How fans are changing football

By Eliza Williams

How are you going to watch this year’s World Cup? Maybe a crowd of you will head down to the pub, to stand around chatting with your mates while keeping one eye fixed on the TV in the corner. Or perhaps you’ll be watching it at home with your family, inducting the younger members into the joys of being part of an international sporting event.

This is the traditional way that we’ve all watched football, and is still the go-to image that most of us have of how it is consumed: via a TV. Yet this year, you may well get some of your World Cup coverage via Twitter, with a mix of deals in various countries made with the platform to stream live content and highlights.

Even in 2018, this is a quirky enough eventuality to have received news headlines and raised eyebrows, though the chances are that this is likely to be how all football broadcasting is going to go in the future: it will be online and easily accessible, and no longer needing a telly.

None of this will come as much of a surprise to those at Copa90, the football content site that describes itself as “the home of global football fan culture”, which has recently published a report into the viewing (and spending) habits of the modern football fan.

All images © Copa90

The report makes damning reading for those favouring traditional media approaches to the beautiful game. Apparently Sky’s live viewing figures dropped over 14% in the 2016-17 season with younger fans turning away from watching the game in this way, and also rejecting the traditional pundit format that is offered up by most sports channels.

“Basically the ‘guys in ties, suits in studios’ format, which has been every tournament for the last 50 years, is not sufficient to quench the thirst of the modern fan,” explains James Kirkham, head of Copa90. “They simply operate and act in an entirely different way and in an entirely different environment.”

It is important to note that this is not a sign of any downturn in interest in the sport, quite the contrary. “The appetite for football has never been higher,” clarifies Kirkham, “but it transpires that it’s simply an appetite in other places at other times. People have never wanted it more – it seems to be unquenchable … there is an unbelievable thirst and desire for content around football from a young football fan, but it generally exists within a digital ecosystem and in online environments.

“During a game for example, it’s very rare now that a game is just watched in isolation as a 90-minute product on television…. Instead they spend a lot of time on the moments that matter the most,” he continues. “They get played out in alternate narratives and stories through meme culture, through gifs and graphics that one in five of the fans actually create themselves. They flock to publishers and curators and editorial online too to digest and consume those and then they perpetuate those and move those forwards, often in ‘dark social’.”

Dark social, for the uninitiated, isn’t nearly as mysterious or uncomfortable as it sounds. It’s basically WhatsApp, or similar private messaging services. What is important to these young fans are that these are places where they can discuss, analyse and debate the game, but without these narratives playing out in the public domain.

“That was actually one of the interesting findings,” continues Kirkham, “that many young fans have moved to their dark social environments, what we’ve called their social ‘safe havens’. Within the likes of WhatsApp, they sit with 10, 20 friends and that’s where they really explore narratives, fun bits, elements of the game, whatever they may be. But they do it in a safe haven because under 24 year-olds have grown up with such awareness of internet safety. They’ve seen their heroes, like Stormzy, hauled over the coals for tweets that they might have written five years ago reappearing and resurfacing and they’re super aware of that.

“It’s really surprising because most people think that young people have this continual splurge of content and it’s not actually true – they’re far more aware than that.”

Dark social may appear like catastrophic news for brands, many of whom are still operating in the ‘broadcast’ mode, whether that be via TV or online. Yet, the smartest brands are already wise to this, with adidas and Nike already creating messaging to exist in and appeal to these groups. And rather than a disaster, Kirkham sees it as an opportunity for brands, especially those that are willing to invest in creating innovative, entertaining and interesting content.

“Brilliant stuff will fuel dark social,” he says. “That will get passed on and shared and loved and enjoyed and that will fuel your half time. There were lots of nice stats about how people try and stay off social during the first half and then it goes mad in half time in their WhatsApp group. There’s your opportunity there to almost go back to a classic ad break but with brilliant content…. That’s all opportunity. It’s challenging opportunity but it’s all opportunity nonetheless. I think the young fans are pointing the way at what they actually want so people need to respond in kind.”

