Ask me which English soccer, uh, football team I would support and I would say Liverpool. Not for any defensible reason; it’s just because that’s where the Beatles are from and because I know next to nothing about that kind of football (I think they made us play it once in gym class when I was in 7th grade).
I would expect that most other similarly ill-informed, old-fart American Boomers who were raised on other sports like me might say the same thing (Stones fans, don’t look for a “London” team to root for because it doesn’t exist).
However, among young people, not only is English Premier League football way more popular than any sport I watch, but one of those English teams, Manchester United, is the most valuable sports franchise in the world. According to a controversial poll commissioned by the team, 650 million people worldwide say they support the team.
Have a Backstory
Why do so many people around the world support a team from a little known, struggling industrial city in the northern part of England? Well, partly it has to do with tragedy (a plane crash in 1958 killed some of the team’s youngest, most promising players), a dramatic comeback (After being a perennial loser, Man U began winning a lot – and everybody loves a winner), and a charismatic manager named Sir Alexander Ferguson.
But Man U also did something else really smart. It didn’t just try to cultivate a fan base in England, it went global. Man U began enlisting players (and sponsors) from countries around the world and embarked on frequent tours of those countries. The franchise leadership also invested in marketing not just Man U but football itself as the true global sport.
What Happens When You Start to Lose?
But now that “Sir Alex” has retired and the team is slumping, how does Man U avoid the fate of the Dallas Cowboys, who were once known as “America’s Team” until they weren’t?
Research by my colleague Rob O’Regan has found that hanging onto the kind of global popularity enjoyed by Man U requires focusing on four key channels:
- Social media. As part of its sponsorship of UK soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, Under Armour ran a social media contest that attracted entries from fans in more than 50 countries. Liverpool FC maintains 17 local language Twitter accounts.
Some teams have set up “war rooms” to monitor fan sentiment and weigh in when appropriate. “Teams are paying a lot more attention to social media, because that’s where the younger generation of fans talks about sports,” says Mark Lehew, SAP’s Global Head of Sports & Entertainment Industry.
- Fantasy sports. There’s real money in fantasy sports, which has grown into a billion-dollar industry. More than 36 million people from the U.S. and Canada spent an average of 8.7 hours a week playing fantasy sports in 2013, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. For example, the time fantasy players spend managing their National (American) Football League teams throughout the week – making roster changes, proposing trades, researching players – leads to a “halo effect” that drives engagement with other NFL properties such as the league’s website, individual club sites, TV programs, and game broadcasts. Fantasy league members generally view about seven times more content – text, video, and data – on NFL.com than non-fantasy users.
- Web/mobile content. Fan bases aren’t just becoming more global – they’re also becoming more mobile. Approximately 70% of the traffic to NFL.com comes from mobile devices – up from 10% just a few years ago.
The NBA’s stats.NBA.com website, which houses player and team statistics from the league’s 67-year history, has helped double time spent on NBA.com while generating more than 9.5 billion page views last season – an all-time record for the site. The site has also emerged as part of what NBA officials see as a burgeoning second-screen experience for fans watching NBA games on TV.
- Loyalty programs. One club in England’s Football League, trying to address the implications of an intimidating atmosphere during its home soccer matches, created an engagement program as part of a broader initiative to bring back lapsed fans and new generations of supporters to its matches.
Swiping a season ticket card when entering the stadium would tip off fan experience personnel to acknowledge fan milestones such as a child’s birthday. “A family receptionist would greet them and offer a surprise like a seat upgrade, a free gift, or a chance to meet a player,” says Mark Bradley, founder of The Fan Experience Company, a consultancy that worked with the club. Sales of family season ticket plans increased from fewer than 500 in 2009 to more than 7,500 in 2012.
As for me, I’m going to watch a Liverpool match but I can’t forget the team that did all the work to pique my interest in English Premier League Football: Man U. I think I could be easily converted.
How about you, do you root for a team that’s on another continent yet?