Football takes to social media in crowded contest for fan allegiance

Online presence is a must for many firms but players of the beautiful game also know the power of the net. The innovative use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is a key commercial component for clubs.

Luis Suarez, left, of Barcelona celebrates with his teammate Lionel Messi after scoring the opening goal during the Joan Gamper trophy match between Barcelona and UC Sampdoria in August. Alex Caparros / Getty Images
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Football is changing and so has the way we consume content, at a rapid pace.

In this increasingly digital world in which we live, marketers are constantly kept on their toes when it comes to driving the right kind of engagement with their audiences in real time.

A similar challenge exists with social media, where sports fans are more willing and progressively look towards engaging with their favourite clubs in real time.

The 24-times Spanish La Liga champions FC Barcelona with approximately 148 million followers (across all social channels) were recently ranked as one of the top sports teams on social media with a media value of US$25.3 million, according to Forbes.

Barcelona, like many others, has realised the importance of engaging with its audience and its significance when it comes to commercial ventures, initiating new channels to interact with fans. This can eventually be measured as a value proposition to existing and potential sponsors. At the same time, reaching their followers in real time with personalised messages boosts club affinity and allegiance.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can have a positive effect for clubs on various fronts. Daniel Robertson, the digital content and social media manager at FC Dallas, US Major League Soccer's (MLS) Western Conference leaders, says social media has helped the club to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

"In Dallas, we have all five major professional sports leagues plus huge college athletics and high school as well so this gives us a somewhat even playing field to brand ourselves and promote ourselves to our target demographic," he tells The National.

Aaron Gourley, editor of FCBusiness magazine, a business magazine covering the football industry, says clubs have managed to interact with their fans in ways that were not possible in the past.

“Social media has allowed clubs to reach up to new audiences nationally and internationally.

“But it has also helped bring them closer to their core local fan base in a manner that is less formal and more engaging. There was a period where football had been accused of losing touch with the ordinary fan but social media has opened up that line of communication, with dialogue being almost on a one-to-one basis and less ‘broadcast’ in its nature,” he says.

Social media continues to have an important role in how individuals interact with each other. The various accounts owned by a team provides them with an opportunity to expand the perceptions of their unique personalities. On Twitter for example, fans tend to follow sportsmen and women in multitudes to discover more on the human side of the players they see on TV or at the stadium. From a team’s perspective, although these tweets are unlikely to reflect the personalities of the upper management and owners, many clubs do provide followers with a fun-loving image of what the team stands for. Moreover, a social media presence softens and engages an otherwise faceless sports organisation.

Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at Salford business school at the University of Salford near Manchester in north-west England, says social platforms perform more than one function within the wider football industry.

“At one level, social media is simply a fast, often efficient way of communicating with key target markets,” he says.

“However, at another level, social media is a means of building fan engagement. That is, creating relationships with fans that are broader and deeper than ever. Clubs like Arsenal and Barcelona take social media very seriously. Indeed, the London club actively encourages its players to use social media, which we see in the large numbers of posts they often make.”

Given that the United States drives the much of the innovation in communication technology that is later adopted across the globe, it is not surprising that MLS is at the forefront of technological advancements made in social media. In fact, the league aggressively pursues social media by distributing content designed to promote active engagement with fans. And a similar mentality applies to those who run the social media accounts in the various clubs under the MLS umbrella.

For them, the only real constraint is budget.

“We have no restrictions and actually I would say the opposite working in MLS,” says Mr Robertson.

“We have many fewer rules about match broadcasting rights and what we can show. The only limitations for us are more budget-based having to work with smaller staff numbers sometimes limits what we can do, but in general I think we can pretty much do whatever we want to.”

While having a presence in social media is now standard for most teams, many bigger clubs are moving away from the routine of randomly publishing content to setting up specific criteria with thought given to objectives, goals and metrics.

The key is to carefully link a club’s social media activity to its business plan. With the need to be in market in real-time a fundamental one in today’s social environment, the work hours of the online staff goes beyond the usual 9-to-5, and adequate planning and management is vital.

“I think you have to be realistic with your team and what you can accomplish while still maintaining a healthy life/work balance,” says Mr Gourley.

“Social media is all about creativity and enthusiasm so if you are burnt out you will not create your best content. So it’s important to work hard while you are on the clock but also get away from things when you are not.

“Planning in advance always creates better content, though social media is such real-time that’s tough to do, but if you surround yourself with creative people you will always have success,” he says.

Although FC Dallas are the current league leaders, the team is not of the highest drawing in terms of attendance but Mr Robertson says it does rank in the top five when it comes to engagement among MLS teams. This is only possible by creating content that keeps the fan engaged and that is what the Dallas-based team is striving towards.

“I am not sure we are terribly innovative, rather just sticking to the things that people want which is game highlights and cool ways to showcase our goals and skills. Having someone running GIFs on a Livestream allows us to get match highlights out almost instantaneously and not losing sight of what the fans want is important, ”Mr Robertson says.

As it stands, the future of social media within the football industry looks bright as it continues to evolve and organisations continue to take advantage of the resources available to them.

Mr Gourley believes that with the rapid rise in the combination of technology and innovation in the way it is used, new opportunities are immense.

“Social media continues to develop as does its use by clubs,” he says.

“Most recently, the development of things like Facebook Live has opened up numerous new broadcasting opportunities, something Manchester City Women’s team have been keen to exploit. They’ve broadcast their recent Continental Cup game using the platform and its success will see them repeat this for the next round.

“Social media is constantly growing and so are the opportunities to create fresh, new and exciting content that is targeted and appeals to a huge number of people across the globe.”

Shuaib Ahmed writes on all things football at

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