Kirkham also predicts a rise in new platforms too. “There’s a platform called Vero, for example, which is much more passion based,” he says. “It doesn’t have advertising, it’s effectively anti-algorithmically controlled at the moment…. There’s echoes almost of the original MySpace model because it’s so predicated on a passion. I think we might see more of that again because it’s what people actually want to spend time with. They’re rejecting having their life controlled by algorithmic feed-based stuff that they are frankly wise to.”

But young fans aren’t against brands and advertising. In fact, Copa90’s report suggests they are quite savvy to the reciprocal relationship that might exist between them and a brand, so long as they are truly given something back for their time and attention. Kirkham points out that brands have allowed Copa90 to show clips from the Champions League (which otherwise it would not have been able afford to gain rights to) as well as access to stars that they might not have been able to attain without that commercial backing.

It is this model, rather than the idea of interruptive advertising, that is the way forward. “As long as it gives them something, then fans bloody love it because they know they’re winning out of it,” says Kirkham. “It always needs to be a symbiotic relationship between the brand and the fan, and I think fans get that and if a brand gets it too, and they give them something out of it, then they’re all for it.”

Of the other influences that may affect young football fans, there are several, though one stands out above all others, particularly in the way that it has changed the way the game is understood: gaming.

“First of all, football fans should never just be addressed as football fans, the cultural crossover point now is extreme,” says Kirkham. “Young fans love football, but guess what, they love music, they love gaming, they’re into fashion. Those styles and designs and creations and influences really fuse together, and being myopic is a bit naïve actually. No one should be addressed like, ‘hey you just like football so here’s your football content’. On the contrary it’s the fusion.

“Gaming came out the highest and closest cultural influence,” he continues. “It is so prevalent in a young football fan that anyone under the age of 30 years old effectively has an education in football via gaming. They’ve got an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, they’ve played so much Championship Manager and Football Manager. They’re all based on these huge databases predicated on real facts and real people and real statistics so they have this incredible knowledge when they’re very, very young.”

The influence of gaming on football can be seen in advertising from the big sports brands, which now regularly features animated gaming-style segments or even appearances from fictional games characters. It has also started to affect the teams that younger fans will follow, and created less tribal attitudes. Or, at least, an interest in multiple tribes. Fans will follow teams in leagues in other countries that they may have initially discovered via gaming, but, in part due to the off-putting costs of Premier League matches, will also go and watch smaller local teams too. And fan content sites such as Copa90 fuel this interest by telling the engaging and often emotional stories behind the teams.

Another major change is happening too, in the upsurge of interest in the women’s game. Again, EA Games was ahead of the curve on this, offering a version of its Fifa game starring the women’s teams over two years ago. Kirkham believes that this interest in the women’s game, particularly from brands, will “explode” over the coming year. “It’s such an interesting, pivotal moment,” he says. “It will happen. It’s going to explode like a tidal wave, and it’s brilliant, frankly.”

With this deluge of interest in football, it is somewhat curious that the World Cup has arrived with so little fanfare this time round, particularly from brands. Kirkham acknowledges the “unbelievable baggage” the Russian event comes with, though expresses frustration at some of the coverage in the run up to the event.

“There’s been very myopic, slightly one-sided documentaries. There’s been a Western media perception that is pretty out-of-order actually in many instances,” he says. “We’ve been there ten times in the last 12 months, and you speak to so many of the Russian people and they’re so affected and disappointed by what they continue to see as the perception of them, which in the Western media is entirely driven by a view of Putin and Putin’s government. But there’s 11 different time zones, countless million people. The kids are so excited to see this World Cup on their shores, as they should be because they’re just young, brilliant kids who love football and are ready to see Lionel Messi.

“We believe international football is a passport to other cultures,” he continues. “It’s a wonderful common denominator. Football at the moment has never been more in demand…. There will be such wonderful stories that come out of this tournament.

“I bloody hope it all goes off perfectly. I dare say there might be the odd issue because that’s what happens when millions of people congregate in one place, wherever you are, but the wonderful news needs to come out too. Which will be what football can do, which is bring people together and unify.”

Copa90’s full report on the modern football fan can be read here; Read all of CR’s World Cup 2018 coverage here

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