A few years ago, Facebook executives urged Cristiano Ronaldo’s management team to start a Facebook page for him. “Listen, you have to be there,” the Facebook people said. “He has the potential to get to 10 million followers.”

Luis Correia, chief executive of Polaris Sports, which manages the Portuguese footballer’s image rights, recalls how Polaris replied: “We don’t believe you. That’s the size of Portugal.”

Even so, in 2009 Ronaldo quietly debuted on Facebook. A year later, he used social media to announce the birth of his son by an unnamed mother. Last month Ronaldo became the world’s first athlete to hit 100 million Facebook followers. The only human with more is the singer Shakira.

Just three years ago, many big football clubs weren’t even on Twitter or Facebook. Today they all are, in multiple languages, adding new followers by the minute. Richard Arnold, group managing director of Manchester United, boasts that his club generates “more engagement” on Facebook than any celebrity from any field or any other sports team on earth. Big clubs and players aren’t doing this out of vanity. They have long known they have legions of fans worldwide. United claims to have 659 million supporters. But football’s problem was that it never had a way of reaching those people. Now social media have provided the means. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, China’s Weibo and other platforms are enabling clubs and players to compile computer databases of their fans. The next step: to turn the fans’ love into money at last. This is the new quest of the football industry.

Contrary to popular belief, football has always been small business. Last year Real Madrid announced revenues of €521m, the highest for any sports club in history. However, the Finnish financial analyst Matias Möttölä calculated that in terms of revenue, the club would have been only the 120th largest company in Finland. (Real’s latest annual revenues were €604m.) And few clubs make profits.

Professional football is a puny business. This is counterintuitive. Emotionally, football is big. Footballers are famous and big clubs are global brands. But football has always struggled with what economists call appropriability: clubs cannot make money out of (cannot appropriate) more than a tiny share of fans’ love for football.

Imagine a Manchester United fan in Kuala Lumpur called Abdul. He has never been to Europe, let alone to United’s stadium Old Trafford, but he owns a pirated club shirt, scours the internet for United news and watches their games on TV in a local restaurant. And yet the club’s total income from Abdul is zero. In fact, for decades United didn’t know he existed.

Social media changes that. Of the 1.3 billion-plus people on Facebook, 500 million are “hardcore football fans”, Glenn Miller, a Facebook executive who handles sports and entertainment, told last month’s International Football Arena (IFA) conference on football and social media in Berlin. (Disclosure: I was a paid moderator there.)

Social media have become an essential element of sports fandom. Many young people in particular watch games while bantering with other fans on their mobile phones – the so-called “second screen”. In 2012, sport accounted for just 1.3 per cent of TV programming but 41 per cent of TV-related tweets, said the measurement company Nielsen.

Global interest in football dwarfs other sports. The 2010 World Cup generated more searches than the 2012 summer Olympics, Super Bowl and Tour de France combined, reports Google. This summer’s World Cup was surely the biggest media event in history, measured by TV viewing and online clicks. Here are some findings from a “Google Trends” report on the tournament:

Argentina’s Angel Di Maria
After Argentina’s Di Maria scored, he racked up four times more searches than his compatriot Pope Francis © Getty

● After Argentina’s Angel Di Maria scored against Switzerland, he racked up four times more global Google searches than his compatriot Pope Francis;

● After Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne scored against the US, worldwide searches for his lookalike, Prince Harry, rose 44-fold;

● When the US-Germany game kicked off, “USA searches for the match were higher than searches for anything else, period”.

And interest in football is only growing. Big European clubs are finally winning fans in China, India, the US and Indonesia – countries that between them account for 45 per cent of humanity. Social media is a way to reach these people.

However, football clubs are classic late adopters of new technology. Today, live TV broadcasts provide a big chunk of football’s revenue but until the 1990s most clubs saw TV as a threat, something that would stop fans coming to the stadium. Similarly, for years most clubs saw social media as a threat: a new platform for gaffes, scandals and hacker attacks. Manchester United was “very cautious and careful about” Facebook, Arnold told this month’s Dublin Web Summit. United joined Facebook only in 2010 (it now has 61.5 million followers), Twitter in 2012.

