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United’s obsession with social media has its benefits, but limits too

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Cultivating their social media following has perhaps paid dividends for United, but on-field success is what ultimately matters most

Social media has never been more highly valued than presently and this is certainly true at Manchester United. It so highly valued in fact that Ed Woodward regularly references Manchester United’s Facebook and Instagram following in quarterly conference calls to shareholders as a metric to be respected akin to share price or overall value.

What is most surprising about this, is that when Forbes released their list of most valuable sports entities this summer, Manchester United and their 73.3 million Facebook followers were the second most value sports team - valued at $4.123 billion - behind the Dallas Cowboys at $4.7 billion and a relatively small following of just 8.6 million Facebook followers. Either the Cowboys were late to the game on social media, or the ratio of social media relating to wealth was about as accurate as the ratio of eskimos to unicorns.

But maybe there is a case to be made for it.

Rewind to 2017 and Manchester United were only the joint second most valuable sports team in the world ($3.7 billion / 73.6 Facebook million) behind the Cowboys ($4.2 billion / 8.6 million Facebook followers) and tied with the New York Yankees ($3.7 billion / 8.6 million Facebook followers).

In 2017-2018 therefore, United had solidified their position above the Yankees and became an estimated $123 million more valuable than the New York franchise. It is highly plausible that their extra 65 million Facebook followers added an additional dimension to their wealth. The top five richest sports teams were padded out with other soccer teams. Real Madrid are social media leaders at present with 109 million followers while FC Barcelona have 102 million followers.

You could question whether on-field success plays a role in either the wealth or social media metrics of sports teams. In the previous five years, neither the Cowboys nor the Yankees had won any trophies while United had won three of the twenty competitions they had entered in that timeframe, which is hardly an impressive tally (Real Madrid won eight of fifteen competitions in the same timeframe, while Barcelona won six of fifteen, so perhaps accounting for their increased social media presence).

This might imply some link between sporting success and social media following.

Boardroom executives at Manchester have in the past appeared to be unconcerned about a lack of footballing success. Chief Executive Ed Woodward told a quarterly conference call earlier this year that bad on field results didn’t have a long-term negative impact on the club’s finances. It appears that while the social media metrics are expanding, there are other elements of the ‘franchise’ that can be overlooked.

What Woodward should perhaps notice however is that while Manchester United aim to be the most valuable sports team in the world – a fact of little value to the fans – it appears that the social media dollars are in most plentiful supply to the teams winning the game’s biggest competitions.

In some ways Woodward’s approach is highly counter intuitive. Michael Lewis’ storied tale of Billy Beane’s Moneyball was built on the premise that metrics that would show players outperforming their expected statistics. This allowed Beane to assemble a great Oakland A’s team at a fraction of the price. Woodward’s metric is the complete opposite. It is about identifying the biggest names with the biggest followings and using those players to drive your social media presence. Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus in July saw the Old Lady gain 1.5 million followers almost immediately. The appeal of signing a Denis Irwin or Brian McClair is now greatly lessened should they not have the social media followings to justify it.

The social media profile of Manchester United extends far beyond the immediacy of the club. Even the fans have been getting in on the act. Twitter and Instagram accounts with followers in their tens of thousands are a familiar sight on social media in 2018. A “Women of Manchester United” Instagram account has gained a following in the past few months featuring attractive women in Manchester United attire. One of those featured, Ann Mari Olsen, has seen her profile rocket due to being featured on such accounts. She has also appeared in the United We Stand fanzine.

Speaking to The Busby Babe this week, she explained how her love of United began with the signing of fellow Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the club. She reports however getting a lot of negativity online not only people presuming her fandom is due to having a United supporting brother, father or boyfriend. Olsen’s story is one of the most positive elements of the rise of Manchester United and social media. A former model, she writes on her blog about Manchester United and attributes her popularity to her genuine support and knowledge of the team. She stands as a pioneer of the post-#metoo movement in which football becomes more inclusive than ever and this is completely through a social media presence.

The sad reality for older fans is that being force fed “content” such as an Alexis Sánchez arrival video, or Marcus Rashford and Victor Lindelöf playing boardgames remains far too contrived to believe. It is a modern convention that will ‘push’ the club and its players to those who merely want another TV show to watch. Those fans will never understand real passion for the club, seeing Paul Scholes smash one past Barca or Nemanja Vidić hitting Kyle Walker like a two-tonne truck. These fans won’t have an in-born hatred of everything Scouse and the sad reality is that they probably wouldn’t have the attention spans to watch an entire game.

What Ed Woodward and his management team at Manchester United need to realise however, is that providing on-field success will always be the greatest way to ensure the stability and following of any storied club.