I know what you're thinking, what on earth is this guy doing writing a blog about football when all of the major leagues in Europe have been postponed indefinitely. Well, bear with me because after briefly questioning whether it was still appropriate to put out an article on football consumption in the current climate I came to the realisation that it's actually more relevant than ever. Consumer behaviour is going to change drastically over the coming months and, if anything, the trends explored below are going to accelerate as people look for alternative forms of content and entertainment to fill the void that a lack of live sport has left in their lives. So grab a cuppa, switch off your BBC news alerts and escape into some musings from a soon-to-be esports football fanatic.
The 2019/20 premier league season will no doubt be remembered for the introduction of the hugely controversial VAR (Video Assistant Referee). Its impact has been immediate and in some cases devastating. As @SportBible helpfully pointed out, my beloved West Ham United would be sitting in a comfortable mid-table position if you didn’t take VAR decisions into account this season. Instead they are precariously teetering on the brink of relegation, not that I’m bitter about it. But as much as technology is changing the face of the game on the pitch, you don’t have to look far to see it’s impact off the pitch.
There are few facets of modern society and culture that have not felt the effects of social media and football is no different. Football fans today enjoy unfettered access to football content and players, something previous generations would never have dreamed of (at the risk of showing my age, I still remember having to check the live scores on teletext as a kid). We also live in a world where our passions are not enjoyed in isolation but instead pulled together into a neatly packaged feed which has seen the rise of some surprising overlaps in entertainment and culture.
But what, I hear you ask, is the result of all of this? Well, in the spirit of that staple of the accepted blog format, the listicle, I’ve pulled together a handy (read - over-simplified) list of the top three trends that social media has driven in football fandom.
1) Football x Gaming.
I recently had an interesting chat with my barber about how playlist consumption, driven by platforms like spotify, is causing a blurring of music genres that means people no longer identify themselves as listeners of one specific genre when asked “what music are you into”. Aside from making me question whether Harry’s insights and opinions were wasted on the barbershop floor, it also made me think that social media is kind of like this but on a massive cultural scale. When you can flick between a Vice documentary about the moral ramifications of deep fakes, to a clip ripped from Tik Tok of some guy dancing with his pet duck within a microscopic movement of a thumb, there are bound to be some interesting effects. For football, this effect has been the crossover of gaming and the real world.
COPA 90’s study on the modern football fan dissects the effect gaming has had on football brilliantly. “Gaming has provided them with an education – creating a new fan perspective that blurs the line between reality and virtual”. And how the lines have blurred! Just look at the comments from La Liga’s head of content, Roger Brosel, who emphasises how the league’s new camera technologies and overlays are following standards set in the virtual word; “We wanted to get as close to video games as possible”. The effect is even evident on the players themselves with the proliferation of goal celebrations that emulate moves seen on fortnite, made popular by the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Jessie Lingard.
Burger King are one of the first brands to have really embraced the marketing potential of this coming together of worlds with their “Stevenage challenge”. When they announced that they would be sponsoring League Two side Stevenage I’m sure there were some arched eyebrows rivaling the shape of their logo from their biggest competitor. How Burger King activated that sponsorship however was a masterstroke.
Posting a list of in-game challenges for FIFA 20 players to try, they encouraged gamers to play with the Stevenage team within the game. Gamers who completed the challenges, and, crucially, uploaded the footage to Twitter, were eligible for free BK food. Since the virtual Stevenage players wear the same BK-branded kits as the real-world players, the stunt was a clever way of getting a lot of BK-themed sports footage circulating in social. At a time when shirt sponsorship deals for Premier League clubs can run into the 100s of millions it was a canny move that was not only cost effective but shows that they have a deep rooted understanding of their consumers behaviour and how they can catch their attention.
2) Journalism & Commentary.
At its root, social media is a place for like minded people to connect and share opinions about things they are interested in. Inevitably this makes it the perfect hotbed to cultivate and amplify the voices of millions of passionate football fans all over the world. Coupled with the presence of every football player, manager and backroom staffer in the same arena you have a direct link between those that play the game and its consumers.
This directness of feedback and immediacy of social is driving a shift away from the old voices of authority on all things footy towards younger, more culturally diverse and multi-faceted commentators. As one fan, surveyed for the aforementioned Copa 90 study, put it “You can get the same level of analysis from the comments below a tweet with the highlights, you don’t need to stay up and be in the house for a specific time.” So whilst shows like Match of the Day still have a loyal following, there has been a meteoric rise of alternative, fan-based and more democratic forms of analysis and content such as AFTV, True Geordie and ExWestHamEmployee.
It’s not just ‘normal fans’ who have realised the potential to bypass traditional media and voice their opinions directly. By using social media, football clubs themselves are able to post news, opinions and statistics before journalists know about it. No-one outside the club can get this kind of access. Consequently, many clubs and players have built larger audiences than traditional media sources.
As a result media titles are having to diversify and look for new, compelling ways to retain interest in their coverage. See, for example, The Athletic - a subscription based service that has, in their own worlds, “assembled the best team of football writers in the world to tell deeply-reported stories that offer in depth insights that go beyond match reports and transfer gossip”.
3) Content, Content, Content.
These are 3 genuine football related twitter accounts that I actually follow.
Whilst this might tell you something about the maturity of my sense of humour, it’s also indicative of a burgeoning genre of football content that has been shaped by internet meme culture. It’s no longer enough just to reel off the best goals from the weekend to your mates at work on a Monday lunchtime, or speculate about the potential England squad for the Euros down the pub on a friday night. You need to have seen and rated the limbs in the away end at Grimsby Town (that’s Limbsby Town to those in the know) or better still, whatsapp’d the group chat with that hilarious thread about the #BanterEra of your club (side note - West Ham win this one hands down) to be considered on the pulse in front of your mates.
The point is that the spectrum of football content has broadened exponentially. On one end we have the full length serialised documentaries of behind the scenes access to clubs like Leeds, Juventus and Sunderland that have been commissioned by Netflix and Amazon, on the other, meme accounts like those referenced above. Fans have an insatiable appetite for both long and short form entertainment that is fueling a content arms race of clubs, creators and brands all trying to capitalise.
So what does all of this mean for brands who want to play in this space and reach this highly engaged audience? It’s a pretty complex landscape to navigate and not something to dive into without some careful thought and attention. Such a passionate audience can spot inauthenticity a mile away and believe me will not leave it unpunished. Just read the YouTube comments on 20th Century Studio’s misjudged attempt to get Man Utd players to recreate the trailer for the film Independence Day.
On the flip side, it’s also an incredibly exciting time because there are almost limitless opportunities to get involved. We’ve already seen some innovative leaps into the space, with the likes of Burger King but that is just the beginning. With some bravery, creativity and a true understanding of football fan culture, who knows where it can go?