In the wake of England’s success so far in the world cup, we thought it would be good to look into how social media has affected football…
Social media has become a bit of a phenomenon. Used by businesses in all industries to promote their products and services as well as highlight their core values, it’s a lucrative business model for both the social media platform used and the businesses using it.
Football players are waking up to the vast amounts of money social networks are making from their fans, turning to agencies to help monetise each one.
Social media is one industry that has done surprisingly well. A few years ago, Facebook executives urged Christiano Ronaldo’s management team to start a Facebook page for him. They claimed that Ronaldo had the potential to get 10 million followers – almost as many people in Portugal at that time.
With nothing to lose, Ronaldo created a Facebook profile in 2009 and in 2010 he used it to announce the birth of his son from an unnamed mother. Since then, he has used his Facebook page to promote new brands he’s affiliated with, his mother’s book and pictures of his children – some of which have had over 4 million likes!
In April of this year, Ronaldo hit 122.46 million followers; 19million more than Shakira – making him not only the athlete, but the person, with the most followers on Facebook.
Just a few years ago, many football clubs weren’t even on Twitter, let alone Facebook. However, if you type in the name of almost any football club in the entire world, you’re likely to find its Facebook page. The bigger ones, in multiple languages, adding new followers minute by minute.
For example, newly-promoted Huddersfield has 113,000 Facebook followers and although it’s obviously dwarfed by the bigger clubs, it represents change. There was an 80 per cent rise in a year for Facebook and their Instagram figures rose by 600 per cent — proof of the appeal of the Premier League AND of the importance of Social Media.
Back in 2014 when Richard Arnold was managing director of Manchester United, he boasted that his club generated more engagement on Facebook than any other celebrity or sports team on earth. And although that’s not quite true anymore, they still have a whopping great 73.7 million followers!
It makes you wonder if social media has anything to do with them topping Deloitte’s Money League in January for the world’s richest clubs. With their Social Network Ranking for the Premier League being number one, I think it’s safe to say it does.
With 659 million supporters around the world, social media has helped fans in China, Africa and Finland interact with other fans. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and China’s Weibo, along with other platforms have all been instrumental in enabling clubs and players to compile computer databases of their fans.
But, just because they have a lot of supporters, doesn’t necessarily mean lots of money. Contrary to popular belief, football is a small fish in a big pond. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a valuable and loved fish, but it’s still small. Footballers are famous and big clubs are global brands. But football struggles with something called appropriability: clubs cannot make money out of (cannot appropriate) more than a tiny share of fans’ love for football.
Imagine for a second, a Manchester United fan from the Gambia. He has the t-shirt, he watches every game and he knows all the players. But he’s never been to Europe, let alone Old Trafford. The club’s total income for him is nil.
However, social media changes all of that. Of the 2.20 billion monthly active Facebook users, well over 500 million of those are football fans. While Instagram joined the Facebook family in 2012 brought with it another 140 million. In 2014, 250 million people produced a staggering 3 billion interactions with the World Cup content on Facebook, more engagement than any other event in the history of the platform. This gives clubs and players the ability to sell to the masses – whether it be the promotion of a new collaboration with a clothing brand or signed memorabilia, social media gives fans the option to purchases from their profile page or look into the item.
Social media has become an essential element of sports fandom. Many people, young men in particular, watch games whilst down the pub and document the scores, their outrage, their happiness… all on their mobiles. Germany’s demolition of Brazil in 2014 was the biggest match ever documented on Twitter, with 35.6 million related tweets sent during the match. And so far, football fans have been generating more than 618,000 tweets per minute during games, resulting in over 672 million related tweets so far in the world cup.
Facebook has already announced that 88 million people generated more than 280 million posts, comments and likes on its social network during the World Cup so far, beating its previous record of 245 million “interactions” set by the Super Bowl in 2013.
And although those results are a lot, they’re not surprising. Global interest in football dwarfs any other sport. The World Cup generated more searches than the Olympics, Super Bowl and Tour de France combined.
And interest in football is only growing. Big European clubs are finally winning over fans in China, India, the US and Indonesia – countries that between them account for more than 45% of humanity. And the best way to reach these people? Social media.
For many years, football clubs saw televised football as a threat; they were concerned that fans would stop coming to the stadium. But as the full stadiums and their bank accounts would argue, televising football was their best move.
But just like the television, clubs saw social media as a threat: a new platform for scandals, gaffes and hacker attacks. Manchester United was particularly cautious about being on social media. As one of the biggest ‘companies’ in the UK, it receives more media coverage than many businesses. If it’s Facebook page was hacked – as has unfortunately happened to many businesses recently – it would be global news.
But, the age-old saying is perfectly applicable here, “any publicity, is good publicity”. This year so far, it’s been reported that Brazilian footballer, Neymar Jr has spent 14 minutes ‘rolling’ on the floor not something Neymar should be proud of, but it’s got Brazil all OVER the internet. Every social media platform is reporting on it, making everyone aware and watching the Brazilian team.
However, managers will do their best to make sure that any scandal only happens on the pitch, but clubs now issue their payers with endless rules of what they can and can’t say or do online.
But football has slowly come to see social media as a business opportunity. Clubs have been on a steep learning curve. But a club that understands social media is worth more to sponsors. Through social media, United can make fans like the ones we mentioned before in the Gambia. If United can register people like him, the club could become a de facto database company. Then its value would lie chiefly in its knowledge of the identities and consumption habits of its supporters.
