Feature Story

Soccer Embraces Social Media for a Net Gain

by Jason Deign

Soccer clubs and players are gaining fan engagement and revenues from social networks.

Major soccer teams such as Futbol Club Barcelona and Manchester United are picking up millions of followers on Facebook and other networks—and waking up to the revenue potential of social media.

For example, just three clubs—Barcelona, Manchester United, and Real Madrid Club de Futbol—combined have more than 43.5 million Facebook followers. Contrast that with 3.8 million friends for the New York Yankees and less than 900,000 for the New York Giants.

And soccer fans are not just passive followers. Besides fan-engagement features such as games and videos, the social media pages of top teams have integrated e-commerce sections where you can buy anything from tickets to players' shirts.

Do not forget the business aspect of football clubs. Clubs are using LinkedIn for business-to-business aspects of their operations, such as marketing hospitality suites.--Brendan Cooper, social media consultant

Apps are becoming a good source of revenue. Atheer Al-Salim, head of SoSocial, a social media agency that works with football clubs in the United Kingdom, tells how a friend of his recently got hooked on I Am Playr, a Facebook game that has 150,000 players and lets them "live the life of a superstar striker."

"He spent £10 [$16] in one evening," Al-Salim says. "If everyone puts that much in, that is £1.5 million [$2.5 million] already."

Soccer clubs, which traditionally make their money from ticket sales, media rights, sponsorship and merchandising, have good reason to invest in social media. Few sports fans are as rabidly loyal as soccer supporters, and many are happy to increase the cash they spend on their team.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube give fans additional points of engagement with their teams over and above fixtures and other events. Each of these points represents a potential sale opportunity, particularly if offers are tailored to, say, Facebook fans only, to create a sense of exclusivity.

Indeed, social media is ramping up in soccer, but it likely won't replace live sports events. "I do not think paying for an app is going to stop you going to a game or buying a shirt," Al Salim says "These things will always come first."

The revenue potential is not just from sales to fans. Games and social media sites contain advertising space that can be used to increase the value of sponsorship packages sold to brands. Liverpool Football Club, for example, promotes its sponsor, Standard Chartered Bank, on an iPhone and iPad app called Liverpool Shootout.

Finally, says social media consultant Brendan Cooper: "Do not forget the business aspect of football clubs. Clubs are using LinkedIn for business-to-business aspects of their operations, such as marketing hospitality suites."

Soccer players are also becoming savvy at social media. Manchester United center back Rio Ferdinand, for instance, has launched his own app for Android mobile operating systems.

For players it can be a double-edged sword, however, as Ferdinand's teammate Ryan Giggs discovered when his media gagging order over an extra-marital affair was exposed on Twitter.

Still, many soccer clubs have a lot to learn about social media. "The thing to remember is that they are massive brands but not massive businesses, SMBs essentially," Al Salim says.  "The advantage they have over regular brands is their target audience is far more willing to be engaged through social media, so they have won half the battle before they have begun."

Technology areas the experts believe clubs could exploit further include:

·        Mobile: While many clubs (and players) have released smartphone apps, there is still potential to further harness the power of mobile networks through location-based services such as Foursquare.

·        E-commerce: Clubs' use of different technology channels for e-commerce is patchy at best; even Real Madrid, one of the largest clubs in the world, does not yet sell products on its Facebook page. And no club has tried emulating Dell, which has made millions selling via Twitter.

·        Video: Soccer is nothing if you cannot see it. Even though clubs already recognize this, with many even having their own TV channels, there are likely to be many more opportunities to exploit this. An example is Cisco StadiumVision, a video and digital content distribution system.

Jason Deign is a freelance writer located in Barcelona, Spain.

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