Social Media in Professional Sport - The risks and rewards for the modern day footballer

  • Social media offers fans more access to players than ever before
  • Marketing opportunities for high profile players to cash on their online presence
  • Players have to be wary of bringing the game or their clubs into disrepute

Digital media has brought the world closer together and it is revolutionising the football industry as we know it. Social media has given the fans unprecedented access to their heroes and the chance to follow their team in a far more interactive manner. Football clubs now recognise the influence that a strong online presence can have when attracting new support or engaging with their existing fan base. The possibility to enjoy commercial success on a global scale has redefined the business operations of a club with different sponsorship channels now available to be exploited.

But what about the footballers themselves; What is their role and how can they benefit in this digital age? Certain superstars are pioneers in this digital uprising whilst others stay offline feeling that the risks outweigh the rewards. The vast majority of footballers will manage their own social media accounts but there is a growing trend for players to enlist the help of PR agencies to maximise their marketing potential. Social media can be a minefield or a goldmine depending on how effective you are able to play the digital game.

In the grand scheme of traditional media, the popular social platforms activated by millions are a relatively new phenomenon. Policing them is problematic when this entire concept continues to evolve at such a fast pace and there is no historical context to refer to. Rio Ferdinand is one high profile star that has been involved in a number of Twitter spats leading to him being fined by the FA for bringing the game into disrepute. He is not alone however and others have been guilty of online foul play.

Players need to take responsibility for their actions because deleting a tweet or apologising for a post can no longer be accepted. When you live your life in the public spotlight; people are quick to judge, they will pass comment and are ready to expose any of your mistakes. Unfortunately it is the nature of the beast and although I don’t condemn this type of behaviour, players must choose to ignore any online trolling and the temptation to respond. Social media has given everybody a voice but if you decide to use your own then you have to consider who and what that might offend.

The case of Sergi Guardiola serves as a great warning to all professionals out there because few realise that our digital footprint is there for the rest of time. Guardiola had secured his dream move to Barcelona only to see his world fall apart when the Catalan club terminated his contract just hours after signing him. The reason? Tweets that were sent from the young midfielder’s Twitter account two years previously. Clubs will protect their public image at all costs and avoid being associated with the actions of one misguided individual.

Mario Balotelli is a perfect example of a player who has captured the public imagination far more with his social media activity than his footballing ability in recent times. But could these misdemeanours be in fact a tactful ploy to deflect attention away from his performances out on the pitch? There is no denying that he creates his own headlines and although this may put off the next club from signing him, certain brands will still be interested in marketing his off-field persona in a way consumers will buy into.

Just look at the huge success of Nike’s ’Dare to Zlatan’ campaign which celebrated the fearless attitude of one of the world’s most iconic players. Nike didn’t attempt to package up Zlatan Ibrahimovi? as someone he is not. They embraced his larger than life personality and engaged their audience in a new and different way. It was a risk well worth taking and demonstrated how digital marketing can prosper by thinking outside out of the box.

Generic material is no longer enough for online followers. In the big brother obsessed society we now live, people are fascinated by fly-on-the-wall type content. Original material is now craved by the public who are desperate for a glimpse of any action from behind the scenes. They want to see and feel what it is like to live the lives of their idols.

But this can lead to potential conflict in certain circumstance between players from the same team. According to reports, Barcelona have asked Gerard Pique to moderate his activity on Periscope. The Spanish giants no longer allow journalists to travel with the team to away matches but on the recent flight home from Eibar, Pique attempted to stream live video content from the plane. Apparently, Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi did not take too kindly with Pique’s camera work and it highlights how some players still desire an element of privacy in their lives.

Other players are pushing the boundaries of possibility and building formidable personal brands in the process. Superstars, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, will often have more followers than the products they endorse which is why brands will pay a premium to protect their assets. Signing up a social media heavyweight guarantees a wider audience or the ability to infiltrate a different target demographic. For certain brands, such as Pepsi, the endorsement of a sporting icon has become a necessity because modern society is now far more health driven and conscientious. Products lacking lifestyle appeal know that the seal of approval from a top footballer will help them in their fight to maintain market dominance.

So it is clear that players are in a very powerful position but they must tread carefully with the products they are supposed to be promoting. Wayne Rooney embarrassed his Samsung sponsors when a tweet from his iPhone went viral. Bayern Munich midfielder, Arturo Vidal, caused controversy when he mentioned his new Nike boots in a tweet whilst wearing the Adidas strip of his employers. Companies are constantly looking to gain an edge in such a competitive environment so players need to understand that their involvement in ambush marketing strategies can land them in trouble.

The landscape has changed dramatically and it seems increasingly unlikely that a Sir Alex Ferguson type figure can control the dressing room with an iron fist. Social media is here to stay and will continue to grow so the relationship between players and theirs club must also evolve. Co-operation is required so that footballers are willing to help their club deliver results both on and off the field because they know that their football club will allow them the freedom to express themselves and explore their own opportunities. This will hopefully prevent unsavoury situations developing and a player doesn’t try and use their social media accounts as a weapon of defence in the way Victor Valdes did during his disastrous spell at Manchester United. Interaction should be encouraged but guidance and common-sense should always prevail.

Whilst I studied for my degree in sports journalism I discovered how NFL athletes are successfully coached to tackle the media. Their media training focused on three important principles; PROMOTE YOURSELF, PROMOTE YOUR TEAM and PROMOTE YOUR SPORT. Perhaps the emergence of a fourth principle, PROMOTE THE SPONSOR, is the reason behind much of the conflict that is now caused.

All parties involved must come together like the 11 individuals do out on a football pitch. Teamwork wins football matches and it can solve the problems of social media just as effectively.

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