The club’s fear was rational. United probably gets more media coverage than any British company. If its Facebook page were hacked – as has happened to some corporations – it would be global news.

Social media do create scandals. Footballers are constantly getting into trouble for things they say online. For instance, Rio Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers was recently suspended by the English Football Association after a spat on Twitter in which he referred to a heckler’s mum with the obscene slang term “sket”. From 2011 through last month, the FA charged 60 participants in football for inappropriate comments on social media. Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger said, “We are concerned about Twitter and things going out of the club that should not go out. It is important to keep that under control.”

It’s partly for fear of scandal that Ronaldo doesn’t put up his own posts on Facebook. His page is in English, and his mother tongue is Portuguese, so he will typically send his handlers a message and let them find the right words and post it. Sometimes he sends them a photo from a restaurant dinner but he doesn’t “share” nearly as much as image rights manager Polaris Sports would like.

Football’s caution irritates Facebook’s Miller. Clubs worry too much about media scandals, he says. Most young people are used to wild spontaneous exchanges on social media, and often haven’t even heard of the newspaper that breaks a scandal. Nonetheless, clubs now issue their players with endless rules of what not to say online.

But football has belatedly come to see social media as a business opportunity. Clubs have been on a steep learning curve. A year ago Borussia Dortmund tweeted a photograph of its coach, Jürgen Klopp, renewing his contract. The focus of the picture was the pen with which he signed. Quite by chance – it had presumably been the nearest thing to hand – it was a Stabilo pen. Fans on social media noticed. The Schwan-Stabilo company was delighted, says Paul Keuter, head of sports at Twitter Germany.

A club that understands social media is worth more to sponsors. It’s no accident that in 2012, soon after United plunged into social media, the club signed a deal for shirt sponsorship with Chevrolet for £47m a year, a world record.

But the endgame for clubs like United goes way beyond sponsorship. Through social media, United can make contact with fans like Abdul. If United can register people like him, the club could become a de facto database company. Then its value would lie chiefly in its knowledge of the identities and consumption habits of its supporters.

Companies in many sectors are pursuing much the same goal. Facebook and Google, famously, are “identity companies”. They offer services for free; in return the user gives them his or her identity. But football clubs’ databases could be particularly valuable, says branding expert Oliver Kaiser, chief executive of the Ledavi agency. For a start, big clubs have more social-media followers than regular companies: United have more than either Nike or McDonald’s. Secondly, clubs – unlike most corporations – command love and loyalty. “A fan is the most emotional thing in the world. He will do everything,” Kaiser told the IFA conference. If you can reach the fan through his second screen while he’s watching a game, you catch him at a moment of maximum emotion.

Soon a club’s database will allow it to tailor offers to each individual fan. Then the club can sell him a team shirt, or a TV subscription, but it can also help much bigger companies sell to him. Imagine, for instance, if a club could give an automobile company a list of twenty-something German male fans who earn more than €50,000 and need a new car. Kaiser says: “The intelligent club in the future will say, ‘Well, company, you want to have my 25 million fans. I don’t give it to you. It’s mine.” The company will have to fork out. A database of 25 million fans could be worth billions of euros, says Kaiser.

In the quest to become identity companies, big clubs have begun employing unprecedented numbers of sophisticated executives. You now hear football officials bandying about the acronym “CRM” (customer-relationship management). Francesco Calvo, chief revenue officer of Juventus and a veteran of the tobacco company Philip Morris, says: “We want to apply a proper CRM strategy. We want to drive fans on to our platform, where we can register them. The ability to know our supporters and also influence them is fundamental for us to generate higher revenues.” Juve has found that fans are happy to give the club their information.

