Salford FC on TwitterPart 1 of this blog post series of digital sport and fan engagement covers sports clubs and social media. It discusses the way in which clubs and players use social media platforms in order to reach fans and build their brands. In the previous post, I discussed the triple revolution of fast Internet, smartphones and social media. Social media is therefore key to the hyperdigitalization of fans and the connections to their clubs. Social media benefits clubs, fans and players by allowing them to amplify their messages, discuss and interact with fans and listen to what they are saying in an ongoing way. It also allows them to reach a wider audience than just local people and that could be national or international. It also gives a voice to fans, which can be a positive or negative thing. The Black Lives Matter campaign was active through players and clubs unfolded a range of opinions played out on social media. Meanwhile, female fans can be underrepresented on open social media channels and turn to closed or hidden online communities.

Different size clubs and social media

Each sports club is different in terms of their audience and needs – size does matter. It’s notable that in the Western world at least, most clubs use the same social media platforms which tend to be Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but many are now using Instagram and TikTok andtrying out newer platforms. In China, WeChat and Weibo is a dominant platform and in Russia, VK. Whilst football fan followers on some of the older networks are levelling out, platforms like Instagram and TikTok are still on the rise.

kpmg-football-benchmarks social media top football clubs

KPMG football-benchmarks social media top football clubs

Essentially, clubs need to be wherever their fans or potential fans are. Manchester Utd are an example a global sports brand and therefore, they need to be mindful of global audiences and the different platforms and content that international fans use. Resigning CR7 was a classic example of this as many fans now follower players rather than clubs. United were quite late to the party with their use of social media, but this has not stopped them developing a huge international fan base of social media followers. We published a journal paper on Instagram, Man United and Liverpool which is also relevant to this topic of Sports clubs and Social Media.

My PhD thesis is on this topic of using social media to build relationships using Salford FC as a case study. Salford FC are an interesting case because they are much smaller, but because of their connections to the Class of 92, they have acquired an international audience of fans through social media. Their impressive social media following and online interactions are not lost on potential sponsors and partners who want their message to spread to a wider audience. For example, the drinks brand Vimto are partners of Salford FC and they interwove this with a social media campaign with its own hashtag

Other clubs with less international followers are more focussed on people within their locality and will want to raise their profile and attendances. So, clubs of all sizes will be using similar platforms, but in a slightly different way as they have different buyer personas (audiences) associated with them and different demographics – clubs need to bear this in mind when creating social media content. It’s important therefore for sports clubs to be active and interactive with social media, reaching out directly to fans and encouraging fan led groups and content.

Football players and social media

Players use social media for similar reasons, e.g. raising their profile, creating a brand etc. if you look for example at major player transfers. Top players Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are more followed on social media than any football club.  This demonstrates that fans often follow players and celebrity and will follow players wherever they go. Prof Simon Chadwick recently wrote on how social media has changed fans and the culture of celebrity.

“There’s something in the way in which the social and digital environment has enabled fans to challenge the existing ways of being a fan and perhaps therefore it’s breaking down the barriers to fandom that previously existed.The role of social media is shaping people’s associations and perceptions” – Professor Simon Chadwick

Social media is therefore a fundamental part of a players value and brand. In addition, social media gives players a voice and encourages a connection to the fans. We have seen some examples recently where players have hardly kicked a ball, but have developed rapport with the fans purely through social media (See man City and Shark Team hashtag). 

With great power comes great responsibility. It is notable that sports managers coaches have been quite critical of social media and its use by their players. Coaches are focussed on their on the pitch objectives and see social media as a distraction. For example, Pep Guardiola asked his player  to use social media less and improve on the pitch. Players are role models and social media gives them a more amplified voice, so this should be used wisely. An  excellent recent example is Marcus Rashford, who uses social media intelligently to engage with his fans and to raise awareness for social problems such as racism and poverty. He successfully managed to get the government to u-turn over it’s decision to cut school dinners

We’ve also seen numerous examples of players using social media badly to voice controversial opinions. Players have been fined and dismissed for abuse of social media and clubs have strict policies in place. Rio Ferdinand for example is no stranger to this, as a player, equally though he has criticised players such as Pogba for his social media antics and then later apologised, recognising that times have changed: “we are in a different era”. As mentioned above, social media can have an influence on financial aspects and player transfers – so a player with a large social media following has an increased chance of playing for a more lucrative club due to the financial implications and sponsorships etc. 

So there it is, part 1 on Sports clubs and Social Media. If you have any thoughts on this, or would like to discuss it further, please drop me a line via social media or feel free to share it. Part 2 focusses on virtual and augmented reality in sport  and fan engagement.