Companies in many industries are pursuing the same goal. Facebook and Google are famously something called “identity companies”. They offer services for free; in return, the user gives them his or her identity. Sounds a bit horror movie-ish but it’s valuable to both parties.
Football clubs’ databases could particularly valuable as big clubs, for example, have more social-media followers than regular companies: Manchester United have more followers than both McDonalds and Nike.
Secondly, clubs – unlike corporations – command love and loyalty. A fan is the most emotional thing in the world, they’ll do pretty much anything for their team. Which is both a good and a bad thing (e.g. Russian football hooliganism). But social media utilises that emotion through the ‘second screen’. If you catch him whilst he’s on that social screen, you catch him in his maximum emotion.
Which means that clubs are given the opportunity to tailor offers to each individual fan. The club can sell them a team shirt, football…tickets. They have such an extensive following, that companies approach the club to promote or advertise their products – it’s hard to miss the ‘McDonald’s Deliver’ advertisement all over images of the football matches. Or the shaving adverts played before a match with one of the team players demonstrating how great the foam is…
Just like Google and Facebook, Football clubs are becoming identity companies. They have an unprecedented number of sophisticated executives and acronyms such as “CRM” (customer relationship management). The ability to know their supporters and influence them is fundamental for football clubs to generate higher revenues. As we mentioned before, a fan is the most emotional thing in the world; they’re more than happy to give their club their information.
And clubs need to find out information about their supporters to better sell to them. Going back to our fan in the Gambia; it’s not enough to know he follows Manchester United on Twitter, they need to know how old he is, how much does he earn? What sort of stuff does he buy? Do they have his credit card details? Through social media, all of this information is readily available.
You can create targeted adverts that sell specific items or services to specific people. Say we’ve found out that our Gambian fan is male, he is 24, he supports Man U and he’s expressed an interest in getting a Manchester United top. Targeted adverts are placed on his news feed with an emphasis on selling him a t-shirt.
Some clubs are understandably sceptical of the social media hype. The core business of a club is to play football and that can already be overshadowed by the dramatics of football (not naming any names *cough Neymar cough*).
But, that hasn’t stopped them from creating Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Twitter and even Pinterest. Social media has become central to the footy business. Fans will use the platforms if they find exciting content there – this is why club’s try to ensure they don’t sound like a corporate PR.
A football club trying to recruit online followers must sound like a football club. It must use social media to give fans an intimate glimpse inside the club.
Football clubs being on social media has helped broaden the age range of interested fans. Since the implementation of the internet, clubs compete with traditional media. Years ago, if you wanted to know the latest score from a game or news on a club, you would have to read it in a newspaper. These days, you can go straight to the clubs social media page OR check out their #hashtag.
Plus, by using social media, the clubs are able to post news etc. before journalists know about it. No-one outside the club can get this kind of access. Consequently, many clubs and players have built larger audiences than traditional media. You’ll find that football players such as Ronaldo, have more twitter followers than the BBC or CNN’s main accounts.
It also gives players the ability to converse directly with fans, rather than through journalists. Rio Ferdinand once complained about journalists, by saying, “Paint that picture and you see a caricature of you evolve. And you sit there thinking, ‘Woah, you don’t know me’”. He went on to say that social media, Twitter, in particular, had been the “biggest thing in my armoury” in changing peoples perception of him.
The rationale is that players using social media effectively — with engagement, authenticity and good numbers — are making themselves more attractive to sponsors and clubs. Players like Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez and Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar are getting paid for content they post on Dugout.
While the 10 million-plus fans who visit the football site each month is almost non-comparable to the 2 billion who use Facebook monthly, those on Dugout are arguably worth more to players in terms of hard cash. Each player receives a cut of the 50 per cent of Dugout’s ad revenues that is split between the other players on the site, while the company gets the other half.
Although they can make more money through Dugout, they will always commit to Facebook. With 2 billion users and a new TV-like experience, creators can monetise their shows through ad breaks or by creating sponsored content.
YouTube, however, is a platform that hasn’t been as proactive in recruiting players or clubs. Many clubs and players have stayed away from YouTube due to the amount of time and money needed to build a large following.
However, some players are starting to realise YouTube’s worth. Manchester United’s Juan Mata has had his own YouTube channel since 2015 and plans to use it as one of the main ways to share a series of films his sports marketing agency, ‘Dark Horses’ is creating to promote an upcoming charity drive.
Seeing how valuable their followers are to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, players want that value for themselves. Not only can they have some control on how they’re perceived, but they’re crafting media strategies to make them as well known for what they do off the field as what they do on it.
Players are taking control of their content. Before they would have relied on their agencies and management to take control of their brand. Leon Mann, a consultant helping footballers in the U.K. develop their social media profiles, said “taking ownership of their authentic narratives as opposed to just leaving it to the media to make of it what they will”.
Players consider their success as influencers tied to being aspirational and relatable – therefore, trustworthy. They know that not only adults but children across the world are watching their every move. Following them on multiple social media platforms and hanging on their every kick.
Footballers need to be allowed to be themselves as this will create ‘real brands’ in the sport. Not media manufactured ersatz celebrities with whom fans can feel little empathy. Football is one of the most popular and commercially successful sports in the world, built on those traditional principles, and it will thrive if it stays true to its roots and if they get on board with social media.