The Revolution Will Be Digitised – Fans & the Changing Face of Football Consumption

This article was originally published by These Football Times. Click here to view the piece.

Boxing Day in Stockport. Altrincham Town are the visitors, rising to the spirit of the season by gifting Stockport County midfielder Paul Turnbull the time and space in midfield to pick out a searching 50-yard pass to teammate Frank Mulhern. The striker’s instinct takes over as the ball drops over his right shoulder before a delightfully deft touch with his opposite foot allows for a straightforward finish. It’s an incredible goal, and here’s the twist: while 4,549 are present at Edgeley Park, over 79,000 have the pleasure of viewing it, thanks entirely to a single tweet posted hours after the game by Stockport’s social media team.

To say a touch of that calibre has no place in the sixth tier of English football does a disservice to the quality that can be found in the non-league. The heavy pitches and amateur status are no more, with a collection of ex-professional and academy players filtering down the football pyramid to lift the level substantially. Football has changed, and the way fans consume it has followed suit.

While daily newspaper sales have fallen steadily over the past decade, followers of football are hungrier than ever for content connected to the game. The printed press, once a beacon for breaking news, has struggled to keep pace with a rapidly changing, omnipresent online cycle of stories. Leading the charge are a collection of cutting-edge outfits – specialist companies and ambitious self-starters – who are redefining football coverage. But who are these groups and what does their emergence tell us about the state of the modern game?

Pause for a moment and retrace the recent history of Liverpool. Recall a time before Salah, before Klopp, even before Rodgers. Remember when the Kop didn’t sing in such rousing unison and disgruntlement swept the stands as owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett blindly steered the club towards mid-table obscurity with a precarious financial position the most unwelcome of passengers on the journey. To the majority it is a lifetime ago. To a few it represents a seminal moment.

Enter Spirit of Shankly, a supporters’ union inspired by the club’s late, great manager seeking to prove that supporter power was still alive. At the heartbeat of the movement was a collection of diehard fans who compiled a list of short, medium and long-term objectives intending to reinstate traditional values that the American duo had forgotten or simply never known.

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As its acronym, SOS, would suggest, Spirit of Shankly was a response to a club in distress, striving to attract the media spotlight to shine on the Anfield boardroom and the inadequacies that plagued it. Though a number of positive social policies lay at its core, campaigners felt they, along with the larger situation at the club, continued to be ignored. Refusing to wait for the press to pick up on their plight, one member, Andy Heaton, took matters of a PR kind into his own hands. The Anfield Wrap was born.

Fast forward to the present day and The Anfield Wrap has transformed into a giant of sports reporting with a multi-person team delivering a podcast that’s downloaded over 100,000 times a week by listeners from 200 countries, along with a weekly radio show, daily articles and countless awards.

Pausing to reflect, on what do those within the operation base their success? “It was a strange thing at the time. We had administration knocking at the door but the media weren’t picking up on it,” notes Josh Sexton, a fundamental figure as online editor of the collective having arrived in 2016. “A few of the main people involved in The Anfield Wrap knew one another from Spirit of Shankly and saw a gap in the market for a fans’ voice.

In general, I think there’s an opinion in the north of England that the media is cultivated in the south, not just in regard to football. I think it’s fair to say that Liverpool in particular hold a negative view towards certain outlets based on historical events. All together I think it helped to galvanise supporters of the club behind what The Anfield Wrap was trying to do.”

The allure didn’t stop there. While the opinions being voiced pleased audiences, so too did the people offering them – not traditional journalists, but fans. “Another of our unique selling points is the emotion of the content; you don’t get that with traditional media. They haven’t sat on the Kop. There’s also no one who knows a club better than its fans, so there’s no one better positioned to give analysis of a team.”

This intense passion, checked by self-moderation, has allowed The Anfield Wrap to develop a unique position in the realm of football fan media, regarded as a respected source by fellow supporters and Liverpool alike. With great reputation comes unprecedented access and the group have interviewed a host of Liverpool stars, with current manager Jürgen Klopp and left-back Andrew Robertson the most recent to feature. Wander outside of Anfield on a Sunday evening in late August 2017, however, and it quickly becomes clear that not all clubs are as forthcoming in their endorsement of those who take to the soapbox.

