The arrival of social media, but in particular, Twitter, has fundamentally changed the relationship between fans and football. THe majority of this has been for the better, but the impact on broadcast commentators and print media comment writers has been significant, and if the commentariat is not careful, they are in danger of being left behind.
There is no arguing over the fact that Twitter has brought people closer to football and has allowed them to submerse themselves in it more than ever before.
Twitter has undoubtedly removed the divide between players and supports which seemed so vast in the early days of the Premier League and big money. It has allowed them to escape the confines of the big, image conscious, business they work for, and speak freely.
For the most part this has been immensely positive. Some players, such as Joey Barton, have even managed to totally reinvent themselves. Some, like Rio Ferdinand, have made themselves look a bit stupid a few times. A small minority (Ryan Babel, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Jack Wilshere…) have overstepped the mark in some way and been punished either by the FA or their clubs. But despite this there is no doubt that twitter has done a great deal to remove the alienation fans were increasingly feeling towards these mega-rich, elusive sports stars.
Clubs too have taken advantage of the new communications platforms, with various accounts providing up to the minute team news, behind the scenes pictures and video’s, details of their community work, and easy access to all of their carefully prepared media statements, without the spin of a journalist to allow any misinterpretation.
Lower league and non-league clubs in particular have harnessed the medium to their advantage. Dulwich Hamlet are a classic example. Based in South London and with a proud history, shrewd usage of social media, alongside other marketing techniques, has seen their gates climb to almost 1,500 for a home game, despite plying their trade in the Ryman Isthmian Premier League where attendances rarely top 400.
Twitter also sees football journalists, commentators, and pundits signing up and producing regular updates on breaking news and results. This however can be a double-edged sword.
Former Manchester United defender Phil Neville (@fizzer18) can vouch for this after he made his commentating debut for the BBC during the World Cup match between France and Honduras. To say it wasn’t the most auspicious of debuts would not be underestimating it, but whilst Phil was fairly quiet, presumably nervous, and didn’t offer any towering beacons of insight, he also didn’t get anything catastrophically wrong either.
Nevertheless the vitriol rained down on him from twitter was a sight to behold, and became a news story in itself. South Warwickshire Police tweeted that they would use his voice to maintain calmness on the streets that Friday, while broadcaster Danny Baker accused him of sucking the life out of the game. And those were some of the more polite ones!
Phil to his credit did his best to laugh it off, and whilst he still isn’t the greatest of commentators by any means, there has been a marked improvement since.
In a way it is to be hoped that this level of instant and direct criticism when a commentator puts in a bad performance or makes a mistake, might encourage them to raise their game. However to date there has been little direct evidence of this being the case. Rather most will dismiss tweets as the rantings of people who don’t know what they are talking about.
Print journalists for the most part get the importance of twitter and both individually and as newspapers they are embracing it increasingly effectively. But this evident aloofness from broadcast commentators is creating the sort of distance between them and the fans that twitter has got rid off with the players.
For broadcasters this should be a concern, because they do not have the monopoly they once did. These days I can follow all the latest news and scores, minute by minute on twitter, from a whole host of different and reliable sources. I can find instant and detailed analysis of almost any game, and get all the stats I need directly from OPTA, rather than having it filtered through a TV commentator.
Many clubs, large and small, publish a minute-by-minute commentary on each of their games on twitter, and there are plenty of feeds that publish videos of pretty much every goal that is scored.
This completely adaptable source of information, with all the facts, stats, latest scores, commentary, analysis, and direct views of the players, that I can entirely personalise is increasingly the way that fans want to absorb their football these days.
The tired formats of the broadcasters, and the commentators that work in them need to keep pace with this shift in demand, in the same way that print commentators have. Because if they can’t, whilst their money will always be important, their output and product will become increasingly irrelevant.