Arguments over ‘plastic fans’ have raged for years in English football, but the condition may be more extensive than we ever thought.
Purists saw a problem way back in the 1970s, when the success of Leeds United led to the Yorkshire club’s plain white shirts – and iconic yellow away tops – popping up all over, even in Lancashire.
But with an explosion of football on TV following the introduction of the Premier League in 1992, ‘plastics’ – people who support a team they have no obvious affinity with – have become a phenomenon.
However, forget domestic disputes over Chelsea fans who live in the West Country or Manchester United supporters who have never left Basingstoke; they are now positively local compared to the overwhelming majority of the wealthiest clubs’ support.
Marketing executives at Manchester City have revealed that only one per cent of the club’s fan base even lives in the UK, let alone in Manchester.
Social media and digital platforms are driving extraordinary growth in worldwide ‘fandom’ and while the global nature of City’s following is well known, the sheer extent of the overseas support is startling.
Only a miniscule percentage of those who now call themselves a Blue will ever make it to the Etihad, or even to Great Britain.
As a result, City’s marketing team are trialling new ways of entertaining them, and tying them in, including following match-going fans, so those overseas can share vicariously in the experience of being a Cityzen.
Only one percent of Man City supporters live in the UK – and most will never visit the Etihad
‘Our response from a club perspective is to cater for all fans and that is why [we have to understand] what they expect and how they want to engage with the club,’ said Chief Marketing Officer of the City Football Group, Nuria Tarre.
‘At Manchester City we know that one per cent of our audience is in the UK,’ added Tarre, in a discussion at the Business of Football summit, organised by the Financial Times earlier this year.
‘Those who dream about going to the Etihad one day may have the opportunity to engage with the club in a way that makes them feel closer to the experience, makes them feel immersed as to what it feels to be in a stadium full of fans….
‘We are experimenting… fans in US and China are interested in the day-to-day of fans going to Manchester to the games.’
The club is exploring ways to make overseas fans feel a part of matchday experience
Manchester City are taunted by supporters of other clubs for having a plastic fanbase, an accusation reinforced by memes from online wags, who love to show vacant seats at the ‘Emptihad’.
Inevitably, City has attracted a lot of new supporters following the rapid injection of cash as a result of the club’s takeover by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. The recruitment of star players, incredible success and sumptuous football under Pep Guardiola has fuelled extraordinary growth.
City have just won their fourth Premier League title in five seasons as Guardiola builds a dynasty of success.
Chelsea faced similar accusations after the arrival of Roman Abramovich and his riches in 2003, which transformed the fortunes of the club in every sense.
But after Leeds, the ‘plastic originals’ were distant followers of Liverpool and Manchester United, after their successes of the 1970s and 80s, and the 2000s, respectively.
The truth is every top-flight club aspires to increase its reach, both in their own community and globally, through digital platforms.
City is now pumping out online features in 14 languages, and not just translations of the material it produces for an English audience.
The club creates content in those overseas markets that is relevant to people from that country or region, for example a focus on particular players.
Clubs attract a more international fanbase with investment in players and success – Roman Abramovich brought just that to Chelsea between 2003 and 2022
Early example of ‘plastic’ fans in the 1970s, when football supporters were attracted to Leeds
To support the global communications, City have located some in-house journalists within the first-team facilities, to provide a regular supply of material.
All of this reflects the fact that a club’s ‘audience’ is now a key element in its overall value and its ability to make money.
The accountant, KPMG, include popularity on social media within its annual valuation of clubs, along with profitability, broadcast revenues, stadium ownership and sporting potential.
Manchester City’s social media audience is put at around 90 million followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube in the yearly rankings published by Deloitte.
That figure is comparable to those for Chelsea and Liverpool, but lagging far behind Manchester United, which boasts almost double that number.
Stars like Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish attract a worldwide audience of supporters
Total Social Media Following by Club 2022
Social Media Following
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube
The challenge is, how to monetise the new audience?
To start with, digital reach increases the value of traditional commercial partnerships. For example, Manchester United used its global popularity and digital profile to help secure a new shirt sponsorship deal with TeamViewer, last year.
TeamViewer is operating in 200 countries creating online communities and providing IT solutions for people who work from home. So, it is a good match generating £47million annually for the club over five years, which is also top dollar.
But there is the promise of even greater riches in future. Hence the Big Six’s interest in the European Super League, which has been watered down to an enlarged and reformatted Champions League.