Three games into the 2017/2018 season and Arsenal have lost again. Four goals without reply and a lacklustre, spiritless display against Liverpool are all the evidence needed to suggest that a long season lies ahead. A crowd has assembled, tightly huddled around Arsenal Fan TV (AFTV) ringmaster Robbie Lyle and the circus is in full swing.

One of the channel’s most prized attractions, DT, is on the mic and he isn’t pleased: “When is it acceptable to say this can’t continue anymore and for people to shut the fuck up and realise I’m saying it for a reason. I don’t need to speak eight languages and I don’t need to have been a manager before to see that we’re a fucking shambles. Ivan Gazidis, you fucking liar. Catalyst for change? Catalyst for bullshit. Everyone within this club in a position of power needs to fuck off because there are supporters who could run the club better than them. It’s beyond a fucking joke.”

The expletive-laden review, forewarned with a cautionary, increasingly customary ‘DT Angry Rant’ on the video’s YouTube title, is uploaded to the site hours later and immediately gets attention.

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Since inception in 2012, AFTV has become synonymous with controversy. If The Anfield Wrap is A Place In The Sun, AFTV is Love Island Uncut, a team in steady decline and emotion-infused post-match interview format proving a dependable recipe for weekly venom. While approaches differ, ideology appears strikingly similar to their Merseyside counterparts.

“We give fans a chance to have their say,” says Lyle, the founder of AFTV, speaking to GQ’sChris Godfrey at the channel’s fifth birthday celebrations. “We’ve shown that football is a very diverse game. There’s a lot of black fans, a lot of Asian fans, there are disabled fans, women.”

Lyle paints an idyllic picture of the platform he hoped to create, providing a microphone to the unheard. Despite holding court outside of Emirates Stadium, the channel’s notoriety and constant publicity has seen the volume cranked up, infiltrating the walls of N7 and echoing through the offices of senior management, impossible to ignore. With over 20 million monthly views and an increasingly dominant, often dissenting voice in conversations concerning Arsenal, officials were compelled to act.

In the summer of 2018, under pressure from the club, AFTV were forced to rebrand, dropping the Arsenal from their original name, along with any reference to the team in their branding. Despite the brash power play, a trend emerges: people care about what fellow fans have to say.

Two miles away from the Emirates, a media team are at work adopting a fresh approach to allow them to tell their story.

YouTube were on the hunt for their next big hit. Tom Thirlwall and his team at Big Balls Media were about to deliver it. “YouTube approached us with a brief, looking for a partner to provide original football content,” he recalls, outlining the landscape that required an overhaul. “Sports media was what you see on TV, entirely focused on the 90 minutes, and Sky dominated all Premier League packages. It was ridiculously expensive and our target audience (20-23) couldn’t afford that – or didn’t want to, especially when alternative, albeit illegal, options were available. The economics, being asked to pay an astronomical sum to watch two or three games a week, just didn’t add up.”

Challenge accepted. While competitors stepped up to the plate and struck out with proposals that blew budgets on the acquisition of match footage, Thirlwall and co took an alternative route, pointing their cameras away from the pitch. Home run.

In a sport so often dictated by data, the numbers were on their side. “One thing we knew when we started was that 68 percent of attention around the game is directed toward the stories that happen outside of the 90 minutes. We thought we’d let everyone fight over the 32 percent. Our approach was to focus on telling the stories that make the 90 minutes more important.” COPA90, the product of Big Balls Media’s efforts, have gone on to tell a fair few stories since.

Despite the win, doubters persisted, unconvinced that success depended on in-game action. COPA90 saw it differently. “We weren’t encumbered by rights and weren’t confined to talking about the Premier League or Champions League. Sky soon took a loss with all sorts of chunks being bitten out of their Premier League packages and our right to do what we were doing grew as a result. We had the ability to talk about anything.”

With scope so wide, the decision was taken to place emphasis on the fans, contextualising films about football within the wider world and educating audiences as a result. Thirlwall points to an episode of the channel’s Derby Days series on the Belgrade derby as the perfect example of what his team are trying to do. “We can tell geo-political stories through the lens of football. With that episode, we were able to tell a story of a torn country, a city with very high rates of youth unemployment and how, for 90 minutes, fans are able to forget all that, come to football and express themselves. It’s one of our most successful pieces. People felt like they understood the wider story of Belgrade as a result.”

