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21st Mar 2017

How Twitter changed football

In more than 140 characters....

Tony Barrett

Ronald Koeman was just trying to be festive. Posting a picture of his Christmas tree at home, the Everton manager was connecting with his one million followers and sharing the joys of the season with them.

But if his motives were pure, his execution was flawed. Within seconds the responses let him know in no uncertain terms that his Nordmann Fir was inappropriately dressed in red.

Twenty minutes later a second photograph was published of another tree adorned in blue. No sooner had a diplomatic incident occurred and it had been resolved.

As an example of the power of Twitter in football, this might seem trivial but it does underline how those within the industry who tweet subject themselves to both additional public scrutiny and negative reactions.

What is basically an exercise in personal PR and an attempt to control your own message is not always as straightforward as those who post 140 characters or fewer would hope. Football on Twitter is not a matter of life or death but at times it can seem like there are those who believe that it is.

Midway through February, Lucas Leiva did what a lot of footballers have thought of doing by responding to social media criticism following an impressive individual performance in Liverpool’s 2-0 home win against Tottenham Hotspur.

“Don’t you get tired of criticising me mate?” he asked, before diplomatically adding “Enjoy the win and the clean sheet.” In doing so, the Brazilian went against the advice that most clubs provide to their players by getting involved in a negative exchange with a fan but he also struck a blow for those who recognise that it is human nature to react when criticism is strong.

Negative or positive, though, such instances indicate that one of the core principles of the Twitter experience is being upheld as it does allow ordinary people, in this case football supporters, to connect with those that they wouldn’t normally be able to, ie people in the football industry who are otherwise no longer as accessible as they once were.

Unless a player or manager has a subordinate who tweets on their behalf, and that practice is more commonplace than is widely believed, anyone can tell a player that he has performed badly, a manager that he has picked the wrong team or an owner that he isn’t signing the right players, “SIGN REUS” indeed.

“Fundamentally, it has changed the relationship between the fan and the team,” Alex Trickett, a sports industry consultant and former global sports chair of Twitter explained.

“If you wound back in time pre-Twitter, that relationship was pretty formulaic and structured around certain moments. You could get near a player or two at a press conference or at a structured point in time. Twitter kind of changed that. Suddenly, as a fan, wherever I am in the world, whoever I support, I can follow them all the time and get direct contact with them.”

The level of that engagement can, at times, be extensive. In early 2012, Vincent Kompany gave Manchester City supporters a direct input into his team talk ahead of the Manchester derby through a Twitter competition called #FollowTheCaptain. Kompany acknowledged subsequently that the exercise had helped develop the bond that existed between the club’s fans and himself.

Southampton, the first Premier League club to emblazon their stand with the club hashtag (#SaintsFC), went a stage further by allowing supporters to watch the team prepare for a game in the dressing room and walk out onto the pitch using Periscope.

That approach proved particularly popular and continues to be deployed with their post-match celebrations after reaching the EFL Cup Final at Liverpool’s expense underlining their growing willingness to give fans access to areas that would previously have been out of bounds.

Everton have also used the opportunities that Twitter creates to good effect, none more so than when Ric Wee, a lifelong supporter from Malaysia travelled to Merseyside to attend his first ever game against Crystal Palace. High winds caused the fixture to be postponed but having been alerted to a tweet by Wee, Everton officials located him and took him into the dressing room to meet first team manager Roberto Martinez and his players.

Another postponement, this time of Portsmouth’s away fixture at Crawley Town, led to Pompey defender Christian Burgess tweeting that he was at a loose end and open to ideas. Will Chitty, under-12s coach for Skilful Soccer Youth, replied and suggested he helped with training.

“I didn’t think anything would come of it,” Chitty admitted “I hadn’t seen his initial reply that he was actually coming as I’d started the training session. Then about 30 minutes in, I was genuinely surprised to see he was there on the touchline asking for me. He was there for about an hour in all. He put on a session, watched them play a game and then stayed to pose for some pictures after.”

