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The world in motion: how football fan behaviour is changing and what it means for brands

Kicking off with (the original) Ronaldo, Robbie Williams and a rather large fiery bird, the 2018 World Cup opened with all the glitz and glamour audiences have come to expect from a ceremony raising the curtain on international football’s quadrennial spectacle.

Evidently inspired and infused with the energy of Robbie Williams’ performance of his 1997 hit ‘Let me entertain you’, Russia 2018 kicked-off with a resounding five-nil triumph for the hosts over Saudi Arabia, in a fixture now christened by fans as ‘El Gasico’.

Football holds a unique power over its audiences. Whether at home or on the terraces, celebrating glory or embracing defeat, it’s impossible for fans to move their eyes away from the beautiful game. The emotional connection between a fan and their team builds a heightened level of attention – and this attention transforms into full-scale, unparalleled immersion as the size of the stage and the stakes increase.

And there is no stage bigger than the World Cup.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil reached more than 3.2 billion viewers worldwide, with one billion plus tuning in to watch the final between Germany and Argentina. According to Fifa, a further estimated 280 million people watched these matches online or on a mobile device, which was described as “a sign that more and more fans are embracing new technology for sports content”.

In the four years since Germany’s victory in Rio de Janeiro, the trend of football fans engaging with the beautiful game through technology has grown significantly. A notable development to emerge in the past three years is the partnership between BT Sport and YouTube which allows fans to watch the Champions League and Europa League finals for free on the platform. Another meaningful development is Amazon securing the rights to stream 20 Premier League games from 2019/20 recently.

Beyond viewing full matches online, fans are increasingly turning to platforms like YouTube for broader football content - and these changing habits have a tangible implications for brands and advertisers.

Copa90’s recent study on The Modern Football Fan revealed that 76% of all UK football fans watch football highlights online. Furthermore, the study found that 81% of 16-19 year old UK football fans use YouTube to watch a variety of football-related content, from official highlights to freestyle clips. Equipped with these insights, brands are able to speak to this traditionally hard to reach audience by harnessing their audience’s passions.

The growth of Copa90  since its debut in 2012 is a real testament to the value of the YouTube football audience. Amassing 1.6 million subscribers and racking up over 322m views, the fan-fuelled channel has quickly placed itself at the epicenter of the online football community. Following a successful partnership with Hyundai at the 2014 World Cup, Copa90 has attracted sponsorship deals with brands such as Adidas and Nissan.

One of the defining reasons football has found its digital home-turf on YouTube is because the platform enables fans to do what they love doing when the football isn’t on - which is, of course, talking about football. Channels like ArsenalFanTV have seen meteoric growth, boasting more than 770,000 subscribers (only 50,000 less than Arsenal’s official account) and securing a season long sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes - for brands, these rising channels offer a genuine alternative to mainstream sports media, which allows them to engage with fans directly, and crucially, at scale.  

On the eve of Russia 2018’s big kick-off, FIFA revealed that a joint bid from the US, Canada and Mexico had won the rights to host the 2026 World Cup in eight years time. Considering the digital transformation we see football undergoing, both on and off the pitch, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate that audiences may be engaging with World Cup 2026 through vastly different channels than those of today.

This direction of travel is further underlined when you contrast the explosive growth of channels such as Copa90 and ArsenalFanTV with the declining viewership of traditional sports channels.

Taking football out of the TV studio and into the hands of the fans in the stands allows brands to engage in an never-ending, ever-growing conversation with audiences hungry for content.

Digital environments are not just about scale. Platforms like YouTube command the attention of audiences in a unique manner. Ipsos eye-tracking research found that the majority of TV advertising time (55%) lacks real attention to due to multitasking and second screens, while also finding YouTube mobile advertising to be 84% more likely to receive attention than TV advertising.

Attention is prerequisite to impact in advertising. As the eyes of the world are once again drawn to the roar of the World Cup crowds, smart brands and marketers are increasingly aware of the digital transformation of the modern football fan and the lucrative opportunities it presents.

Before the final whistle blows on this article, I’d like to finish with a quote from legendary Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson (yes, I’m a Spurs fan) that I feel resonates not just in sport but in everything we do including business: "It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory."

Matt Bush is director of agencies, Google UK

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