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Helping to tell these stories is a roster of optimistic and energetic young presenters, the antithesis of suited ex-professionals found in television studios across the land, who prove there’s real power in personality. Interviewing some of the biggest names in the sport, they’re as likely to engage in serious football chat as they are to ask Raheem Sterling why he runs funny (prompting wide-eyed PR managers to hold their breath off camera, anxiously awaiting his reply).

Eli Mengem is one of these presenters. A native Australian whose passion for the game took him to London, he shares his own thoughts on the formula behind COPA90’s success. “What helps is that we aren’t ex-players or pundits, we’re fans. We back fan opinion and relate to football fans. It’s a reciprocal relationship. It’s not just that the fans have time for us, but we have time for them. They’re an integral part of football culture.”

In a saturated football world, how have COPA90’s presenters managed to stand out from the pack? “The talent that’s been recruited is unreal. I can’t tell you how good Poet and Vuj are,” says Eli. “They speak to players as if they’re mates and players respond to that by giving actual sound bites. Martino, another presenter, speaks seven languages. Timbsy has been asked by Alaba and Özil what club he plays for. We’ve got exactly the right people in exactly the right places.”

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Aiding the onscreen talent are a backroom staff committed to keeping up with the latest trends in how fans consume content. The company’s Modern Fan Report is physical evidence of this obligation, an annual document detailing shifts and changes in behaviour. When all factors are combined together, it is little surprise that the new kids on football media’s block are doing well. Further down the street, more established names are having fun of their own.

When Bobby Reid scored Bristol City’s first goal of the season, few could have predicted what would come next. As the attacker wheeled away in celebration, the club’s media team leapt to their laptops, initiating a Twitter campaign that would take the social platform by storm, one GIF at a time.

The first was unconventional yet in the grand scheme of what was to come conservative, depicting the English goalscorer simply wagging his finger. In the weeks that followed, as the goals flew in and Bristol’s season gathered momentum, so too did their social spree. Each instalment promised an increasingly bizarre celebration and a massive wave of online appreciation.

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While the GIFs were dreamt up on the training ground, inspiration for the alternative social strategy stemmed from further afield. “You see a lot of American sports teams really pushing the fun element of social media, without worrying about any abuse they receive”, says Adam Baker, the former head of communications at Bristol City who oversaw the campaign. “Their engagement numbers are huge. In football, I think there’s a culture of being too concerned about upsetting supporters.”

City bucked the trend, injecting a little fun into breaking news of the ball hitting the net. “Bristol Flyers (another team operating under the Bristol Sport banner) had enjoyed success the previous season with GIFs. In a collaborative meeting, it was suggested we look at doing something similar.”

The risk paid off. The campaign was a hit, helping to grow the club’s Twitter following by over 50,000 thanks to a co-operative effort from players and marketers alike. “Some came to us with their own ideas,” says Baker, “while others were interested with the number of page impressions each GIF was driving.”

Getting a Championship squad to immerse themselves in social media metrics is one thing, but the most valuable engagement of all came with the fans. “Crucially, it gave our supporters a bit of an insight into our players that they don’t usually see from standard press conferences, a lighter side that isn’t often portrayed in the mainstream media.”

Footballers are cut off, advertising hoardings and tinted windows separating superstar from reality. Division breeds curiosity and any insight into the people behind the players is craved.

With ears to the wall and receptive to subscriber demand, online streaming services looked to fill the void, Amazon’s All or Nothing: Manchester City offering a look into the inner sanctum of a Pep Guardiola-managed 100-point masterclass. “Of course I will defend you until the last moment in the press conference, guys, but here I will tell you the truth,” asserts the City manager in a rare moment of dissatisfaction, confirming what we knew all along: managers and players do not always share their hearts and minds with the outside world. All or Nothing was designed to change that, breaking the fourth wall and allowing viewers to see what the view is really like from the top.