Extra matches against other superpowers increases the opportunity to leverage those online audiences through more lucrative media contracts.
Global reach allows clubs to strike different and more lucrative commercial deals
And beyond all that there are experiments with crypto tokens and the metaverse, which may yet prove to be the biggest win of all.
While clubs work through these commercial solutions, the starting point is ‘the content’.
‘At the end of the day they are fans first and fans are the essence of football and a club,’ said Tarre. ‘They are fans before they are consumers. So having a strong and authentic engagement is a fundamental priority for us.’
Meanwhile, those international fans who do make it to their mecca make a disproportionate contribution to match day takings.
Season ticket holders are generally not big spenders, but in comparison a ‘day-tripper’ fan is a valuable commodity. Hospitality, whether corporate or an individual package, increases their value and they tend to arrive early and spend large.
Man City are experimenting with the Metaverse, a virtual world, which clubs could exploit
Just over half of Liverpool’s home crowd are local supporters, about one third come from elsewhere in the UK and 10 per cent from overseas.
Liverpool’s redevelopment of the Anfield Road end will include a significant increase in hospitality, as well as a new superstore and catering, ensuring the tourists have plenty of opportunity to part with their money.
And it is significant that written into the brief for the Chelsea takeover is an overhaul of Stamford Bridge.
While the club was bank rolled by Abramovich billions the lack of earning capacity in the traditionally tight stadium was not so significant, but it is a huge opportunity to generate new revenues, which are now needed.
So, global fans bring money, or at least the potential to make more of it, but do they change anything for the traditional supporter who attends matches?
For marketers, it is simply a matter of segmenting the audience and the distinction between a ‘true’ fan and a geographically distant follower is a false one.
‘I don’t think they are mutually exclusive,’ said Rob Pilgrim, head of sport in Europe at YouTube told the Financial Times conference. ‘It is the wrong question to be asking picking one.
‘Finding balance is not easy. You have to engage those fans wherever they are. The tools are much better now to reach them and engage where they are and use the data to understand what it is a local fan wants and what it is a fan in a different country wants.
‘The analytics of platforms to tailor your approach by market and fan segment is becoming a lot better. My answer would be you don’t have to choose between the two.’
An artist’s impression of the redevelopment of the Anfield Road End of Liverpool’s stadium
However, part of the joy of being a football fan in England is the shared identity that is based on experience and that is not only about success, it is ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ that binds supporters together.
The fans of each club have a self-image that helps make them and their experience unique and special. It is a question of identity.
In a feature on fan memories, produced by the YouTube channel, Man City TV, it felt significant that the focus was initially on the disasters, rather than the triumphs.
In Manchester, like any football-riven city, the division is palpable and on-field events impact off-field lives, particularly during downturns.
‘If you are a Manchester City fan of any more than 15 or 20 years, you know exactly what I mean about the ugly,’ said the Man City TV presenter.
‘Believe me… it’s not all about the trophies, sometimes it is about the memories,’ continued the broadcaster, whose first game was at Maine Road, a 1-0 win over Coventry City in January 1990, when he recalls the ‘superstore’ was still a ‘club shop’, the size of a ‘broom cupboard’.
One of his defining memories was a 1-0 defeat at home to Bury in Division One.
‘No disrespect, you looked at Bury, they had about 500 fans and they were celebrating like they had won the World Cup final,’ he recalled.
‘It made me think, what am I doing being a Man City fan getting beat by Bury, never mind Man United. It wasn’t good. That was my first proper downtrodden moment as a Manchester City fan.’
The fan experience for match going fans has been transformed at modern stadiums
City’s match-going fans have on average 20 years of support behind them and according to the club’s most recent annual report, 70 per cent live within a 50-mile radius of the Etihad, so the experience of that drizzly day in February 1998 will still be widely shared.
But it is something the club’s new global fanbase, who have been attracted by the sublime talents of Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, or Jack Grealish, could not imagine, or may not even be interested in.
City are trying to bridge that gap – in both directions. One international supporter, Martin Ng, from Hong Kong, was featured on the club website during lockdown.
A member of Hong Kong supporters’ club, Martin started to follow City because his favourite player, Peter Schmeichel, joined the team in 2002, so he has a few years in the bank himself.
He has stuck with City ever since, despite matches often being screened at 3am.
‘It is my pleasure and duty!’ he told the club website. ‘I’m so proud to let others know that we are a City family.’
And in this age of global fandom, who is to say there isn’t a ‘United family’ next door, too.