Opinion: Manchester United through social media

Old Trafford

It all began during that tumultuous period in 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson announced he was retiring as manager of Manchester United. Joined at the exit by experienced Chief Executive David Gill, a new era began at United. Heralded, as they all are these days, by a social media post. It seems the new approach to social media took hold when David Moyes and Ed Woodward took charge, the former introduced with a red-hued image captioned “to be continued…” Of course, all teams have a social media presence these days, but none others come close to the onslaught undertaken by United in the past 3 years.  A policy that has extended to innumerable commercial partners and even movie tie-ins.

The timing of the change in policy is no coincidence. Clearly, Ed Woodward had made bringing United into the digital age a priority when he took over as executive vice-chairman.  Sensing the financial potential of untapped digital millions across the globe, Woodward made United’s social media policy more pervasive than any other English club. The new policy now takes full advantage of the significant commercial pull of Wayne Rooney.  The only genuine star currently on the United books, Rooney features heavily across all social media campaigns.  He is particularly visible in the material aimed at the American market such as the recent X-men and Deadpool movie campaigns.

His importance to the commercial interests of the club has led many to believe that this may, at least in part, be why he remains as captain and an automatic choice in the starting XI. Even when his form dips significantly. While Rooney is the most visible, he is by no means the only squad member drawn into the blanket approach on social media. Juan Mata’s weekly blog has become a recognised channel between club and fans over the past two years. The personal social media accounts of the rest of the squad often share rather too similar sentiments for it to be accidental. Often they are conveniently found endorsing the same products or films as have recently become global partners of the club. Even Jose Mourinho now has a personal Instagram account which has been sharing updates on the early days of his reign at the club.

Always working

A photo posted by Jose Mourinho (@josemourinho) on

While traditional supporters may not be happy to see footballers spending as much time concentrating on promoting movies and writing Twitter Bios as they do preparing for matches, there are benefits to this new approach.

Clubs and players now have a direct connection to their fans, in a way they didn’t before.  The last decade or so has often found modern footballers accused of being out of touch. While this may remain the case, due in no small part to the astronomical wages they earn, social media now allows for rapport between players and fans.  An outlet to show their personality off the field as well as on it, and adding to the drama of the game.

For a club desperate to remain at the top table of European football, social media also offers United the chance to remain competitive financially. Especially when results aren’t always helping their case.  Social media remains the most effective way to reach a global fan base unable to visit the stadium or superstore.

As anyone with a background in social media will tell you, there is rarely any such thing as bad publicity online.  Even the daft, wooden movie trailers the players appear in did their job.  Providing the reach and engagement desired to continue filling the coffers of the club and sponsorship partners.

In spite of the benefits, it is hard not to feel the old guard like Sir Alex Ferguson or Roy Keane would have loathed this new approach.  There are many who feel that players now spend so much time on their image that they are failing to concentrate on improving their game.  The recent struggles of the England team show that these detractors may have a point.  It is difficult for fans to take after a season like United have had, when the squad are constantly posting updates on Instagram and Twitter showing off the life of a premier league footballer.

Jesse Lingard found himself under fire at the end of last season after posting a video from the team bus as West Ham fans hurled missiles. Before a crucial game that saw United miss out on Champions League football for another year, this was not the smartest move. United looked ill-prepared for the intensity brought by the East London club. The posting of childish videos on social media seemed to confirm most fans worst fears, that some players were not taking this seriously enough.

There are other cautionary tales from across the premier league too. Raheem Sterling has endured a troubled past with his social media presence.  Most recently, declaring himself #TheHatedOne during a poor run of form for the national team.  It is difficult to see how sharing this state of mind in public brought anything other than more spotlight and pressure down on his shoulders.  Saido Berahino has also agitated for a transfer through the public medium of Twitter.  The deal he craves seems further than ever now as performances on the field fail to live up to the ambitions he shared online.

Whichever view you ascribe to, the world has changed with the introduction of social media. It was inevitable that football would also change as a result. Being a premier league footballer is much more a full-time job now than ever.  Once training ends, the commercial responsibilities of the club and, in some cases, the players personal brand take priority.  While this may look like a cynical future, it is much preferable to the days when footballers filled their oceans of  free time with other, less savoury pursuits.

Many have admitted that the gaps between training and matches can lead the young, coddled and super-rich talent straight into the arms of drugs, drinking, gambling and sex.

Viewed in this context, it is easy to see why bigger clubs are happy to encourage frivolity and controversy online if it avoids damaging headlines about the personal lives of its employees.

Though United are currently one of the most pervasive clubs on social media, it is likely that other clubs will follow suit in the coming seasons.  While this change was inevitable it will be important for all to remember the unique pitfalls on offer in an online world. Perhaps we could all also accept a little fun on the internet from youngsters who we can sometimes overburden with expectation.  Maybe we should all be glad that they are spending their time online, rather than somewhere much less public.

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