Social media are now an integral part of professional sports – but as many a sports star has found out the hard way, not everybody has the gift of presenting an authentic self on Twitter or Facebook. Yet still our sporting heroes and teams are encouraged to build their online profiles, keeping their fans connected during the season and beyond.
Australian sports codes have been encouraged to build their own social media presences at least since a senior team from Twitter HQ came to the country for targeted talks with NRL, AFL, and other codes in late 2012. In the aftermath, teams professionalised their Twitter profiles, and a number of leagues introduced systematic match hashtags to enable fans to connect around the live match experience.
Niche and growing sports benefitted especially much from this outreach: given their limited coverage in the mainstream media, connecting with sports fans via social media is particularly important for them. For Netball fans, Twitter has been a crucial connection at a time when broadcasters were ignoring the sport. Similarly, A-League teams have arguably taken to Twitter more effectively than their counterparts in much bigger leagues, such as the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga.
Strategies for the use of social media by players and teams still diverge considerably, though. As Australia’s traditional winter leagues conclude and a new A-League season approaches, a comprehensive study of interactions with official A-League accounts reveals last year’s winners and losers on the online pitch, and shows that success on the field and popularity on Twitter don’t always go hand in hand.
The A-League’s Twitter Leaderboard
In terms of followers, one team stands head and shoulders above the rest – and it’s not the 2017 champions Sydney FC, who had attracted nearly 64,000 followers by the end of the 2016/17 season, but their cross-town rivals Western Sydney Wanderers with 125,000 followers at the same time. The A-League’s most successful team, Melbourne Victory, sat between the two and had attracted some 88,000 fans.
Indeed, in spite of a somewhat disappointing season, the Wanderers picked up an additional 24,000 followers during the course of the season – almost as many as the least followed team, the Central Coast Mariners, have in total. Overall, the strong follower base attracted by the fairly young Wanderers club is most likely a follow-on effect from their 2014 triumph in the AFC Champions League.
This follower base also translates into a substantial volume of audience responses to these accounts on Twitter. Here, audience engagement largely mirrors population sizes: in order, the Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane teams receive the greatest volume of @mentions and retweets, while smaller-town clubs like the Newcastle Jets or the Central Coast Mariners, along with the Wellington Phoenix, attract a great deal less attention.
Taking It to the Other Teams
But what the teams choose to do with such attention differs as widely as their on-field tactics. This is especially notable when it comes to direct engagement between the official team accounts. Over the course of the past season, from 7 October 2016 to 7 May 2017, the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City accounts hardly acknowledged their competition at all: they barely mentioned any of the other teams more than ten times on Twitter.
The Brisbane Roar and Wellington Phoenix accounts, on the other hand, took the action to their opponents on Twitter as much as they are wont to do on the field: for the most part, they @mentioned and retweeted each opposite team some 60 to 90 times; posts from @brisbaneroar to @PerthGloryFC even amounted to 136 tweets over the entire season. Part of the story here is that the Roar account live-tweets most of its A-League, W-League, NPL and other matches, frequently mentioning opposing teams by their Twitter handles.
That said, the ten teams’ accounts mostly mentioned themselves – this occurs mainly when they retweet messages that mention their accounts, in order to make those tweets visible to their own followers. Its local and interstate rivals may not be entirely surprised that Sydney FC turned out to be the most self-referential during the past season, while Melbourne Victory’s @gomvfc was least self-centred.
There’s little evidence, too, of the great rivalries that the A-League organisation has been keen to promote: the Sydney and Melbourne intra-city derbies may be eagerly anticipated by fans, but the teams involved hardly acknowledge each other’s existence. During the 2016/17 season, Melbourne Victory tweeted 73 times at the Brisbane Roar, for instance, but only 12 times at Melbourne City; Sydney FC mentioned the Central Coast Mariners in 43 tweets, but the Western Sydney Wanderers only nine times. No love lost there, then.
A Hashtag Lasts 90 Minutes
Building on its collaboration with Twitter Australia, the A-League has adopted a standard system of hashtags that it encourages fans and teams to use as they tweet about each match. These take the form of #HOMEvsAWAY, with both teams represented by well-established three-letter acronyms – and one third of the one million tweets by and at the A-League teams over the 2016/17 season used these hashtags.
Here, too, however, the major derbies fail to draw the crowd that the A-League might have expected them to do. Altogether, the Melbourne derbies produced fewer than 2,500 tweets, and with only 3,100 tweets their Sydney counterparts fared little better (the scoreless #SYDvWSW match in January generated only 839 tweets in total). Least popular, however, are the matches that make up the so-called “F3 Derby” between the Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners – their three clashes generated barely more than 700 tweets in total.
The most bankable teams, meanwhile, are the two Melbourne clubs and Brisbane Roar at home, as well as Perth, Melbourne Victory, and the Western Sydney Wanderers away – on average, whenever they step on the field, football fans are most likely to get amongst it on the match hashtag as well.
The two high-scoring clashes between Melbourne City and Perth Glory, the tense Wanderers visits to Brisbane (especially including a penalty shootout in the playoffs), and the grudge matches between Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar that are reliably inflamed by striker Besart Berisha’s history with both teams, each rated especially well with Twitter audiences.
After the game is before the game, as they say – so if the past season is any guide, rather than focussing overly much on the not-so-classic derby matches, it is these rivalries that the A-League may wish to promote in the 2017/18 round. Let the fans decide which clashes they are especially passionate about: don’t assume that intra-city contests necessarily generate audience engagement.