An episode that reminded fans of modern football’s lamentable reality: online interaction & corporate identity are prioritised over common decency

(Illustration courtesy of Reuters / FC Barcelona / Blinkfire / Sprout Social)

“ALL ABOUT A RECORD DAY ON SOCIAL MEDIA!”

 We can safely assume that whoever responsible for clicking send on Tuesday morning’s Twitter announcement was aware of what the reaction might be. If not, then that is an altogether different issue.

But the reaction to FC Barcelona publicly congratulating itself on how the news of ex-player Diego Maradona’s death broke online traffic records gets right to the core of one of modern football’s more depressing realities.

The majority of football clubs care what fans think only in limited circumstances: 1) when it is too late/they have done something wrong, or 2) when it suits them. Certainly, the episode served as a timely reminder and pointed to the fact that many modern football organisations place more importance on internet engagement, image maintenance and money-making than a basic level of common decency.

“The tribute to Diego Maradona breaks records on FC Barcelona’s social media,” read the tweet. It referred to photographs of Lionel Messi’s celebration after his goal against Osasuna on Sunday, revealing a Newell’s Old Boys shirt dedicated to his hero and fellow Argentine icon. Barcelona’s outlook was so painfully self-absorbed, so blatantly brazen, that it required a double take.

Despite the fact that, within a matter of hours, the club’s official account deleted the Twitter post – presumably in light of the suitably appalled reaction it was immediately met with once it circulated — the attached story remains published on the website.

“The ridiculous thing about it is they basically avoided ever referencing his time at the club while he was alive…poor form,” read one response. “I’m generally into measuring social media traffic. But, in this case, Barca shouldn’t have said anything publicly. It’s wrong to use someone’s death as a tool to get more social media traffic,” said another.

The general reaction to the post, however, was summed up most aptly by one user bluntly commenting: “Jesus Christ, only Barcelona can turn a death into PR move.” The announcement had a buoyant tone that was distasteful, perplexing and shameful all at once, leaving a lasting and sour taste in the mouths of fans.

Carlo Garganese, European football expert and one third of the Italian Football Podcast, responds to FC Barcelona’s post on Tuesday morning. The tweet, along with the attached story, drew a lot of criticism online for the way they managed to “turn a death into PR move.” (Image courtesy of @carlogarganese on Twitter).

This isn’t just about Barcelona though. Juventus and Manchester United are among some of the other leading global football brands — and it is perfectly suitable to label top European clubs as such — who have been previously been criticised for exposing where exactly their priorities lie in strange PR moves.

It has become an inbuilt obsession for football organizations to maintain a global image and record high numbers of fan engagement on social media. Even at the lower levels — particularly given the majority of this year’s absence of fans through turnstiles and in grounds (until this week, thankfully) — the importance of online interaction is paramount to clubs.

Incidentally, in Barcelona’s January report on how it had “strengthened its leadership on social networks” and “generated more interactions than any other sports club in the world” in 2019, Liverpool ranked second in the top 10 of sports’ digital realm.

In March of that same year, I reflected on a keynote speech I had attended, given by then-Liverpool CEO Peter Moore. Moore, who left his post in August, talked about how the club — known for their success off the pitch in tandem with on-field achievements in recent years — engages with its supporters. I left that day with a distinctly positive feeling, quite different from the tone put across by Barcelona this week, not just because I am a Liverpool supporter but because Moore had been hugely impressive.

Peter Moore, who was CEO of his beloved Liverpool until August 2020, speaks at a South by Southwest Festival keynote speech in March 2019. Moore oversaw a shift in the club’s engagement strategy and corporate outlook, which has now been passed on to his replacement Billy Hogan (Image courtesy of George Murray).

“As I travel the world George, big for me is not the number of fans. Big for me is not how many people show up at our stadium. Big for me is not the revenues. It is the depth of passion, love and emotion I see with our fans all around the world,” Moore said. 

Yet, the importance elite clubs like the Catalan giants place on such records has long been apparent. Back in January, the club ran a similar story to the one this week, that time more generally celebrating how “FC Barcelona has strengthened its leadership on social networks,” ahead of, you guessed it: Liverpool.

It must be acknowledged, for balance, that despite the Premier League champions’ rise in terms of digital reach and re-connection with its fanbase; they too have made their own, albeit slightly different, PR blunders.

The club’s failed, much-maligned attempt to trademark the word “Liverpool” in September 2019, along with its decision to furlough a number of its staff back in April of this year (later reversed because of similar outrage to the Barcelona backlash) were two high-profile instances.

When it comes to the corporate image a modern football club feels it is obliged to maintain, FC Barcelona’s official Twitter account is the archetype. It is thought of as one of the prime examples demonstrating the way in which clubs “speak” to their supporters online, to appeal to a certain audience and ramp up interaction. The language often appeals to younger fans and can be pointless and borderline cringeworthy in equal measure.

It is hardly news that football clubs and their employees steadfastly hold what benefits that club dearest. Even so, the regretful tweet in question (again, this is not entirely a slight on Barcelona alone) is indicative of the extent to which football has re-shaped into a business as much as a sport. TV rights deals — which have been one of this year’s many hot discussion topics within the game – are disputed, while global expansion, tapping into markets such as Asia and the Far East and selling more shirts are vital parts of the expansion and profit model.

Putting the obscene and ever-growing influx of mass wealth into the upper echelons of the game to one side, the Barcelona episode — as it can be referred to for a short period before the club lurches towards another disaster — should serve as a jolt to the system for the average football supporter. Clicks and brand expansion are the most important things to the big boys.

And while the club at the heart of Tuesday’s furore seem to have cultivated themselves a reputation as particularly off-key, they are not the only ones.

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