This week, it is expected that Barcelona forward Neymar will complete a $261 million (€221 million) transfer to French giants Paris Saint-Germain. The transfer will dwarf the current record of $124 million (€105 million) that Manchester United paid for Paul Pogba just last year, and the move is indicative of the astronomical wealth that clubs have amassed in the era of global soccer.
Part of the many reasons that transfer fees have skyrocketed is that players themselves have become assets off the pitch as well as on it. The difficult-to-quantify appeal of a Neymar or a Cristiano Ronaldo to a club is valuable, not to mention the money to be made from (often messy) image rights arrangements and the subsequent sponsorship deals clubs get off the back of these. Players are international celebrities in their own right, complete with millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in hard to reach areas of the globe.
Wind the clock back just six years, and soccer clubs were not well followed on social media. Manchester United, for example, claimed that it had 659 million supporters worldwide in 2012, but it previously had no easy way of engaging them all. Today, it does so via social media. Managing director Richard Arnold declared last year that United couldn’t be rivalled in terms of engagement, saying: ‘The level we are engaging at, to put into context, is akin to religion. John Lennon was famously quoted as saying The Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Whilst we wouldn't want to be disrespectful in that way, what you are seeing from a measurement point of view is that the level of engagement and fervour we get is on par with the world's major religions and those are the only things at the same level as Manchester United in terms of that interaction and engagement.'
Employing players like Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is - on top of the fact that both are fantastic footballers - all part of a strategy to maintain United as an engaging force. There’s a reason that the club chose to collaborate with UK grime artist (and United fan) Stormzy in announcing the £89 million arrival of Pogba. To get an idea of the scale, the 48-second video released by Adidas featuring the two stars has nearly 3 million views on Youtube alone, whilst being widely shared on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. This hype elevated Pogba to the status of a superstar before he even stepped foot onto the pitch at Old Trafford, and this is in United’s interest.
Pogba has 16.8 million followers on Instagram alone. This means United can offer any shirt sponsor that much reach every time the player posts a picture of himself or any of his teammates in training or on the pitch. When you add together the social media reach of the entire United squad, you have a social offering unparalleled by almost any other brand on the planet. Football clubs may not individually be that big business when compared to other industries but, in terms of reach and emotional connection, they are without peers.
Of course, where there is unparalleled exposure, there is also risk. For every player making headlines for positive social media use - a candid behind the scenes perspective, the promotion of a charity, etc. - there is another wildly missing the mark. Two of the more striking examples of the last two seasons are Burnley Striker Andre Gray and Chelsea forward Kenedy. The former had to ask fans for forgiveness after homophobic tweets from 2012 surfaced and the latter was sent home from pre-season tour of China after Instagram posts were accused of racism and xenophobia.
Ultimately, the important thing for athletes at all levels of all sports is education. Soccer players, for example, should be well drilled in terms of what is expected of them online. If the output is too choreographed it will come across sterile and engagement will suffer, too candid and you can end up with embarrassments - it’s a fine line to tread and clubs should employ support staff to ensure that player output is always tasteful.