Since its inception as a professional domain, football in Europe has run parallel to political and social currents, at different times and places taking a greater or lesser active role in developments. Whether or not the game should be involved with anything other than exercise and the odd bit of shouting really depends on who you ask. Some people might point out that it is, after all, just a game. They might even use words like “overpaid” or “prima donnas.” Others will disagree, and some will go as far as to say that it’s a matter of life and death. For Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly of course, it was “much, much more important than that.” A quick look at the history books and a glance at some maps will reveal that the truth is at least somewhere in the middle of all of this; clubs have always played a part in the wellbeing of their greater community, and with many stadiums still sitting bang in the middle of residential areas, it’s a role they still hold.
But what, I hear you cry, could a multi billion-pound industry have to do with the lives of everyday people? These guys in their Range Rovers and Ferraris wouldn’t know a 9 to 5 if it kicked a ball at them. It’s an open question whether or not footballers are really upper class, despite their wealth. They say it takes generations to truly move up the social ladder, and in the meantime, most players know where they came from. The perpetually high moral standards to which they are held seem at odds with the murky but more traditionally affluent worlds of finance and politics. Frequently, community work goes under the radar. As unfair as that seems, it is this straddling of the traditional class divide that makes footballers, at least in their best form, ideal contemporary role models. It’s also been convincingly put that football is one of the few truly meritocratic labour markets going. From Pele to Maradona to Wayne Rooney, no one in the hiring department cared one iota that these boys were from the very bottom of the barrel. Today, the rise of social media and the eternal appeal of the sporting success story has given athletes a voice, and at the same time enabled sports teams to seize opportunities for marketing and brand consolidation.
The landscape has shifted significantly over the decades. Up to and immediately after the war years, football was all some neighbourhoods had going for them. The game became more glamourous in the 60s, and in the 80s the strength of working-class unity began to ebb away with the rise of Thatcherite neoliberal economics. Clearly this violent economic period was when football hooliganism was at its peak. But the modern footballer deserves their own terminology; the neofootballer? The generation of player just gone was not a generally popular one, as they coincided with massive increases in revenue, the rise of television subscription services, and the notion that football was becoming progressively more elitist as all areas of the game came under market control. This was all further fueled by a tabloid press which was often out for blood, with scandal after scandal making Premier League footballers public enemy number one. But both at the point of the individual player, and on a more systemic level, things are again changing.
The intent to sow discord for profit still exists, but the red pages are losing their touch. An easy explanation is that they’re coming to terms with a shrinking audience. Declining sales in the newspaper industry are nothing new, with industry revenue in the UK falling from 4.45 billion GBP in 2005 to 2.8 billion GBP in 2020 (Newspaper industry in the United Kingdom – statistics & facts, 2021). The time old wisdom that the lie travels faster than the truth is as accurate today as it ever was, which is arguably why the tabloids are outperforming the broadsheets, but their now supplementary role to the internet and digital media is another modern truth. The implications for the control of narrative and power over public perception are vast.
The phenomena of “the collapse of media “gatekeeping”” is explored though the lens of economic news coverage in an article by Soroka, Daku, Hiaeshutter-Rice, Guggenheim, and Pasek (2018). Their primary claims that traditional media is selective in its choice of news headline with a preference for negative spin, and that a changing media landscape will provide opportunities for a different approach, have a clear correlation with football news coverage; “The news landscape is changing … and there are reasons to think these changes alter the nature of the economic news that is distributed and consumed … What we learn about the economy from social media may be fundamentally different from what we learn about the economy from traditional news sources alone. We suspect that the same is true for a much broader body of news content.” (Soroka et al, 2018).
Sound theories are supported by the evidence, and the changes in the type of news being distributed, as well as the effects of those changes, can be seen in many places. Let’s start with the biggest actors in the football industry; the clubs. For their part, football clubs understand the connotations of positive and negative press, and have in recent years become all the more savvy in their attempts to take control of the narrative. There is now not a professional club around without a media and communications team aiming to deliver optimised and controlled public relations (Price, Farrington, & Hall, 2013). Interviews, press releases, daily communications and headline stories are now all conducted at the club’s behest. The direct and instant nature of social media allows for the easy coordination of a particular message, or agenda, with players too being schooled in the practice and becoming vastly more media savvy than years past. Access for journalists depends on cooperation with new media strategies (Price, Farrington, & Hall, 2013), as sensationalism, or “click bait” as we’d now say, becomes less tolerated within the sports news media industry.
As well as a cultural shift borne out of a reaction against negative press, there are also economic processes acting as a driving force behind the news media revolution. Communications and PR practices have become rooted in analytics, and the science is conclusive; social media metrics act as tools for the accumulation of intellectual capital (Lardo, Dumay, Trequattrini & Russo, 2017). For potential new investors, as well as existing stakeholders, a strong public image is gold dust, and the marketing opportunities afforded by social media make an efficient online presence paramount. In addition, the two-way communication made possible by social media poses a risk of involuntary exposure, or “intellectual capital involuntary disclosure” (Lardo, Dumay, Trequattrini & Russo, 2017), further necessitating the need for controlled and measured communication.
So where does this leave the players, who begin to look more and more like pawns on a chessboard? The modern player is under increased scrutiny for their on-field performance, has more wealth and so a far greater stick to be beaten with, and exists at a time when public discourse is both more accessible and more uncertain. The social issues witnessed today are not new, but are amplified in online areas, exemplified by online “white flight” and the racial differences between certain online spaces (Kilvington & Price, 2017). 2014-15 saw 39,000 discriminatory posts directed at Premier League players, and as you could be forgiven for assuming more recent numbers are at least as high, the question remains of “how to protect and police [players] in their use of social media” (Kilvington & Price, 2017). The possibility of using an individual platform to elevate certain issues and causes exists alongside the obsession of clubs with image and marketability. Alongside pressure from clubs, it’s also easy to see how taking a detached, coordinated-from-above approach to social media could be more appealing and far less unsavoury for many players. The reality is that in having an individual platform, footballers are not alone, and yet access to the internet was not the great equaliser we were promised. Rather, it was the slippage of the mask where we came to realise just how polarised society really was, is, and will perhaps remain for some time. All that this means is that there is still work required to level the playing field, and although it can look ugly for now, the recent elevation of historically marginalised social groups is a progression. Although far from a panacea, the role of social media has been important in its amplification of much needed dialogues and social causes. That footballers are able to represent some of these causes on the one hand, and the interests of corporate elites on the other, is a paradox perhaps only the great Bill Shankly himself would have seen coming.
Watson, A. (2021, Nov 9). Newspaper industry in the United Kingdom – statistics & facts. Statista. https://www.statista.com/topics/5932/newspaper-industry-uk/#dossierKeyfigures
Soroka, S., Daku, M., Hiaeshutter-Rice, D., Guggenheim, L., & Pasek, J. (2018). Negativity and positivity biases in economic news coverage: Traditional versus social media. Communication Research, 45(7), 1078–1098. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217725870
Price, J., Farrington, N., & Hall, L. (2013). Changing the game? The impact of Twitter on relationships between football clubs, supporters and the sports media. Soccer & Society, 14(4), 446–461.
Lardo, A., Dumay, J., Trequattrini, R., & Russo, G. (2017). Social media networks as drivers for intellectual capital disclosure. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 18(1), 63-80. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JIC-09-2016-0093
Kilvington, D., & Price, J. (2019). Tackling Social Media Abuse? Critically Assessing English Football’s Response to Online Racism. Communication & Sport, 7(1), 64–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479517745300