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The Challenges Of Navigating The Twittersphere (In Football)

Fri 20th Nov 2015 | Legal

Given the explosion of Twitter and the immense popularity of the Premier League, it is hardly surprising that there is now a #TwitterLeagueTable to rank Premier League clubs based on their number of Twitter followers.

Football remains one of the most popular topics on social media with the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil reputedly generating in excess of 670 million tweets. In the UK football maintains its unassailable lead as the most tweeted about topic.

Players –v- Clubs on Twitter

The clubs have only begun their acquisition of Twitter followers. Because ‘people are interested in people on twitter’ football super stars across Europe have been ahead of their clubs in attracting Twitter followers. Cristiano Ronaldo leads the field with 38.4million followers with Ricardo Kaka having 23.6million, Naymar 20.1million, Ronaldinho Gaucho 12.7million, Wayne Rooney 12 million, Andres Iniesta 11.5million, Gerard Pique 11.3million, Carles Puyol 8.1million, Cesc Fabregas 8million and Rio Ferdinand 6.4million. These players have more followers than their clubs.

The Opportunities

This substantial level of following provides massive opportunities for players, clubs and sponsors to leverage the exposure and solidify their popularity, promote their brand, market their goods and services, breaking news as well as share information with their target audience. Thus, monitising their twitter community is prudent but it requires careful and articulate handling.

The live and current nature of the relationship means that any ill-judged statement/post could have far reaching consequences. Hard-earned reputations over many years could easily be wrecked with significant financial losses. Disciplinary actions, fines and suspensions could also follow.

Policing Twitter Conduct

In England the FA's position on policing social media can be summarised as follows:

  • All comments on social networking sites may be considered public comment by The FA.
  • Any comments which are improper, bring the game into disrepute or are threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting may lead to disciplinary action.
  • Comments about match officials which imply bias, attack the officials’ integrity or are overtly personal in nature are considered improper.
  • Comments which include a reference to a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability may be considered aggravated and attract a high disciplinary sanction.
  • Re-Tweeting another person’s post may lead to disciplinary action if the original comment was improper.
  • Deleting or apologising publicly for an improper posting, whilst advisable, does not prevent disciplinary action being taken.
  • An individual is strictly responsible for any posting on his/her account. Participants should take every care to ensure that others do not access their account, as the fact that a posting or comment may have been made by a third party will not prevent disciplinary action being taken against the account holder.
  • Participants are required to act in the best interest of the game at all times and should be aware that their postings on social networking sites are likely to be subject to public and media scrutiny.
  • Whilst the use of social networking sites can be positive, Participants are advised to exercise caution with the content of any postings.


The Pitfalls

Since 2011 the FA has issued a series of sanctions including a £25,000 fine and one match ban against Mario Balotelli for a post with racial connotations about Super Mario; £90,000 against Ashley Cole for describing the FA with expletives following John Terry's racial case; £10,000 against Ryan Babble for posting a doctored picture of the match referee in a Manchester United shirt after Liverpool's defeat at Manchester United; £45,000 against Rio Ferdinand for re-tweeting a reference to Ashley Cole as "Choc ice”(apparent reference to a black person acting as white) and a further £25,000 against Ferdinand for using the slang “sket”(apparent reference to a promiscuous female) and £5000 coupled with a two match ban and an order to attend a course against Ryan Tunnicliffe for his tweet referring to Patrick Bamford as a “sausage boy”(reference to his alleged sexual orientation).

These mishaps have not afflicted football players alone. The FA itself attracted a storm of complaints from its more than 1 million followers over its “sexist” tweet which was deleted within one hour of being posted after the Women's World Cup. It had posted: "Our lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title – heroes.” One response described it as “Hideously condescending b*llocks” whilst another said “Back to the kitchen now, birds! Well done the FA you f******g idiots”.

John W Henry, owner of Liverpool FC reportedly responded to Arsenal's bid of £40,000,001 for Liverpool's then striker Luis Suarez with the tweet: "What do you think they’re smoking over at the Emirates?"

In 2012 Nike became the first UK company to have a twitter campaign banned after the advertising watchdog decided that its use of the personal accounts of Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshire broke the rules by not clearly telling the public that their tweets were in fact Nike advertisement. Rooney had tweeted: "My resolution – to start the year as a champion, and finish it as a champion…#makeitcount.gonike.me/Makeitcount” whilst Wilshire tweeted: "Jack Wilshire stated "In 2012, I will come back for my club – and be ready for my country.#makeitcount.gonike.me/Makeitcount”.

How to Navigate Profitably

Given all of the above, it is imperative that participants should adopt a well-considered approach in managing their Twitter and social media operation. Essentially they must,

  • Formulate a clear social media strategy/policy identifying essential dos and don’ts including the adoption of appropriate language.
  • Maintain currency by monitoring, reacting and updating their twitter posts. It must be appreciated that social media involves constant communication/continuous dialogue with the target audience.
  • Protect trademarks and all intellectual property before broadcasting it on Twitter.
  • Remain vigilant against counterfeiters and ambush marketers who will attempt unjust exploitation of your brand and most importantly,
  • Take expert legal advice.


Samuel Okoronkwo is a practicing Barrister. He specialises in Sports Law with particular emphasis in Professional Football and can be contacted at www.samuelokoronkwo.com or through his Clerk at soclerks@samuelokoronkwo.com.

Published in FC Business Magazine - (November 2015) - Issue 89 - page 30


Posted by: Kev Howland



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