Stevenage: How Burger King sponsorship led to Fifa game popularity

By James LawBBC Sport
Stevenage celebrate
Stevenage would have been relegated last season - and therefore not featured in Fifa 21 - were it not for a points deduction for Macclesfield

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, Stevenage.

Can you spot the odd one out?

Over the last year gamers around the world have flocked to play with League Two side Stevenage on the popular football game Fifa - all because of the club's sponsorship deal with a global fast food outlet.

But what was behind the partnership which led to a mustard and ketchup inspired away kit and social media figures bigger than "even a fourth round FA Cup tie at Manchester United would've got"?

'Value of being on Fifa is phenomenal'

Stevenage are building a reputation for doing things differently - they no longer produce a physical matchday programme, instead offering a digital version, and last year sold shares through a sports investment company co-founded by ex-Juventus and Chelsea striker Gianluca Vialli.

With average crowds of less than 3,000 and the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Watford nearby, attracting new fans is difficult.

"We were quite keen to rip things up and try a new way of doing things," Stevenage chief executive Alex Tunbridge told BBC Sport.

So when Burger King approached them for shirt sponsorship and an online campaign incorporating the Fifa game, things seemed to fit.

"This gave us the chance to have a global platform.

"They are an edgy brand in terms of marketing, which is why we thought it'd work quite well."

Tunbridge says Stevenage received "quite a lot of backlash" when the sponsorship deal was announced but "felt there was a balance" to the partnership with a fast food brand as the club "promote being fit and active".

Stevenage's away kit for 2019-20
Stevenage sold out of shirts last season and Tunbridge "couldn't believe" how many overseas orders they had

In October 2019 the 'Stevenage Challenge' was launched, encouraging people to play as Stevenage on Fifa and upload their goals to social media to win food prizes.

During the campaign, lasting just over two weeks, Stevenage were the most-played with team on the game's career mode and more than 25,000 goals in the club's kit were shared online.

"It actually shows the digital space is now worth more than what you have in real life. We had something like 1.2 billion impressions on the campaign," Tunbridge said.

"It's PR that you couldn't buy as a League Two club, unless you reach the third or fourth round of the FA Cup.

"But even then I don't even think a fourth round tie at Manchester United would've got the engagement we've received.

"The value of being in that game is phenomenal - it's probably a value that a lot of clubs and brands haven't realised."

Why Stevenage?

Burger King had an equally quirky sponsorship deal with Spanish La Liga side Getafe a decade ago - and spoke to a few clubs before settling on Stevenage - but why were the fourth-tier strugglers the chosen ones?

Fernando Machado is global chief marketing officer at Restaurant Brands International, which owns the burger restaurant brand, and was behind the campaign.

"If you're a crazy soccer fan that loves playing Fifa, it doesn't bother you to play with Stevenage, even if you're not a Stevenage fan, because we all cheer for the underdog and it's an underdog club," he told BBC Sport.

"It's one of the reasons why we went with a relatively small club rather than a big club."

Match of the Day host Gary Linekerexternal-link and Rugby World Cup-winner Bryan Habanaexternal-link are among the sporting names to have praised the campaign.

The allure of being on such an illustrious game - and the opportunities that brings - for the price of a League Two shirt sponsorship fee was central.

"We always thought that we could do something powerful by putting together the world of gaming and real sports - almost bridging the digital and analogical worlds with an idea," Machado said.

"We are always searching for ideas that will make the sponsorship bigger than just putting money behind a logo on a jersey."

Is there more to come from this unlikely partnership?

"What went viral this week and at the end of last year was a big success for us but I think that there's so much more possibility to do even more than that."

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