Football fans provide backing vocals – both literally and figuratively – during every game. In full song they supply an electric atmosphere that reverberates not only through the stadium but across television screens throughout the world. In their silence they are perhaps even more conspicuous, attracting the ire of commentators, rival fans and, in recent years, supporters among their own ranks. The advent of social media and smartphones has, through platforms such as Twitter, amplified the voices traditionally heard only in the stadium, talkback radio and in pubs and living rooms the world over, creating an exponentially larger and interactive audience.
This new technology has simultaneously expanded and contracted the world of football fandom. We are now able to connect with our fellow fans on all seven continents. At a moment’s notice we can share our opinions and debate topics, both contentious and trivial, in order to feel a sense of belonging within a global tribe.
A desire for connection is an inherent part of our human nature but it also fuels our voracious appetite for new content, the consumption of which is greatly aided and abetted by the existence of social media. With a football-viewing public more educated on the minutiae of the game than ever before, social media provides a platform to disseminate the information readily available at our fingertips prior to, during and after each match. In-depth analysis, statistics, heat maps and passing charts have all been introduced into the vocabulary that now form part of the match review routine for a typical fan. Unlike the pre-internet era, when we may have relied upon pundits and journalists to form an opinion, we now have easy access to an ever-growing set of tools that can better inform our own personal view of the game.
All this data does not, however, mean we have suddenly developed the ability to view a match strictly through an objective lens. Our opinions are still coloured by our allegiances; fans continue to retain any preconceptions they may have of players, managers and officials which is just as it should be.
But what if your opinion holds more weight than an ordinary, everyday fan? A convergence of celebrity culture and social media has birthed the ‘superfan’. Unlike the typical football fan’s limited circle of influence, on digital platforms where popularity is based upon follower count, a wide reach bestows on some the power of a minor celebrity. This honour confers with it the ability to guide – or missguide – fellow football fans toward a chosen narrative.
Superfandom carries the caveat that the more followers you gain, the more likely you are to become a lightning rod for negative comments, but for some individuals this is no deterrence. Having a greater social media following builds your personal brand and can afford you opportunities otherwise out of reach – a concept practised across any profession that benefits from greater visibility. So if you are, say, aspiring towards a career within the realm of football, reach, engagement and impressions may be your sole goal. Even if it comes at the cost of authenticity and accuracy.
As a complement to social media, fans also have increased access to audiovisual content. For many, news generated by traditional media channels is supplemented or even replaced with content both created for and by fans. Some of these, like Arseblog, are respected setups with established and highly engaged audiences that rival their more traditional media counterparts. Others are fledgling productions that wear their hearts on their sleeves, attracting a relatively small but loyal following. Podcasts, blogs, Youtube channels – they are a dime a dozen. All provide an outlet for fans passionate about the game and their club, an excellent example of the consumer supplying the demand for content.
The majority of the contributors to these media channels – at least, the ones I spoke with – insist they strive for objectivity and honesty when producing content for their respective channels. However, some did admit they couldn’t necessarily say the same of all their digital colleagues. Understandable, perhaps because unlike in traditional media, football fans who create their own content are not held to any journalistic standards. As a creator, if you wish to pursue an agenda, or perpetuate a certain narrative, there are few if any repercussions.
Speaking to fans from a variety of different fanbases I was surprised to learn that all were keenly aware of Arsenal Fan TV (AFTV), a YouTube channel produced by and for fans that polarises its own fan base. This recognition is if nothing else, a testament to the channel’s ability to create notoriety amongst their interview subjects and distribute their videos with an almost viral-like reach. For some gooners, myself included, it can be embarrassing to learn that rival fans look to your own fan base as a source of entertainment … until you view another club’s unofficial fan channel and recognise that the similarly passionate rants provide fans and neutrals alike with genuine entertainment. I visited Spurred On and The Villa View, similar but lesser-known productions, and I’ll be honest – I laughed watching their post-match fan interviews. Plenty, in fact. (Okay, maybe not so much at The Villa View as watching those poor fans was genuinely sad). The entertainment value is certainly there. It may be more akin to the voyeuristic viewing of a car crash, but it is there.
The fact that fan channels have caught on to the appeal of these reactionary ‘fancams’ is a sign they are thinking intelligently. They’re certainly reaching their intended audience as one needs only to look at the subscribers of some of these channels to see that they have some truly impressive viewer numbers. Both AFTV and The True Geordie have over 200,000 at last count, in what we would consider a rather niche genre.
If the fan channels are the TV networks of football fandom, then the ‘superfans’ are their primetime stars. The relationship between the two is one of mutual benefit. The fan channel exploits the on-air antics of the ‘superfan’ to expand their brand. In turn, the ‘superfan’ uses the channel to promote themselves, acquiring minor celebrity status, notoriety, infamy … whichever term is more apt.
No matter your opinion of this trend, if you step back for a minute you do have to admire the ability of a self-proclaimed ‘superfan’ to become recognisable beyond their traditional position as a voice in the stands – and in some cases, enough so that rival supporters are aware of their names and faces. I surely need not direct you to a real world example of a similar situation but the letter K should provide an ample hint of the parallel I am alluding to.
In a world where we worship celebrity, the ability to create fans who have a cult-like status seems a logical, albeit mildly disturbing, step. One that will reshape the football fanscape. As consumers of this content, even if it is only via our social media footprint we are all complicit in their creation.
The ‘superfan’ has already added another dimension to the manner in which we perceive football fandom but the tribalistic nature of supporting a team still remains. Yes, to some their existence may serve as only further proof of everything wrong with football these days but to others they can offer validation that my team is better than yours. Traditional media may have missed the boat on this but it does look as if, between social media and fan-driven content, the ‘superfans’ – of your club, my club, any club really – is here to stay.