Now that the AFL and NRL Grand Finals are over, Australia turns its attention again towards real football: the A-League season 2013/14 starts this Friday. That’s a good enough reason to review how the game has used Twitter to build its support base over the past couple of seasons.
A-League clubs have been active on Twitter for some time, and Twitter, Inc., too, has increasingly focussed on Australian sports as a way to build its userbase in the country; late in 2012, a high-profile delegation from the company visited Australia to boost its presence here and meet with representatives of the major sporting codes. By that time, the A-League’s teams had already developed their Twitter presences and gained a substantial follower base on the network (click to enlarge):
For most of the early history of the A-League and its Twitter accounts, it’s the Melbourne Victory whose account has had the most success in attracting followers. Repeat champions Brisbane Roar also put in a strong showing: by the end of the 2011/12 season, they are the second most follower club in the country. All this changes with the 2012/13 season: suddenly, Sydney FC takes off, boosted by a substantial influx of followers after its signing of marquee player Alessandro del Piero. I’ll wager that a significant percentage of these new followers will be del Piero fans from outside Australia, actually. A strong follower growth is also recorded for new league entrants (and eventual grand finalists) Western Sydney Wanderers, who conclude the season as one of the most-followed football clubs in Australia. (My thanks to my CCI colleagues Darryl Woodford and Troy Sadkowsky for their help with the follower data.)
In addition to these patterns of organic growth in follower numbers, there’s also a significant anomaly here: the lowly Newcastle Jets’ follower number suddenly jumps from just over 6,000 at the start of September 2013 to more than 30,000 only a month later. Unlike Sydney FC’s rapid follower growth following news of the del Piero signing, this is an abrupt jump – the first 5,000 new followers arrive literally on the same day, on 6 September 2013. This is deeply suspicious, and I’ll get back to it at the end of this post.
This recent oddity aside, though, the previous 2012/13 marked another substantial step beyond the 2011/12 season in the A-League’s Twitter activities. Here’s an overview of the tweets per week which @mentioned each of the teams’ Twitter accounts:
Take the respective Grand Final weeks, for example: in 2011/12, the Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory accounts received a combined 5,000 @mentions as they met for the final game of the season. In 2012/13, that number more than doubled: the Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners accounts were mentioned almost 12,000 times during the corresponding period.
And the other teams also gained substantially from one season to the next. None more so, however, than Sydney FC, mostly on the back of its marquee player Alessandro del Piero, who brought an international Twitter following with him. Especially in the early weeks of the 2012/13 season, del Piero’s old club Juventus Turin as well as his Italian fans mentioned him and his team frequently in their own tweets, though this decreased gradually as Sydney FC dropped out of contention for the premiership.
Cumulatively, their support meant that Sydney FC’s account was mentioned over the past two seasons more than twice as frequently that the majority of its rivals:
Perhaps the greatest success story of the 2012/13 season, though, are newcomers and eventual runners-up Western Sydney Wanderers. As their fortunes on the field increased, so did the Twitter attention – in the end, WSW received as many mentions in one season as 2011/12 and 2012/13 premiers Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners managed in two. A very strong new entry into the competition, in more ways than one.
The growing Twitter response to their accounts, and the continuing strength of the code in Australia, also seem to have inspired the clubs to further increase their Twitter activities. Again, it is Sydney FC which has been most active here, buoyed no doubt by the strong resonance to del Piero’s signing, but the rate of many other clubs’ Twitter efforts also ticks up notably as the 2012/13 season gets underway:
And once again the Western Sydney Wanderers put in a very strong showing in their premiere season, responding strongly to the challenge of building an online presence and fanbase for the new club. By contrast, in season 2011/12 it was Gold Coast United which tweeted most strongly, even in spite of the significant organisational problems which eventually led to the club’s disappearance from the A-League – this is a phenomenon we’ve also seen in other, more established leagues, where clubs threatened with relegation to a lower division tweet especially much, perhaps in an attempt to maintain their fans’ loyalty.
