the game could incorporate more stats, facts, and content about the WSL’s players to showcase both their on-the-pitch ability, as well as their fantastic off-the-pitch personalities.
Image: Julian Finney/Getty Images