THERE’S NO DENYING THAT SOCIAL MEDIA has had a monumental impact on the way we live our lives. Not only are we subjected to a continual stream of news, updates and information from people around the world as it happens, but channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provide us with an insight into the lives of some of the planet’s most famous and influential people, which was all but impossible less than a decade ago.
This phenomenon has had an enormous effect on how businesses in all industries of all sizes are able to monetise their audiences, but in no industry has this been felt quite so much as in the world of football.
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When most people think of football they think of a multi-billion dollar business with legions of fans worldwide, which is arguably the single most influential sport on the planet. According to studies from 1993, 1996 and 1999, as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, football is played by 250 million people in more than 200 nations. And while football is indeed the most popular sport, but in relative terms the beautiful game has often struggled to monetise its fans. In a world pre-social media, clubs such as Manchester United could happily boast having 659 million fans worldwide, but when a huge proportion of them are overseas, having never watched a live game, let alone visited the club’s home grounds of Old Trafford, these massive numbers used to mean very little. Not anymore.
The rise of social media in sport
Social media has changed this phenomenon dramatically. In 2014, Facebook executive Glenn Miller stated that “of the 1.3 billion-plus people on Facebook, 500 million are hardcore football fans,” so it’s no wonder clubs are now able to capitalise on the huge amount of engagement they receive from fans.
But social media plays a much bigger role than just a commercial one in the world of football at all levels. Social media channels allow clubs to break news such as the signing of new players with a simple click of a button, not to mention giving fans the ability to connect with clubs, players and coaches on a personal level in real time. The rise of social media has made way for younger fans to engage with their favourite clubs and players in a much more meaningful way, and with over 82 per cent of 16-24 years olds engaging in some form of social media at least once a week, this gives clubs the ability to foster real loyalty amongst these young fans. Social media also allows fans to actively discuss the action of live games whilst viewing, which has given birth to the term ‘the second screen’.
So whilst there’s no arguing that social media has changed the face of sport, how does this translate to sports?
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It’s not only about football: Athletes and brands are able to connect directly with their fans, in sports from cycling to skateboarding and wrestling to poker. Fitplan’s list of The World’s Top 100 Athletes with the Most Facebook Fans is still dominated by footballers such as Lionel Messi, David Beckham and Neymar Jr, with only Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and John Cena, both of wrestling fame, making an appearance in the Top 10.
But move further down the list and sports such as basketball, cricket, tennis and athletics make an appearance, all with their top stars amassing tens of millions of social media followers. Even less traditional sports such as poker can draw parallels with their star’s social media presence and their professional performance, as seen on the PokerStars 2016 Social Power Table. Bertrand Grospellier, also known as ElkY, a professional video gamer who eventually made the move to poker tops the charts, with 64,700 followers on Twitter, while Daniel Negreanu, who’s the most profitable poker player in history boasts 140,000 followers.
Social media works both ways: Popularity can allow an athlete to promote their brand more effectively, but the activities of the brand itself bring in more followers, more likes, more shares. Case in point is poker pro Jason Somerville, who gained popularity from his Twitch.tv channel, where he streams tournaments with commentary and tutorials for poker aficionados. He is just 15,000 short of 10 million views of his videos and it’s no doubt this activity that has landed him at #5 of the Social Power Table of Poker for the first time this year, with 48,000 Twitter followers.
The players who are doing it right
But of course, it’s no surprise that one of the most successful stars of social media is also one of the world’s most successful players on the pitch. Back in 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo’s management team were approached directly by Facebook staff. Facebook urged them to create a fan page for the star, famously quoting: “He has the potential to get to 10 million followers.”
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Ronaldo’s management team wasn’t convinced – 10 million people was more than the population of the player’s native Portugal. Fast forward to the present day and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Facebook fans alone total in excess of 110 million people. Add to that his 41 million Twitter followers and his 51.6 million Instagram followers and the Real Madrid player is now the most popular athlete on social media, adding social media fans at the staggering rate of around one per second. He regularly uses his social media accounts to endorse his sponsors, who include the likes of Nike, Tag Heuer and Herbalife, all of which is no doubt adding to his annual salary of $50 million.
And it’s not just players who are reaping the benefits of social media. Manchester United was recently named the most popular club on social media, with over 68 million Facebook fans and over 7 million followers on Facebook. This is reflected in their position as the number one most profitable club in the UK, with an annual income last year of £433 million.
Players have also famously used social media to connect with fans on a far more personal level, with Manchester United star Wayne Rooney using social media to announce the birth of their children. Moreover, eager fans get glimpses of players’ personalities, quirks and tastes rather than merely focusing on their performance on the field.
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Social media is constantly changing and evolving, with the average usage by adults in the U.S up by over 800% in the first eight years of Facebook alone. And as the number of users grows, we can’t wait to see what the next trends will bring for the world of sport.