(Sadly, a strange problem with the Twitter API prevented us from gathering the tweets sent by the Newcastle Jets account – they are missing from the graph above, therefore.)
Finally, although only a very small percentage of tweets ever contain geolocation information, the geographical mapping of those @mentions that do nonetheless offers some useful insights into the distribution of fans in Australia, New Zealand, and the world. Domestically, there are signs of a strong tribalism – Brisbane Roar fans are centred on Brisbane, Perth Glory fans on Perth, etc. This is unsurprising.
Internationally, some other patterns emerge. Of course there are plenty of Italians @mentioning del Piero’s Sydney FC – but the concentration of Melbourne Heart fans in the United States New England region, of Central Coast Mariners supporters in Texas, and of Brisbane Roar fans on the West Coast seems less obviously explicable. There also is a sizeable A-League fanbase in Indonesia (something we’ve seen in similar data for the German Bundesliga, too – international football is big in Indonesia, and I have a feeling Indonesians are more likely to keep geolocation turned on in their tweets). And it’s good to see that plenty of Australian ex-pats in the UK have remained faithful to the A-League, as an antidote to the clearly inferior English Premier League.
Again, the geo-data are based on fairly small numbers, so it would be inappropriate to read too much into them. Beyond the geo-tagged tweets, however, the overall picture for Twitter activity around the A-League is positive, and the efforts which teams, the FFA, and Twitter, Inc. itself have made to promote the game through social media in Australia appear to be paying off. The Socceroos’ third World Cup qualification in a row doesn’t hurt, either.
This season, one A-League match will be broadcast on free-to-air television each week, of course – I would strongly expect this to provide a substantial further boost to these numbers, as more fans tweet along the live broadcast. We’ll be there to track the numbers.
Debunking the Newcastle Jets Follower Numbers
Finally, then, let me get back for a moment to the Newcastle Jets follower numbers. Following the methods outlined in previous posts, here is an overview of the account ages of the Jets’ followers, highlighting the suspicious 24,000-odd followers who joined since 6 September 2013:
What we’re seeing here isn’t as clear-cut as the case of Tony Abbott’s fake followers, which we’ve covered previously. There is, however, a marked difference in the account age patterns between the first 6,000, non-suspicious followers and the more recent, suspicious group. Account ages amongst the latter appear centred around a period from May 2011 to May 2012 (where the red colouring is thickest), or a few months either side of May 2010 for the most recent 4,000 followers. The regularity of these patterns provides us with a first cause for doubt – we rarely if ever see this in genuine, organic growth patterns since there is no reason why a group of Twitter users who created their own accounts around the same time should all choose to follow one target account, and to follow that target account at precisely the same time, at that.
Spot-checks of the follower group between 6,000 and 26,000 also reveal a very high proportion of (apparently, at least) Russian accounts – users with account descriptions and past tweets predominantly in Cyrillic letters. I can see no logical explanation for why the Jets would suddenly have become a popular team in Russia during September 2013.
The only sensible explanation I can see is that these accounts constitute fake followers, similar to what we’ve encountered previously in the Tony Abbott case. And similar to that case, it remains very difficult to explain the motivations for this: the overnight boost in followers is so obviously suspicious that it is difficult to believe someone at the Newcastle Jets themselves would have decided to buy the club’s account some followers – it would be an extremely clumsy attempt to claim greater Twitter popularity. Contrary to the Abbott case, I also can’t think of anyone who would want to embarrass the Jets enough to buy fake followers in such a way (and as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any major media coverage of this increase, again contrary to what happened with Abbott).
So, perhaps in this case the most believable explanation is that a fake account farm decided to give their accounts some more apparent legitimacy by following a genuine sporting account. Why they chose the Newcastle Jets, though, rather than some of the more prominent A-League teams, I cannot explain.
(This research is part of a larger study about the uses of social media in football fandom in Australia, Germany and the UK, conducted with colleagues at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and the GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Köln. More on this soon…)