Opinion: winning in fantasy football is as much about knowing how to solve economic problems as picking an underpriced star

By Stephen Brosnan and Robert Butler, UCC

The Premier League returned last week following a 100-day enforced absence due to Covid-19. Although this year's title race is very much a foregone conclusion with Liverpool set to win their first English championship in 30 years, there are still plenty of titles, glory and bragging rights up for grabs in the popular online game, Fantasy Premier League (FPL).

The game has grown significantly over the last number of years and now boasts over 7.5 million players. Its popularity has led to a wave of online resources including discussion forums, podcasts, YouTube channels, and dedicated clubs and societies. UCC has a Staff Fantasy Football club running since 2001 with over 100 active members. Even mainstream broadcasters, such as Sky Sports, have dedicated programmes on the ins-and-outs of all things fantasy football.

Fantasy football managers flock to these platforms looking to gain a competitive edge. They analyse the latest statistical data to guide decision-making relating to transfers and captaincy. They search for the clues to unlock Pep's rotation policy, and identify the rare, unknown £4 million gem à la John Lundstram this season.

From RTÉ 2fm, the ins and outs of Fantasy Premier League

There are also interesting underlying economic principles guiding decision making in FPL. The most basic fundamental economic problem relates to scarcity i.e. people having seemingly unlimited human wants in a world of limited resources. Most of us cannot stretch our resources to afford things we often want and have to go without. In FPL, each player is given £100 million to spend on 15 players. Ideally, one would like to choose all the top scoring players in the game yet, due to scarce resources, each player must make choices.

These choices result in what economists call opportunity cost. Put simply, opportunity cost is what you give up to get something else. The concept expresses the relationship between scarcity and choice, two fundamental aspects of the world we live in. When governments spend money, they must decide where it will go. Some people would like to see it spent on healthcare, others on education and others on social protection. A common issue facing governments today is that citizens often wish to live in a low tax country, with world class public services. Unless people are willing to pay for public services through taxation, it is often not possible to deliver these to the standard expected.  

In FPL terms, players are faced with opportunity costs when selecting their respective squads. Liverpool's Mo Salah is currently the most expensive player, priced at £12.7 million. This represents a significant portion of the overall budget. Managers wishing to purchase Mo Salah may do so, but this is often at the cost of going without Sadio Mané and/or Sergio Aguero.

From RTÉ 2fm's Chris & Ciara, how setting up your Fantasy football league could make you a better partner

Another key economic principle is that price acts as a signal. The information conveyed to consumers and producers via the price charged for a product or service, provides a signal to increase or decrease supply and demand  In FPL, players can buy and sell players in a virtual market and underperforming players may be replaced by in-form players. The basic principle of supply and demand are at play in the market. When demand for a player goes up significantly, the player's virtual price rises. When demand for a player drops significantly, the price falls.

Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) and Danny Ings (Southampton) recorded the largest FPL price increase over the course of the season, with both players increasing their price by £1.1 million. Liverpool’s Mane (£1m) and Sheffield United's Lundstram (£0.9m) and Dean Henderson (£0.8m) have also recorded significant price increases after being purchased by millions of FPL managers. Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi and West Ham's Andriy Yarmolenko each recorded the highest price drop (£0.8m) following disappointing seasons, plagued by injuries, and sold by the majority of their owners.

At this point in the season, it becomes clearer which players are performing as the game has predicted. Thus, we can compare the highest scoring team today with the most expensive team. Neither team is attainable. The first costs £127.2 million and the second £134.5. Nine of the best performers for the season are also on the most expensive team list. Unsurprisingly, both teams are dominated by players from league leaders, Liverpool.

Ideally, one would like to choose all the top scoring players in the game but, due to scarce resources, you must make choices

The underpriced stars that make the highest scoring team include Nick Pope, Henderson, Lundstram and Richarlison. Overpriced stars include Alisson, Ederson, Laporte, Son, Aguero and Harry Kane. However, it should be noted that most of these players have missed a number of games through injury. Therefore, the expensive stars have justified their price tags this season. Food for thought for players of the game as we head into the final seven gameweeks.

Dr Stephen Brosnan is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Sports Economics and Law at the Cork University Business School at UCC. Dr Robert Butler is Director of the Centre for Sports Economics and Law at the Cork University Business School at UCC. Both are former Irish Research Council awardees

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