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Opinion | Does securing a new star’s social media fanbase mean the shirts will follow?

We need a firm definition of crazy when it comes to football transfers.
 
If it was “lunacy” two years ago and “madness” last summer then what, in the name of Stanley Matthews’ bandy legs, can we make of the last few months?
 
Leafing through the Picador Book of Juvenile Puns, there seemed only one phrase that worked.
 
Totally in-Seine.
 
The effects of Neymar’s move to Paris St-Germain will continue to ripple across football for some time. The player, his clubs (former and current), Uefa and the nation of Qatar have all been impacted. The extent will be discovered in due course.
 
The beauty of social media is such consequences are immediate, obvious and measurable.
 
According to statistics from Result Sports, from July 28 to August 8, the period surrounding the announcement of Neymar’s move, PSG put on 1.4m followers (3%) across the three major platforms to climb to 55m. Almost half were on Facebook (642,000), with Instagram (568,000) not far behind and just 188,000 on Twitter.

Compare that with Barcelona who ‘only’ put on 850,000 (0.5%) in the same time despite possessing almost four times the reach of the club from the French capital.
 
It gets more interesting when you look at Neymar’s following. He added 2.6m followers (1.9%) in the same period, but the makeup was different. Well over half were on Instagram (1.45m), a quarter (726,000) on Facebook and the remaining 471,000 on Twitter.
 
Once again, this demonstrates the strength of Instagram for athletes. It is led by pictures, not words, and has made changes to address abusive comments, therefore footballers, photogenic and with enviable lifestyles, have jumped onboard.
 
Returning to the Neymar deal, the engagement on social media proved to be extremely diverse. 

Despite its well-publicised problems, Twitter remains the go-to platform for breaking news. Most of the player’s new followers joined on the day of the announcement.

For Instagram and Facebook, the vast majority signed up the next day when the requisite ball-juggling and scarf-holding shots were posted from the unveiling.
 
Instagram and Facebook also had a long tail on their content with rates of new followers holding up for a few days after the announcement. With Twitter, there was one big spike when the news was revealed and nothing either side.
 
Result Sports also analysed the effect of Mexico’s star striker, Chicharito, moving from Bayer Leverkusen to West Ham United in July. The German side actually lost 75,000 followers (0.25%) across its three major platforms during that month. Over 55,000 departed from Facebook, with the majority of those from the US (18,800), with its large Hispanic population, and Mexico (16,200).

 
On the flip side, West Ham gained around 295,000 followers. A massive 186,000 arrived on Facebook, with 142,000 of those from Mexico and 18,000 from the US.
 
This all proves the long-established algebra of social media: players > clubs > leagues.
 
The nature of football fandom has always been complex but, for devotees, identity is paramount. You follow the team of your heritage, familial or geographical, and stick with them for life.
 
This notion is particularly prevalent in England, hence the jokes directed towards London-based Manchester United fans and the chants of “we support our local team” from the David’s terrace when they take on a Goliath.
 
However, digitisation and globalisation may be altering the situation.
 
For a start, overseas football fans are firmly now part of the family with access to major competitions like the Premier League via television and social media.
 
Many passionate fans have been created at home and abroad with the most shallow of ties – liked the kit/the first team I saw/I liked Thierry Henry or Eric Cantona or Gary Lineker. But, in recent decades, clubs have targeted foreign fans, mainly via localised content and pre-season tours.
 
Initially seen as transient, overseas support has seemed to solidify in recent years. Hence, the desire by clubs to move them further down the conversion funnel.
 
But now, in an age in which players enact their ‘brand’ on social media, perhaps supporters will be even more likely to move when their star moves. Or, at least, to follow an additional team.
 
And split loyalties make it harder to shift shirts.
 
We Brits might seem secure in our status as the birthplace of football and home of the greatest league but we are not impervious to the changing tide. Having returned to the UK after two years in the US, it was interesting to see a greater proportion of Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts among the 10-year-olds on my son Charlie’s football team. They easily matched those of the big Premier League teams, while a kit from a local League One or Two side was clearly the product of an overly enthusiastic father.
 
That’s all anecdotal of course, perhaps the acid test of the player-versus-club pull will be if Cristiano Ronaldo, the most followed sportsman in the world, switches clubs.
 
How many youngsters will ask their parents for a Ronaldo shirt of another colour?
 
More pertinently, if the destination was Manchester United, as rumoured, how many Liverpool, City or Arsenal-supporting parents would acquiesce?
 
It would be another pressure point in the changing nature of football fandom.
 
Oh, and Charlie, if you are reading this, the answer will be no!

Richard Clarke is a digital and social media consultant. He holds the distinction of having run the social media accounts at major football clubs in the Premier League and MLS, having worked for EPL club Arsenal and MLS club the Colorado Rapids. @MrRichardClarke

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