When my sporting fandom began in the first half of the 1980s the unimaginable riches of the Premier League were still a decade away - but it’s safe to say players’ lifestyles had already moved significantly away from those of the supporters on the terraces.
During this era my dad used to describe a time when players lived among the fans - in the 1940s and 1950s when he grew up watching his local club Millwall and then his beloved Spurs as soon as he was old enough to drive a scooter to North London.
His tales of players getting on the same bus to the games as the supporters may or may not have been apocryphal but the image evoked a bygone era as we moved into the 1990s and the age of the millionaire footballer.
I have long argued that social media brought players back into their communities once more. Sure, they don’t get on the same bus as the fans but in a virtual sense they live among us.
On Instagram Stories, on Twitch, on Twitter and now, increasingly, on platforms designed for the players - and often invested in by the players.
The announcement that Unscriptd has been acquired by The Players Tribune came hot on the heels of the launch of Otro. All three of which are platforms that either facilitate player content or present it to the consumer. 2019 will be the Year of the Athlete on social media.
How did we get here, and where are we headed?
Firstly, let’s not assume that it’s a new concept for sport to revolve around its brightest stars: the athletes.
In soccer especially, from 1938 when Arsenal paid Wolves a British-record fee of £14,500 for Bryn Jones (sparking a debate in Parliament about whether this should be allowed), through the 1950s with Billy Wright and his pop star wife Joy Beverley (of the Beverley Sisters) and then George Best aka the Fifth Beatle in the Swinging Sixties, players have always been the stars of the professional game.
The combination of the Premier League launch in 1992, injecting new broadcast money into soccer, and the Bosman ruling three years later which gave players freedom to move around and access more of that cash, contributed further to their stardom and wealth.
All of which meant the leading footballers were well-placed to take advantage of the social media revolution of the 2000s.
2004 - Facebook founded. 2005 - YouTube founded. 2006 - Twitter founded. In a decade when the Premier League, La Liga and the Champions League were making players more globally famous than ever before.
It wasn’t long before Twitter users were treated to Wayne Rooney using a global, public platform to famously ask Rio Ferdinand if he wanted a lift to training in the morning.
The players were living amongst us once again and we expected daily insights into their lives.
Almost overnight, we moved from an era of players giving bland soundbites to TV interviewers (the phrases “sick as a parrot” and “over the moon” became national cliches) to megastars typing out messages to millions, unfiltered.
One after another players sent tweets which got them in trouble. Until the flood of Twitter controversies slowed to a trickle. Players got wise. Then they were replaced by a new generation which can’t remember a time when social media didn’t exist.
England’s newest debutant, Jadon Sancho, was three-years-old when Mark Zuckerberg first started writing the code that would become Facebook.
People started to believe that players didn’t touch their own social media - that it was all handed over to a social media manager. Partly true - their Facebook and increasingly their Twitter and Instagram are often managed by agencies but even the biggest players tend to do their own Instagram Stories.
Jesse Lingard, just over seven years older than Sancho but equally at home on social media, is one of the best at it, as I discussed with Jon Brewin for Eurosport just before this year’s World Cup.
Not only did players become savvier, they also wanted to be in on the next big thing from the beginning.
From 2012 a rush of new platforms emerged, many of which had endorsement or even investment from big-name players and media figures.
Sulia (“the hottest social network you’ve never heard of” in 2012, closed by 2014), Kicca, BreatheSport, Sportlobster, SportsYapper … many came with promises of being the Facebook of sport or Twitter without the trolling.
Some did better than others. Some adapted their business model from destination platform to content creators. Some are hard to trace - their social media profiles frozen in time in 2015.
All of them, whether they succeeded or not, to an extent helped pave the way for the current generation of platforms to challenge the Silicon Valley giants.
It’s that generation - including the new powerhouse tandem of The Players’ Tribune and Unscriptd - which will shape the way athletes use social media in 2019.
It also includes Uninterrupted (co-founded by LeBron James), Religion of Sports (co-founded by Tom Brady), TraceMe (co-founded by Russell Wilson and with investment from an impressive list of names) and now a new entrant to the market, Otro.
In addition, The Players Tribune continues to deliver astonishingly candid first-person articles with players to the extent that BBC Sport (arguably a competitor website) recently wrote about its success. In the article its executive editor Sean Conboy said: “You find they go through so many things in life you can’t capture on Wikipedia or Twitter.”
Unscriptd, an app which allows clubs, teams and federations to push messages to players which they can publish on their social media (eliminating copy-and-paste fails such as Daley Blind’s from 2017), makes total sense as an acquisition for TPT. Both seek to put the power of the media back into the hands of athletes.
The history of internet bubbles would suggest that not all of the apps and platforms listed here will thrive and succeed. Big-name backers has never been a guarantee of success.
However it’s also an internet truism that the second generation of services often succeeds where the first generation did not. The 2012-2015 platforms which came out swinging at the likes of Facebook and Twitter provided an environment in which the 2018 arrivals might flourish - just as Facebook and Twitter themselves were born in an era when MySpace had laid a foundation.
We just don’t know which ones that will be - and certainly all of them will find that it’s a daily battle to get consumers to download your app, keep it installed and regularly open it.
Consumers have limited time and baked-in habits: 30 minutes on the train in the morning to check email, check Instagram, play Candy Crush. Any new app is up against it from the start.
One other thing that’s true of internet bubbles - whilst not all of the platforms will make it, the trend itself is here to stay, and that trend is for players to have their own voice and for us as fans to share in their daily activities.
Athletes will be the dominant voice on social media in 2019. Which platforms that happens on will be one of the most interesting battles in tech.
The prediction that 2019 will be the Year of the Athlete on social media is one of seven key trends predicted in Seven League’s preview of 2019 which is coming soon to the Seven League website.