In January 2016 a global search was launched on Twitter to find the Afghan boy who had fashioned a Messi shirt out of a plastic bag. Almost a year later Murtaza Ahmadi was found and got to lead his hero Lionel Messi out onto the pitch ahead of Barcelona’s friendly against Al-Ahli in Qatar. Images of the five-year-old refusing to leave Messi’s side subsequently went viral.

What all of these examples demonstrate is the extraordinary reach that Twitter has and also the potential it offers for football to do the right thing and be seen doing it.

As a result, all leading clubs now have a social media strategy aimed at giving their own brand maximum projection and portraying their actions on and off the pitch in as positive a light as possible.

Given the number of people that can be reached via Twitter and who actively participate on the platform – 36.5 million tweets were sent during Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil at the semi-final stage of the last World Cup, a world record for a live sporting event – the football industry has come to view Twitter as an opportunity to further open up the global marketplace.

That is the reason why Ed Woodward, Manchester United’s CEO, has been keen to let the world know that Daley Blind’s Twitter following grew by 72% since moving to Old Trafford, a statistic which prompted derision amongst traditional supporters but one that would inevitably arouse interest in commercial circles.

It was an extension of that same philosophy that saw United celebrate Paul Pogba’s return to Old Trafford with the #pogback hashtag which attracted scathing criticism in some quarters but was driven by a desire to drive commercial revenues from a world record transfer.

Brandwatch, the social media monitoring company, reported that Pogba’s transfer received almost four times as many mentions as Manchester City’s purchase of John Stones on the same day; significantly 12,000 of those mentions also referred to Adidas, with whom Pogba has a personal sponsorship deal and United have a kit sponsorship agreement. On top of that, the Brandtix sports index claimed that Pogba’s personal brand value rose by 13% in the week that he rejoined United. It also found that Pogba acquired over 900,000 new social followers in the same period.

As much as it might stick in the craw of traditionalists and anyone who believes football’s soul is being endangered by such activities, there is unquestionably a marketing method to madness like #pogback.

“The footballing side will always run things, because there’s so much money from the broadcasters with Champions League qualification and so on,” Antony Marcou, CEO of media rights group Sports Revolution, told Marketing Week.

“Commercial will never override that, but the commercial team at Man United can try to monetise it. It’s an opportunistic way of saying ‘we’re signing superstars, so let’s [monetise] it’.”

Pogba now has his own Twitter emoji, the first footballer to do so.

Not only has Twitter changed the way we interact with footballers, how we discover news about them and how they are marketed to us, it has also had a profound effect on the way we watch the game itself.

BT recognised this when it agreed to pay £1.2 billion to retain the rights to broadcast Premier League and Europa League fixtures up to the end of the 2020/21 season with an additional commitment to show clips on social media.

While that development will allow BT to reach a bigger audience, a necessary move given poor viewing figures, it also creates the possibility of increasing revenues by using in-video advertisements. While the monetary opportunities are obvious, so too is the potential impact on viewers, particularly younger ones who are becoming increasingly used to brief, gif-friendly packages of goals and skills.

Reducing football to such incidents might be good for business but whether it’s good for the game remains to be seen.

But the biggest change that Twitter has prompted in football is that it has given millions of people a sense that they actively participate in games rather than merely watch them. It is no longer about passive observance, it is about actively interpreting it.

A furtherance of the radio phone-in culture as it allows anyone and everyone to have their say over and over again, there is also the potential for trending topics to influence the mainstream media, putting journalists under pressure to report significant shifts in public opinion and adding to the burden that clubs must face when results are bad.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, Twitter and top level football appear made for one another in a way that Koeman and a red Christmas tree never was.

It is a phenomenon that continues to grow with Barcelona’s comeback against Paris St-Germain prompting 6.1 million tweets, with 187,000 of them being sent in a single minute after the final whistle.

It is at such moments that the medium is at its most effective as it allows a global audience to delight in and debate a genuinely iconic sporting moment, although the yin to that yang is that it also becomes an interactive basket case whenever a big decision goes against any of the big clubs.

The impact of those 140 character missives should not be understated.

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