IIn 2020, the European Club Association conducted a survey into what it called the “Future Fan”. A survey in seven countries asked 14,000 people about their interest in football and how they interacted with the game. The survey shows that only 40% of all fans regularly watch professional football in a stadium. Meanwhile, 51% said they played FIFA at least once a month.
This investigation caused some consternation in the ECA, especially with then-president Andrea Agnelli, who believed that “many traditional assumptions about fans need to change” and that the game may need to be modified to comply. Within months, however, Agnelli’s mind was confused as he had been forced out of the ECA for embracing that most radical change: the European Super League.
For many, concern about the “future fan” was simply a cover for some of the biggest clubs looking to abandon traditional structures in search of more money. But the ECA’s research was not imprecise and the questions asked were legitimate. As football has grown into a global form of entertainment, so have those who call themselves fans. The majority no longer watch football live, but digitally via a screen. Has the sport come to terms with that shift?
Certainly clubs know more about their digital fan base than ever about those who click through the turnstiles. “The most advanced clubs have data from many sources; I’d say more than a dozen,” said Roger A Breum, head of marketing at Hookit, which specializes in tracking the digital footprint of sports teams and their sponsors. “Each of the social platforms they are on gives them individualized data, then you probably have a social listening tool that gives you broad data on hashtags your club cares about. You have a sponsorship tool like ours and maybe you have tracking tools too. There is a whole host of sports technology software that a club could use.”
These tools ensure that clubs know what messages and initiatives their fans are receptive to, what not and, in some cases, how strong those opinions are. “Sentiment analysis,” says Breum, is most clearly derived from the comments under Instagram posts and from tweets. That’s where “the diehard fans tell you how they feel,” he says.
This information is well understood by the clubs, whether through their own insight teams or reports commissioned by consultants. They use it to customize the type of content they post on Instagram, or how they can help their sponsors run more effective ad campaigns. But that’s pretty much where it ends: the information is there to help the club run as a business, and it stays on the business side.
“Historically there has been a gap between the club’s commercial activities and sporting activities,” said Ben Marlow of the 21st Group consultancy, which has worked with the Premier League and Tottenham, among others. “I would still believe that. There is an element of church and state.”
Marlow’s view is shared by others who work with and within Premier League clubs. He also notes that it wouldn’t be a good idea to develop a club strategy around fan sentiment, but says a “marriage between sporting achievements and commercial achievements” is important and that “the two drive each other”.
While sporting achievements can be determined by league position, traditionally this also meant making the fans happy. In-ground fans, or ‘legacy fans’ as they came to be known in ESL jargon, are less often the subject of customer surveys, their opinion of their club rarely asked. But they do have the ability to express their views directly to the football department, with the strength of their sentiment measured in decibels. There, the link between results and enthusiasm is not always clear-cut. At Selhurst Park Crystal Palace, fans grew frustrated with Roy Hodgson despite the security of the middle table, while at Old Trafford Manchester United fans held on to Ole Gunnar Solskjær to the end despite clearly under-performing.
Digital fans don’t have the same mechanism for expressing their feelings. Yet no one will argue that they are short of opinions. This is especially true on Twitter, arguably the place where fandom is most alive outside of competition and a place in a constant state of fulmination. As one Premier League manager puts it: “You can sometimes feel that the mood online is very different from the mood in the stadium.”
Last year, journalist Dean van Nguyen wrote a taxonomy of an “extremely online” section of Liverpool’s fan base, a type he dubbed the “Twitter fan”. They were mostly young, he wrote, obsessed with transfers, highly combative and obstinately pessimistic. “Not always getting what you want from football seems completely unbearable to them,” Van Nguyen wrote. He argued that similar groups existed in the fan bases of most clubs, something confirmed by even the most cursory glance at a Premier League club’s hashtag.
The Twitter fan does not represent every “future fan”, but it seems hard to argue that they are not exactly the demographic that clubs want to reach and with the level of “engagement” that would place them in the highest category of digital supporters. Their support is vocal and committed, but much of it is critical, and that criticism is not recognized by clubs.
Some of the criticism is no doubt trickling down to players with an active social media presence and to other parts of the football department, including a former Premier League manager who, in the final days of his last job, would obsessively check online comments as soon as he stepped in. the locker room after a game. Other managers may choose to ignore the noise, but have comments that are shared with them by friends and family, or their agent anyway.
However, it is more likely that the frustrations expressed on social media will not end up in the ear of the club, but of other supporters. Van Nguyen writes that Liverpool’s “Twitter fans” often end up appealing to match fans and have developed a name for them: “Top Reds”. That term is used in similar online disputes between Manchester United supporters.
“You are seen as elitist when you go to the games,” says a fan of a top six club who travels home and out and also has a sizable following on social media. “They see us as the elite. When I speak out on matters that matter to match fans, be it ticket allocation, prizes, games being picked for TV, the new fans don’t care. They don’t deal with this sort of thing. Many match fans don’t consider what they call “e-fans” to be true fans either. They think if you don’t go, you don’t know.”
It seems inevitable that the importance of the digital fan for football, especially at the highest level, will only continue to grow. But while the commercial opportunities presented by a new audience have been clearly identified, the other direction in the relationship, that of listening, seems not to be. Match-go fans might argue it once was. Perhaps old and new supporters share some common ground in that regard.