Clubs need to find out exactly who each fan is. It’s not enough to know that “Abdul in KL” follows you on Twitter. Is Abdul 12 years old, or 42? What does he earn? What sort of stuff does he buy? Have you got his credit card details? An official of the Portuguese club Benfica asked the IFA conference: “How can I make money from the people who will never engage with me directly but are on our Facebook page, our Twitter page?”

Build a club app, advises Carlos Moreira, founder of the online data security firm WISeKey. Fans who download it will have to register.

However, Kaiser is sceptical that the clubs – few of which are cutting-edge businesses – will win the battle to build serious identity databases. Google and Facebook are nifty competitors. Thomas Röttgermann, a senior executive of the midsized German club Wolfsburg, listened rapt to the visions of the future at the IFA conference, and said: “I’m inspired. But for the clubs, all the social-media systems are black boxes. The core business of the club is to play football.” Some clubs are also understandably sceptical of the social-media hype. After all, they remember the rise and fall first of the pay-per-view hype, and then the dotcom hype.

Still, big clubs now regard social media as central to their business. Creating a Facebook page, an Instagram account, even a Twitter account in Indonesian is just the start of it. Fans will only use these platforms if they find exciting content there. That’s why clubs’ tweets mustn’t sound like corporate PR, warns Twitter’s Keuter. A football club trying to recruit online followers needs to sound like a football club. It must use social media to give fans apparently intimate glimpses inside the club. Juve, for instance, recently posted a video of its playmaker Andrea Pirlo sitting opposite the Sydney Opera House witnessing all sorts of bizarre scenes while never changing his characteristic impassive gaze. Under the hashtag “#Pirloisnotimpressed”, the video has had nearly 1 million YouTube views.

Big clubs are hiring teams of video film-makers, web editors and multilingual journalists. “This is quite a big cultural change in the organisation,” notes Calvo of Juventus. Most of Juve’s new employees come not from other football clubs but from other sectors. Many are anglophones.

“A football club like Bayern Munich is a media production company,” Stefan Mennerich, Bayern’s director of digital media, told the IFA conference. Bayern’s social-media team travel with the players and stay in the same hotels, so they can give fans a club-approved inside view. It’s similar at Manchester United. “We are a mobile-first media organisation,” says Arnold. “We operate in 18 languages – a huge volume of work for us, in terms of being culturally appropriate.”

One side effect of all this work: clubs now compete with traditional media. Just three years ago, if you wanted news about Arsenal, you might go to a newspaper website, or even, if you were getting on in years, buy an actual newspaper. Today you can go straight to Arsenal’s Facebook page, where the club posts a video of the line-up before each match and an exclusive player interview after it. No outside journalist can get this kind of access. Consequently, many clubs and players have built larger audiences than traditional media. Ronaldo has 31.3 million Twitter followers, more than CNN’s main account and The New York Times combined, notes Correia.

Many players now cut out journalists by speaking straight to fans. At the recent Dublin Web Summit, Rio Ferdinand complained that journalists “paint that picture and you see a caricature of you evolve. And you sit there thinking, ‘Woah, you don’t know me.’” Twitter, he said, had been “the biggest thing in my armoury” in changing his image. And Twitter makes him money. In 2012 he posted four “teaser” tweets about knitting, to arouse fans’ curiosity. The fifth tweet: a picture of himself opening a Snickers bar.

However, the Snickers money didn’t come free. Ferdinand was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority for covert advertising. The ASA rejected the complaint. Nonetheless, greedy shilling of this sort can hurt the image of players and clubs. Fans don’t like it when their beloved clubs and players behave like rapaciously commercial, privacy-invading offshoots of the US National Security Agency. Football needs to tread carefully in social media. Bayern’s fans “are not a cash cow”, warns Mennerich. “They want to be respected for their love of the club.”

Fans have been complaining for 20 years that football has become too commercialised. On the other hand, not many of them seem to have been put off. Clubs’ revenues keep growing. William McGregor, the Scottish draper who founded the English Football League in 1888, was probably the first person to describe the sport as “big business”. The phrase has since become one of football’s clichés. In the era of social media, it might finally come true.

Photographs: Getty

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