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How sports fans are connecting with their heroes

Friday 14 September 2018

SPORTS clubs and sporting mega stars are big business. And the influence of social media in the world of sport is growing rapidly.

Here Dr Alex Fenton, digital business expert at the University of Salford Business School, looks in depth at how social media is impacting on the way clubs interact with fans.
This was originally published in The Conversation.

Dr Fenton wrote: “Sports clubs collect billions through endorsements and TV deals and it sometimes seems like the fans are being left behind while clubs and players cash in. But the advent of social media means that players and clubs can now reconnect with supporters on a global scale. But it is also fair to say that sport and social media have a rocky relationship and so this still must be managed well.

“Thanks to the triple revolution of fast internet, smartphones and social media, fans globally are always connected and some have argued that they have become “hyperdigitalised”. The number of smartphone owners in the world is growing swiftly and is expected to rise to 2.5 billion by 2019.

“Social media is now the key connection between clubs and their fans – and the attraction and retention of new fans. It benefits clubs and players by allowing them to amplify their messages, discuss and interact with supporters and listen to what they are saying in an ongoing way.

“Essentially, clubs need to be wherever their fans or potential fans are. Manchester United are an example of a global sports brand and therefore, they need to be mindful of global audiences. United has been quite late to the party with their use of social media. It launched its Twitter feed in 2013 – four years after Chelsea. But this has not stopped the club developing a huge international fan base of 18.3m followers, compared to just over 6m for Manchester City, 13m for Arsenal and 12m for Chelsea.

“Our research on Manchester United and Liverpool FC’s local and international fans on Instagram demonstrated that both fan comments and club posts form part of the brand of these clubs. Our study showed that Instagram gives fans a more active role in the branding process through comments. So teams should bear this in mind and think carefully about the kinds of images they post, as well as pay close attention to fan comments.

“Players also use social media to raise their profiles and create their own brands. If you look for example at Ronaldo – his 318m social media followers will have helped his big money move to Juventus.

“After he left Real Madrid, their Twitter followers alone dropped by over a million. This demonstrates that fans often follow high profile players wherever they go. 

“Social media gives players and sporting stars a voice and connects them to the fans like never before. Benjamin Mendy had hardly kicked a ball for Manchester City but still managed to develop a rapport with the fans through social media by posting a string of amusing tweets and Instagram posts, poking fun at fellow players and himself in the process.

“But it is notable that some sports managers have been critical of social media and its use by their players. City coach Pep Guardiola told Mendy to use social media less and to concentrate on improvements on the pitch.

“It is also true to say that players are role models and social media amplifies their voice – so it should be used wisely. There have been numerous examples of players and others in the game using social media badly to voice controversial opinions. Phil Neville fell foul of this just after accepting the head coach job for England’s women team. He was on the end of a social media backlash after alleged sexist comments were found on his social media. He apologised but still felt compelled to delete his Twitter account.

“So it’s great when everyone is happy, engaged, responding and “liking” your content. But whoever uses social media – whether player or club – needs to be very careful to avoid the pitfalls that come up all too often in this era of hyperdigitilised sports fandom.”

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Sam Wood

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