The Future of Football

When Manchester United’s friendly against their city rivals in Beijing was cancelled last month, the critics claimed that it was karma for placing their off-field branding over their on-field training. Never mind that these international pre-season tours are so saturated that even Leicester City are participating in them, this one isolated incident clearly proved that global expansion was hurting English clubs.

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, global marketing has undoubtedly become a important facet for any superclub. At the heart of this activity is an organisation’s online presence. Today, most clubs have several accounts on different platforms, such as Twitter or Facebook, in order to connect with their multitude of fans.

Staff and players can no longer go down to the local pub to talk to fans after a match, so social media is the only way to recapture the old spirit of the sport. However, the internet is a tricky medium, so what exactly do clubs do?

The Basic Tenets of Social Media Interaction

The initial step is to create several different accounts and a personalized website, and to coherently and obviously link them. These accounts may have different managers, but they need to follow the same strategy. In this interview with Jon Dickson, he runs through the fundamental strategies that clubs need to adhere to online.

First and foremost, clubs have to take advantage of good results. Big victories during pre-season should be marketed well, in order to maximise season tickets sales. Similarly, during the season, these victories boost a club’s profile among supporters, which in turn would lead to greater sales.

Additionally, when results are not great, clubs can still turn the tide of public opinion. Dickson makes it clear that donning an apologetic tone is the wrong answer, as it provides a framework for negative comments. Instead, the club should focus on positive aspects by trying to harken back to better times. If your team loses, your twitter account should be reminding fans of the birthday of a legend. Similarly, focusing on a fan favourite in the team, or promoting fan-centric content directed at younger supporters tends to deflect attention away from a bad run of form.

Unlike the marketing maxim that states any publicity is good publicity, online clubs should try to promote positive comments. Negative comments create a poisonous atmosphere, which is particularly harmful to far-flung global supporters to whom individual results are less important. If a club can maintain a positive image throughout, those fans half a world away are more likely to invest their time.

Liverpool FC: A Case Study of a Footballing Giant

As one of the most popular clubs in football, Liverpool provide a perfect example of how to maintain a successful online presence despite a relative lack of trophies in contemporary times. As a traditional giant, they have started off with a much larger following across the globe. According to this study, Liverpool have four major objectives online: getting closer to fans, engaging fans, monetizing, and dealing with challenges.

Liverpool were one of the first to realise the importance of social media, as they were the second English club to create a Facebook account. Under their motto of “thinking globally, acting locally,” they are trying to create a communal online atmosphere for their fans across the world. To do that, they have set up several different accounts for different countries, occasionally in local languages for unique situations that require it. Additionally, posts are rarely copied across accounts, but rather created specifically to cater to the local culture.

However, the number of followers for an account matters less than the number of interactions for the Liverpool social media team. To have people comment or like posts is the greatest form of engagement to them, and as such, they undertake regular surveys and analytics to understand what fans want. Currently, videos and graphics have had the most success, for obvious reasons. They also take Dickson’s advice of integrating their club site and channel the various accounts to further engage the fans.

In terms of monetization via social media interactions, the link is unclear. While they do record sales spikes in regions with a dedicated account, it is unclear how much of the increase in revenue is due to online interactions. Instead, the more useful outcome of these social media engagements are the sponsorships that they garner. Regions with larger numbers of fans, such as in Asia, show greater support for local sponsors that are affiliated with their favourite clubs. As such, social media interactions often lead to money indirectly, rather than through fan purchases.

The Liverpool social media team largely have to deal with two major problems. Although these accounts were initially set up as commercial ventures, they have to strike an appropriate balance with the online fan community. Too much of an emphasis on profits, and they risk alienating fans who claim a moral ownership of the club. Secondly, they also have to deal with online negativity. Whether due to poor results on the pitch or the infiltration of rival fans online, the social media team have to control the conversation to maintain a general atmosphere of positivity.