Despite the purest of intentions, viewer discretion is advised. The artist only paints what the commissioner desires and the success of the series has been denounced by scrupulous viewers as an extensive PR exercise by the club’s contentious owners. The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone, a City fan, recognises both the allure and shortcomings of a series that is “impossible not to take some pleasure in … but it pulls its punches, fails to probe and is nothing but a gloriously glossy club commercial”.

Netflix’s serving of episodic football documentary, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, offers a more sobering account, focused not only on football but the club’s prominent role in Tyneside. Impossible to apply shine to ten months of relentless disaster characterised by player revolts and an ongoing effort to simply balance the books, it is a bleak yet gripping watch. While dramatically different in storyline, both series generated widespread attention upon release, quenching viewers thirst for a more intimate understanding of the teams they know so well.

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As the 2018 World Cup approached, England were ready to follow suit, hoping to repair deep wounds inflicted many years before. For all the improvements that came, preparations for Russia started ominously. Sterling had a tattoo of a gun on his leg and the UK tabloid press demanded that the public knew. “Ace’s Sick New Tattoo” read one. “Sterling’s Gun Too Far” sanctimoniously claimed another.

The nation’s seemingly least favourite son had the dissenters knocking on his door once again and England’s World Cup journey had started down a road they knew all too well. The bad press would continue. The team would fold in on itself and play poorly. Fans would boo and an early exit would follow. Only this time, it didn’t. Something changed.

As the fire surrounding Tattoogate momentarily roared, furnaces fed by conflicting social media commentators, something bigger was at work. A new plan was being implemented by the FA, overseen by their senior communications manager, Andy Walker. In an unfamiliar twist to the norm, the squad started to show uncharacteristic openness: they appeared jovial and engaging, starting at a media day prior to departing for Russia.

Inspired by the NFL’s approach to managing the media, the FA’s strategy was unexpected and immediately impactful. At the event, journalists enjoyed unprecedented access to players. They played darts with Jordan Pickford, danced with Dele Alli and had their preconceptions corrected in the process. Nick Holt summarised when speaking of his interaction with Ashley Young, who “could not have been more different to what I was expecting.” Just like the squad they were representing, the FA’s new blueprint was showing promise.

There’s jeopardy in doing things differently and negative press looms only 140 misguided characters away. To ensure due diligence was paid, the FA recruited Sue Llewelyn, a journalist and media consultant, who worked with the squad to ensure moderation amongst the memes.

Llewelyn’s admission serves as a fitting testimonial to the power of social media in winning over a fanbase, as well as attracting new eyes to social feeds and football pitches alike. “I was really impressed with what they were like as people … I’m not a huge football fan – or wasn’t – and I thought maybe they are going to be awful ‘lads’, but they weren’t at all. All of them were absolutely charming and really nice about their mums, talking about being humble … I honestly came away saying I was so impressed with these young guys, it’s a very good group of young people.”

While England’s players once sought cheap thrills in the dentist’s chair, they now chase them atop inflatable unicorns during impromptu swimming pool races. Change has come and social media, bridging the gap between player and fan, has been the perfect platform on which to enact it.

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But is traditional media dead? Have newer forms ruled it obsolete or is it simply undergoing a season of transition, reinventing as opposed to receding? With daily newspaper readers in the UK decreasing by nearly 50 percent in a decade, change is afoot as traditional press outlets experiment with subscription models, the Wall Street Journalso far the highest profile publication to keep their content hidden behind a paywall.

If that doesn’t work, perhaps a change of format is required, journalists transferring thoughts from page to airwaves as the potential of podcasting continues to be tapped. James Richardson, a pioneer of the genre, affirms, “The percentage of the population that is even aware of them [podcasts] or let alone use them is still relatively small. It is a huge area of growth.”

Failing that, perhaps established names will finally meet demand, acknowledging fan opinion. As Sexton predicts, “Mainstream media is increasingly bringing fans in. Take BT Sport’s Premier League Tonight as one example. I think there’ll be an increasing crossover between established media and fan-made content.”

As long as there are stories to be told, there will be people to tell them. Just how they will do so remains to be seen. The last word is best given to Paul Rogers, AS Roma’s head of digital and social, recounting wise advice from club president Jim Pallotta: “He told me one day that we were in the entertainment business and engaging with fans was the absolute goal.”

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