Given the tribal nature of soccer fandom, sports teams are both fortunate and limited in what they can achieve on social media. On the plus side, their product is loved the world over, and soccer fans are some of the most engaged audiences out there. On the other hand, teams are generally limited to engaging their own fans, meaning that expanding an audience is intimately tied with the difficult task of expanding a genuine fan base. Sports broadcasters are in the uniquely fortunate position of being able to build a following of fans from across every team they cover, but for clubs the name of the game is engagement.
English Premier League club Manchester City, in particular, is very impressive on social media. Since the team saw huge investment from Sheikh Mansour in 2008, it has had ambitions of longevity both on and off the field. Compared with the, at times slapdash, approach of other 'new money' clubs like Paris Saint-Germain or Chelsea, City's empire building has always had an air of foresight about it. Getting Pep Guardiola in to manage the side was clearly always the long-term goal, and the acquisition of superstars has, for the last few years at least, felt calculated and methodical. There have been very few rogue purchases, every manager has stayed just about his course, and the move to the Etihad stadium cemented City's status as a 'big' team. The club has also extended its reach by setting up de facto franchises in both Melbourne and New York, ventures with their own superstars and plush stadiums to push City's brand worldwide.
The same can be said for the side's efforts on social media. Not historically a large or particularly important English club, City's rise to global recognition was almost instantaneous. It was important commercially that their digital reach reflected this in some way as quickly as possible, and it almost immediately poured resources into its social and video production teams. Compared to its Premier League rivals, City's video content has been great in terms of access. Its now common 'Tunnel Cam' was one of the first of its kind, and gave fans access to an area of the stadium only partially seen on television broadcasting. Couple these efforts with creative interviews, live broadcasts, prank videos, skill videos, behind the scenes videos from training sessions, and access all areas content, and suddenly City are industry leaders in digital content. The consistent output is bearing fruit, too, as City recently became the first English soccer team to break one million subscribers on Youtube.
Much like City, London team Chelsea is well followed on social media, and the content it produces is regular and of a high quality. The side's social media has recently undergone subtle changes, in clear response to the wider soccer content market's development. Where the club's video output would formerly be exclusively clips from Chelsea TV - its standalone video platform - it now features a large amount of custom social content created by a dedicated team. The Instagram video content is more short-form, when using the medium of 'stories' it gives updates on results, its Facebook videos are longer and more in-depth, where the Twitter is a mixture of text updates and video content. Brands could learn from the way in which soccer teams operate, tailoring their content for the medium they're operating on and being aware of the different audiences of its primary social channels.
One thing soccer teams get absolutely right on social is to include fans in decisions and have the pages as collaborative spaces. Clubs will run polls to select everything from 'Man of the Match' to 'Goal of the Month', and others have experimented with allowing fans to have a say on the running off a club on a corporate level. Take Everton, for example. The Liverpool club put the decision of choosing the new club crest in the hands of its fans, a sentimental move which was refreshingly collaborative in an age in which the perception of soccer is that it's all business first. Clubs could feasibly have their fans choose between the final few shortlisted jersey designs, or be directly involved in merchandise ideas - the possibilities for collaboration with supporters through social are vast.
Ultimately, what groups these efforts is threefold. Firstly, they all have a tirelessness that wasn't always present before sports teams began seeing unbelievable popularity on social media generally. Secondly, they understand that their audience will, largely, value humor and playfulness as much as they value insider info - a skills video will go down just as well as a full and frank interview with a player, for a number of reasons. And, finally, they understand where they can be most effective. The use of Instagram, with its autoplaying videos and Stories function, has made clubs a fixture on their fans' timelines, with the biggest clubs having tens of million of followers.
The fact that sports broadcasters in both the UK and the US saw declines in viewing figures last year has little to do with fewer people watching sports. All it means is that audiences are getting their sports content in different formats and on different platforms. Illegal streaming sites are widely used and are a problem for the multi-billion dollar broadcasting industry but, similarly, 25% of football fans in the UK reportedly consume content via social media. The online platforms themselves are waking up to this shift and are, in many cases, exploring deals with rights holders to broadcast games live on their users' timelines. Facebook has struck a deal with La Liga to broadcast Friday night Spanish league fixtures, while Twitter announced last year that it would be showing 10 Thursday night NFL games on its platform. So, it's not just soccer - social media, as a forum for discussing and consuming sports content, is perfect.