Bengaluru FC: A Case Study of a Nascent Club

Bengaluru FC were set up in 2013, as the first Indian club that attempted to run its business based on the European model. This meant world-class facilities, a guaranteed revenue stream via sponsorships, a youth academy, and a modern outlook to fan outreach. Although they didn’t have the traditional fan bases of established clubs, they were based in a city with a great love for the sport. However, after years of neglect, many of the fans had abandoned the local league to follow their European counterparts.

The social media team at the Indian club realised that they were in a unique situation. They could take advantage of both modern technology to reach fans, as well as the potential of close-knit communities that made football so popular in Europe at the turn of the century. From the start, they tried to integrate not only their various online presences, but also their offline efforts. Players and staff were encouraged to discover the city and personally talk to fans that were unsure of the new project. Additionally, due to a sponsorship with a brewery around the corner, they created an informal space for informal briefings with the locals.

After the basic excitement had been developed offline, the social media team got to work. They were the first in the country to create an online presence that would reach out to not only locals, but to Indians across the country and world. By establishing basic features that were lacking in the I-League, such as minute-by-minute match reports on Twitter, they were already more engaged with fans than their competitors. Moreover, they just copied various tactics used by European giants, such as asking players to take over an account for they day.

It is important to understand that Bengaluru’s priorities. While many global clubs, like Liverpool, see social media as a commercial tool to expand their fan base and income, for the Indian club it is genuinely a social tool. While they have succeeded in creating a loyal base fairly quickly, they have yet to truly grow their support outside Bangalore. As such, they are far more personal. Most fan queries directed at an account are answered, with even some stories that fans have received phone calls from the staff after asking after the injury status of a player.

Manchester United Versus Everton, 3rd August 2016

A couple of weeks ago, the biggest story about Wayne Rooney’s testimonial was the disgruntlement of a few ungrateful fans that wanted to forget his career because of a couple of bad seasons. However, the world moves fast. Today, we might have just witnessed one of the most important moments in footballing history. That is because the match was the first ever to be broadcast live and free on Facebook’s 1.7 billion users.

There is a lot of potential for change here. In an era where the English clubs are spending huge amounts of money due to an unbelievable new television deal, a free online broadcast could revolutionse the game. If Facebook can figure out a way to produce the broadcasts themselves, similar to a larger scale version of Netflix’s original shows, TV deals could become obsolete. Money in the game could drop drastically, and Paul Pogba may forever be remembered as the most expensive player of all time. Five years from now, we could be wondering what exactly the Sky and BT Sport negotiators had been smoking.

Rooney’s testimonial was potentially a dry run, albeit on a scale without any real economic comparison. The match was technically broadcast by BT Sport, with a live stream available via either the striker’s or Manchester United’s Facebook page. Off the bat, there were serious problems. The quality was undoubtedly poor, and even worse than few of the illegal streams available elsewhere on the internet. Additionally, the sound quality was infuriating during the pre-match buildup. The volume of the three pitchside commentators significantly drop or increase without warning. However, this was fixed by the time the match commentary began, so it might be a problem with BT instead of Facebook.

In terms of viewership, it was fairly impressive. With 25,000 viewers during the pre-match build-up, it had nearly 75,000 by kickoff. Peaking at 125,000 viewers at points during the first half, it settled to about 100,000 people after the interval. Considering it was the first of its kind on Facebook Live, and a pre-match testimonial that was most interesting to those in the stadium, those are impressive figures. However, Facebook does need to work on its streaming capabilities, as there were several moments in the second half where the feed had to stop and buffer for a second. There was even a moment where the video got stuck, and the page had to be reloaded.

Overall, it was clear that Facebook is not ready to take over just yet, but it was still a relative success. If they can negotiate a few more streams of official matches throughout the season to gauge actual online viewership, Zuckerberg may have accidentally stumbled across the next great social media innovation. Facebook Live may yet become the future of football.

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