The digital era and the consequent rise of social media has enabled a pervasiveness for those who interact with these platforms. It allows real-time information to be obtained, content to be created, relationships to be maintained and opinions to be shared from anywhere, with anyone, at any time (as long as they also exist on social).

What has changed?

Major sports leagues have surpassed millions (or even billions) of followers on social media. As an example, just the top 5 NFL teams have a combined follower base of almost 30 million people, whilst the same number of people interacted with NFL’s official page watching matches live highlights on Twitter.

Moreover, if you include all NBA league, team and player accounts combined across social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, along with Tencent and Sina in China, it exceeds one billion likes and followers. This was the first time an official sports league achieved this number.

These changes have naturally impacted the way sports fans relate with the clubs they like the most. However, within football, the most popular sport in the world, the digital evolution has not only impacted, but it has modified the fans’ desires, needs and even emotions and feelings towards their clubs.

How did the digital world affect football?

In the past, football fans could directly relate with their clubs either by attending the matches or purchasing their club’s products. Nowadays, apart from the possibilities previously mentioned, fans can, for instance, watch the trainings on their clubs’ official YouTube channel, post a complaint or a compliment tagging the club’s profile on Twitter or read the latest news in real time on their club’s Facebook profile.

Fans routinely use digital channels, both mobile and social, to consume and share content, information, analysis and to interact with other leagues, clubs and players. It allows clubs to bring their supporters closer to the club by offering them the opportunity to be even more involved with the institutions they appreciate. Moreover, the development of digital strategies can also provide engagement, community growth, belonging and traffic flow to official platforms.

However, even though digital platforms represent venues where fans can connect and interact, it would be relevant to better comprehend which types of interactions would make the supporters satisfied, especially during the 90 minutes.

Are these changes positive or negative?

A previous report identified that 48% of football fans attend live football matches. Among these fans, 39% use mobile at live matches. The views regarding this digital immersion within football is conflicting though.

On one side, it gives the supporters the opportunity to obtain more information and to be even more involved with the club during the matches. It can definitely improve their match experiences, whilst it also increases the fans’ demands for interaction and engagement. However, it can also lead the fans’ focus to their screens, instead of on what is actually happening on the pitch.

For instance, PSV Eindhoven supporters launched a vehement protest against the introduction of Wi-Fi at their stadium during a match of the Dutch League. Moreover, a story conducted by a Brazilian newspaper with a Cruzeiro fan during the final match of the Brazilian Cup showed that the supporter, after travelling 422 kilometres to watch the final, was with his back to the pitch, recording and watching the decisive penalty on his mobile device.

This is definitely a quirky way of experiencing one of the club’s biggest achievements ever. However, it is hard to define whether these changes are negative or positive, what increases even more the need of better understanding the football fans’ ‘new’ behaviours.

What is next?

Looking at the inevitable changes that the digital era has implied on the football world, now is the moment for clubs to fully understand how to use it in their favour. And this should be done in a careful way, since there are many different things to be considered regarding football fans and, for many of them, football is much more than football.