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Is the final whistle approaching for football and social media?

Salford FC on Twitter - football and social mediaMy PhD is all about football and social media and there has been some bad press for social media recently.

This article explores some of the issues related to football and asks the question if full time is approaching for football and social media. It is based on an original article on sports and social media I wrote for The Conversation.

Football clubs and players on social media

Football clubs and players are without doubt the giants of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have a mind boggling number of football social media followers from around the world. Real Madrid for example have 106 million likes on Facebook and despite being late to the party, Manchester United have 16.6 million followers on their official Twitter channels alone. Even individual players have huge followings.  Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most followed with 122 million likes on Facebook which is more than double the combined populations of Spain and Portugal. KPMG Football Benchmark are a professional service company who track football financials and the combined official social media accounts of football clubs across a range of channels. The global figures are incredibly impressive.

kpmg-football-benchmarks social media top football clubs

KPMG football-benchmarks social media top football clubs (combined official accounts)

The chart above shows that Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United are the most followed clubs across the channels and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube across their combined official accounts. This shows that the reach and impact of football and social media, which is well proven.

Negative effects of football and social media

With this interactive global impact also comes some negative effects. These have been increasingly documented through some bad press. This includes prominent players getting into trouble through social media outbursts, social media trolling, misogyny, addiction, depression and fake news. Twitter has been described as the worlds biggest sports bar but social media trolls can make life very difficult for players and fans, particularly women. Abuse from the terraces continues on social media. An example is outlined here from the Yorkshire post:

Miss Spencer, a lifelong Wednesday fan, says she heard vulgar and obscene chants about women during the derby game on Friday, before being targeted on social media.

How does this sit with the wholesome, all inclusive brand image of football clubs and associations that wish to attract young people and more female supporters from around the world. And in a business sense, the fact that the platforms own the data does not help football clubs to try and monetise their efforts on third party social media platforms. It is clear that social media is attracting followers and engagement but the link from these large numbers to the bottom line of clubs is not clear enough and this is causing business concerns.

Another risk is that the goal posts will be changed by the platforms or government regulations which could literally change the game overnight. Governments and regulators could crack down on social networks, which could lead to major changes in the way social media is used or blocking of sites in certain countries. The Iranian government recently blocked access to social media tools. This may be for political, security or safety reasons.  

Social media sites have also suffered from hacking incidents and downtime from security issues. This could potentially wipe out social media sites overnight. Changes from the platforms themselves in order to increase monetisation is also a risk. For example, social media sites may begin to charge users or clubs for their services which could also have a major impact. Suddenly, the millions of followers accrued over years of effort could be no more and the content and engagement could be lost.

Is social media declining for football fans and clubs?

With this in mind, is the final whistle approaching for the love affair of football and social media? So far, the numbers show that social media followers and engagement is continuing to increase for football clubs. The stats below show the increase or decrease in social media engagement in the Premier League showing a generally positive increase in engagement.

EPL-top-clubs-social-media-KPMG

Social media engagement in EPL 03 Dec 17 – 03 Jan 18 shows engagement is generally up – image courtesy of KPMG Football Benchmarks

The stats above look quite healthy for most clubs, although Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have a slight decline in the number of Facebook likes. I spoke to KPMG Football Benchmarks to ask them more about this. They have have been tracking the data of football clubs and social media. They said:

 “We noticed a trend that followers of the top clubs on Facebook are either stagnating or decreasing, meanwhile, Instagram’s popularity meanwhile is on the rise. Social media in football is definitely not declining, but rather shifting focus from Facebook to other platforms”.

Football clubs, social media and sponsorship

Clubs are signing increasingly impressive sponsorship and partnership deals. Paul Pogba’s world record signing to Manchester United for example re-wrote the rules of sport marketing by preparing a social media and video campaign aimed at maximising the impact and commercial revenue of the deal, tied in closely with sponsors. Outside of football and on smaller budgets, companies such as Iceland supermarkets  have been able to capitalise on the popularity of the worlds biggest sport through social media, celebrity and some creative thinking.

Sponsors still value social media followers and engagement and these figures are taken into account when it comes to valuations. Social media and data analysis tools are improving, enabling clearer insights to make the links clearer for return on investment of time and money. Clubs still value the ability to connect with a larger fanbase and the opportunity that brings. A fan who connects through social media may be following several sports teams but the club that reaches out or engages them creates an opportunity to forge a stronger and more lasting connection. The majority of fans of major sporting brands never make it physically to the ground and yet, many are spending money and building social capital with fans and club through social media. In my PhD research, I had the opportunity to interview lots of fans from all around the world and it was clear that the social capital, trust and relationships between fans and clubs were vital.

Beyond social media?

Clubs are also thinking beyond social media to other platforms and digital innovations which will engage the next generation of fans. This includes smartphone apps, the Internet of Things, Fitness, virtual and augmented reality and newer, creative social media platforms. Football clubs have more recently looking at other platforms such as Fastory and Steller to do new and innovative things that separate them from the crowd. The NFL often lead the way in digital innovation and have recently launched Virtual Reality (VR) applications for VR headset Oculus Rift.

Although there are several examples of success in these areas, none have yet materialised as having a bigger impact or to be a successor for the mainstream social media platforms we know today. It is also notable that Facebook purchased Oculus Rift and have started to experiment with social media VR through initiatives such as Facebook Spaces, which also now works with other VR headsets. Social media platforms will also continue to evolve. Football clubs will also continue to innovate and use digital to engage as many fans as they can in order to increase their fan bases and partnership potential. They will produce the content and use the right platforms to reach fans and increasingly use sophisticated data analysis to inform their efforts.  

The bad press for social media and the debate around the value and bottom line will continue to run. In the meantime, clubs will continue to innovate and use the platforms that fans are using in order to spread their brand as far as possible. Both sports clubs and social media platforms will continue to look at other opportunities to engage young people and a wider audience through digital and social media. What do you think about football and social media? How could it be improved? What kind of technology would you like to see from your favourite football team? Drop me a line, I would love to hear from you. 

Alex Fenton

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