April was supposed to be all about the release of Marvel’s latest Avengers movie and the final season of Game of Thrones, but any football fanatics among the regular readers of this two-week-old column will know that the 17th day of last month brought with it the National Football League’s (NFL) schedule announcement.
On the face of it, there is nothing particularly enamouring about the launch of a new fixture list: it happens every year, each team is allocated 16 games and – if you’re Tom Brady’s New England Patriots – the previous season’s Super Bowl champions are bestowed a relatively generous home-opener.
Now, though, NFL teams don’t simply circulate a press release, post a link on their Facebook page or have their media officer read from a sheet of paper to a room of assembled journalists. Now, the NFL teams get creative.
The Buffalo Bills, for one, paid homage to the proliferation of dating app culture with a video showing the franchise swipe left or right on the NFL’s 32 teams, with ‘It’s a match-up!’ flashing on screen for each reciprocated fixture date.
Then there were the Atlanta Falcons, who were one of three franchises to recreate the Game of Thrones title sequence, but won bonus points for a not-so-subtle ram-inspired jibe at last season’s infamous post-season no-call which cost their rivals the New Orleans Saints a place in the Super Bowl.
And finally, in what was a personal favourite, there were the Los Angeles Chargers, who blew their budget on a compilation of whacky stock video footage dressing down their 2019 opponents, played to the soundtrack of a slightly reimagined version of the old Monday Night Football theme tune. A few hours earlier, in an equally bizarre turn, the franchise had run a Twitter thread comparing each of their opponents for the season to a flavour of pop tart.
‘I’m really proud of you’, tweeted one follower, in response to the Chargers’ video. ‘Wow I’m a Chargers fan now’, said another. In fact, a quick scroll through the thread of replies to the team’s Twitter post throws up even more supporters of various other teams pledging their allegiance to the LA franchise.
On the field, despite a run to the second round of the 2018 play-offs, the Chargers are not particularly renowned for their recent successes, having made the post-season just twice since 2010. In the tumultuous Twittersphere, though, they are widely regarded to have one of the most entertaining accounts in American sport. In other words, social media has provided the Chargers with newfangled ways through which to score points and win.
If the brief for the Chargers’ social marketing team in April had been to design a video that created a fuss, got people talking and went viral, then the boxes were well and truly ticked. However, that particular schedule announcement – and indeed those of all of the Chargers’ NFL counterparts – was merely a microcosm of a wider trend, of sports teams around the world becoming more daring, more inventive and generally just a bit more fun with their approach to social media.
In a similar mould, the Vegas Golden Knights last year took the National Hockey League (NHL) by storm – not just by threatening to become the first expansion franchise to win the Stanley Cup in their debut season, but by launching a Twitter account which poked fun at its own team, regularly roasted the opposition, and asked its followers for photos of puppies whenever the Golden Knights lost.
It was a risky approach that could sometimes backfire, but one that thrust the Golden Knights into ice hockey’s collective consciousness and won over neutrals at a time when the fledgling franchise needed to get noticed.
The same can be said for soccer in Europe, where clubs might not need the publicity as much as an expansion franchise like the Golden Knights, but are increasingly willing to throw shade at one another if it means appearing to be ‘down with the kids’ and staying relevant in the most public of forums.
Just last weekend, for example, Spanish side Sevilla’s English-language account trolled the Premier League clubs currently struggling to pin down a place in the top four, asking if they might be granted their Uefa Champions League place instead. The tweet subsequently received more than 150,000 cumulative retweets and likes, was made the subject of various online news stories, and resulted in a widely-shared spin-off exchange with rival La Liga club Valencia.
One day later, Sevilla’s tweet inevitably resurfaced when their own quest for Champions League soccer next season was dealt a major blow in a 1-0 defeat to Girona. Still, though, despite the loss on the pitch, the likes, retweets and comments from the day before were still there, as were the new followers, and as were the news stories.
Much like the on-field play, social media has become a game where taking risks can reap rewards. The reality might be one man and his keyboard working behind a computer screen, but for youthful, engaged digital followers of sport, there’s something that captures the imagination when an official, verified team account - avatar and all - offers out a rival virtual personality.
What may look like the mass adoption of a jovial, care-free attitude to social media is actually very calculated indeed. Such an approach will not only attract new followers, but a brand is also more likely to want to associate itself with a club account which pushes buttons and gets shared over one that is conservative and falls under the radar.
If anything can be learned from the NFL’s schedule announcement, then, it’s not simply who will be playing who in what week, but that Facebook, Instagram and especially Twitter have created a whole new arena for teams to take each other on.
Sport has always been about winning, but social media is quickly redefining the way teams succeed.