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Social Media, Digital tech and football in the modern age

As part of my research into football and digital culture, through articles,blogs, comments online and interviews, these various phrases arose to describe lesser connected football fans: bandwagon jumpers, plastic fans, armchair supporters, glory hunters, not a real fan, fair weather fans, flaneurs, part-timers, light attenders, casuals, followers and many others that I am sure you have heard before.

The truth of the matter is that football and its support is changing and disruptive digital technologies are playing a significant part in this change. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in particular are enabling new kinds of fan. They are opening up a world where it is possible to support multiple clubs from wherever and whenever you like, diversifying choices.

Once over, people grew up in a town or city and they adopted whichever sporting club their friends and family supported and that was more or less it for life. Whilst people had a passing interest in other clubs in other parts of the world – following them from out of town was difficult. Whilst the local clubs for local people is still very much alive – people now have a vast choice of international options for who and how to support a football club. Global TV rights of course, still play a major part in this.

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Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90 via Creative Commons

One example of this is the Italian World cup in 1990. English stars Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince, David Platt had a great tournament and were signed up by clubs in Italy’s Serie A. It was then possible to watch Serie A and the English stars on TV in England, opening up a whole new world of possibility. Suddenly, people in England were buying and wearing Italian football shirts and following the league from a distance. The social capital of Gascoigne and co. matched up with significant media coverage suddenly meant that kids now had a Juventus or Lazio shirt in their drawer in addition to their collection of shirts and posters for their favourite local English club. The growth of the top European leagues and the movement of international players, continues this trend. Relationships matter.

A quarter of a century on, aside from TV, we have now experienced an explosion in Internet communications. There are approximately 2.6 billion smartphone users in the world with people from around the globe interactive on various social media platforms. What this means in effect is that fans are no longer constrained to their living room or the local bar to watch football from out of town. They are no longer boxed in to whatever rights the TV broadcaster (or the local bar) decides to show. Football clubs are often late adopters of technology and social media was no exception. Facebook execs famously had to convince Christino Ronaldo’s management team that he might get ten million followers on the worlds biggest social network. They replied “We don’t believe you. That’s the size of Portugal”. In Sept 2016, Cristiano has over 116 million likes on Facebook and over 46 million followers on Twitter – combined, that’s more than the population of Russia, the 9th most populous country on the planet.

Even small, non-league football clubs now have a significant following on social media, which often far outweighs the numbers of people that turn up to watch the club live. The explosion of broadband, affordable high quality digital cameras and social media apps means that practically anyone, anywhere can turn any club at any level into a social media outlet. Good examples of this are FC United (FCUM) and Salford City FC (SCFC) who are non-league English clubs plying their trade in the National League North. FC United are the largest fan owned club in the UK. Bucking the trend as late adopters of technology, FCUM have embraced technology and the social media capital that comes with it. They offer free WIFI in their stadium, FCUM TV and have used social media to great effect to attract fan owners and achieve some of the highest match attendances in non-league football. They are embracing new and disruptive social media platforms such as Wakelet.

Salford City FC are another interesting case. A couple of years ago, they were like any other non-league English football club. They had a Twitter account, Facebook, a forum and about 100 people turning up to games on a good day. In the 2014/15 season, when SCFC were in the 8th tier of English football, they were taken over by ex-Manchester United players known famously as “The Class of ‘92′. Since then, they have achieved two promotions in two seasons, a BBC TV documentary series and a stellar FA Cup run also televised on the BBC. The net result of this is that the crowds have risen from 120 people to around 1500, but the social media following has risen many more times than this. Take Twitter as an example. The number of SCFC Twitter followers rose from a respectable 3,500 in the middle of 2014 to over 21,700 in around 3 weeks. This has now grown to 102,000 by November 2016. The graph below shows how followers grew by over 15,000 in two weeks in August to September 2016 with some help from the documentary.

Graph showing Salfords rise of Twitter Followers

Graph showing SCFC’s rise in Twitter followers from August to September 2016

These two clubs are exemplars of what could be achieved, but they aren’t the only upstarts to have the big boys looking over their shoulders. They are more cost effective, agile, open access and disruptive than their massive near neighbours and people like it.

But what does this all mean? Who are these people, where do they come from, what value do they have for the club? These areSalford FC on Twitter the million dollar questions that football clubs are currently trying to figure out. The interesting thing about Salford is that despite their famous owners, the social media activities are run in a similar way to other non-league clubs. That is, volunteer fans combined with a few staff and students from the local University to look after the official social media accounts and the University films the matches for YouTube for people to watch anytime and from anywhere in the world. In fact, outside of the biggest football clubs, social media and digital operations are often run by volunteers or a very small team working on a shoestring.

Normally, for a non-league club, these social media accounts and YouTube videos are fuelled by social capital and watched primarily by local people or people with family or friends connected to the club. In Salford’s case however, because of the connection to the Class of ’92 and Manchester United, suddenly, these videos and the social media accounts are being viewed by tens of thousands of people around the world, which is great exposure for the club.

Where in the world?

The graphic below from Followerwonk demonstrates where in the world people are following Salford from on Twitter in 2015. This was just the start. Since then, they have gained fans in even more parts of the world, including ‘the Salford fans of Russia’.

Graph showing Salfords international fans

What value do these followers have to the club?

There is a big debate about the value of social media. Whilst we have some excellent tools for measuring digital performance and growth – connecting these back to things like conversions and sales is more complex from a quantitative perspective. One thing is for sure – FCUM and Salford are succeeding. Salford are now getting well over ten times the amount of people to physically attend games. You could argue this is because they are being successful on the pitch, or maybe people just wanted to rub shoulders with the Class of 92 at games? Whilst this may have been true initially, one indisputable fact is that the social media team at Salford are being inundated with new fans wanting to interact and asking questions such as: ‘how much are games?’, ‘where is the ground?’, ‘Will Gary Neville be there?, ‘where can I buy a shirt online?’’ as well as fans from all over the world, following and sometimes communicating.

These type of frequently asked questions can drive core fans mad and keep volunteers very busy. Social media is providing a mechanism for people to make the jump from social media follower, to current fan, to core fan. At the minute, this funnel is huge and social media is helping to not only raise awareness, but open lines of communication, which is essential for growth. In the future, as sponsorship deals loom, the fact that Salford may have hundreds of thousands, or even millions of followers, is another plus point for negotiations. Whilst the actual cash value of a follower from India, Italy, USA or Russia may technically be minimal – if you multiply this by millions, it is worth something.

Finally, this returns me to the concept of the weakly connected fan, which was the topic of the article. Fans internationally have been following clubs from abroad for decades, thanks to global TV rights. Sometimes they are strongly connected superfans, sometimes, they have a passive interest and are weakly tied. The fact is though, that if a fan is following a club on social media, it is a connection. This connection can grow as the club grows. Social media means that the individual can interact with the club, other fans or their friends, which can help to develop a stronger connection with the club. Not only that, the more their connections discuss that club, the more the social media algorithms deliver more about it so that it dominates timelines, increasing the connection to the club.

So, as a core supporter, the new or armchair fan may sometimes be puzzling or frowned upon, but in terms of the success of the club – they have never been more important. What do you think? Are you a core fan, current fan or follower of more than one club? Perhaps you are a superfan following a club from afar on social media. I would love to hear from you either way.

Alex Fenton

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