Russell Glenister, SnapRapid founder & CEO

A few years ago Liverpool FC chief executive Ian Ayre spoke to The Financial Times about the importance of the Asian market and the role of social media in maintaining the link between the Merseyside-based clubs and fans a 12-hour plane ride away.

“Clubs know they have millions of fans around the world but they don’t genuinely know who they are. (Using social media) we can draw them into a richer relationship,” he said.

Real Madrid boos Jose Angel Sanchez has a more precise take on how many fans the club has around the world – 450 million – but he too understands that the business of football today is about more than numbers. It’s about understanding who these fans are, where they are, what they love and hate and how they feel about not only the club but the world in general. That’s why he signed a partnership with Microsoft which, in various ways, is allowing the club to go on a data collection spree enabling them to build the ‘richer relationships’ which Ayre had in mind.

That’s richer for the fans and significantly richer for the club which had better data on which to base sales efforts and to use as eye-candy for sponsors.

And as football clubs have wised-up to the transformational impact of social media on their business potential, social media platforms have quickly realised that sport is good for their business too. The world loves to talk, even to obsess about sport. It is a world in which no fact is too trivial to be ignored, in which conversation is fueled as much by opinion as hard data and reality and for which there seems to be an insatiable global appetite.

All of which makes the major social media platforms so anxious to capture their share of the sports action. For Facebook it is all about creating partnerships with sports bodies and helping them find new ways of maximising the value of their pages. Over at Twitter the big push is live streaming. The platform ran video from Wimbledon in preparation for carrying action from Thursday night NFL matches next season and highlights from English Premier League (EPL) matches too.

So it looks like a win-win then. Platforms are partnering to deliver content and marketing potential and investing in live rights to keep a hungry sports audience engaged and onside.

But are the major social media platforms really delivering such a great deal for sport? Maybe it is not quite the partnership of equals that is being suggested.

Social media was meant to be the antithesis of all-powerful established media, controlled by massive corporations. The people who owned those corporations effectively had a significant element of control over how their customers felt and thought because they filtered and stage-managed the presentation of information to them.

Social media was supposed to change all that. It was liberating, freeing anybody with a smartphone from the shackles of traditional media, making them authors and commentators within new networks based on shared interest.

Social media’s power to connect was credited with fuelling the Arab Spring and the lack of appreciation of its power was mooted as one of the reasons for the failure of the recent coup attempt in Turkey. The plotters’ big media move was to take over a state TV station nobody watched while the country continued to work around them on social.

And when the girlfriend of a victim of a US police shooting is able to calmly show the scenes live to the world on a social media platform, you know the game has changed and changed for good.

But not everything about social media smells as sweet as it once did. It can be argued that the old-style media Barons who ran the show and could control people’s lives back in the day have simply been replaced by a new generation of all-powerful owners with even more control. The Man is still The Man even when the suit is replaced by a T-shirt.

Social media companies are now huge businesses and, like any other business, have to look after the interests of shareholders and investors….and there’s been a hell of a lot of investment that’s still looking for a return.

These companies are, essentially, all about data, about knowing who its users are and monetising that data by selling them things through advertising and commercial links.

So when sports right owners do deals with them they are effectively handing over data about their fans and followers as part of the pact and when Facebook says it is the biggest sports platform in the world it’s as much a claim to its own advertising base as a statement of its position as a partner of sport.

None of this would matter too much if it wasn’t for the fact that the major social media platforms are, essentially, in competition and therefore tend to operate as closed networks, not sharing or encouraging links to the wider social web, in an attempt to keep the user inside, effectively creating a closed environment.

Yet all the social media platforms want rights holder to work with them and share their data while keeping that data to themselves as much as possible. That’s not such a good deal for everybody, including fans who want as much useful data on their sport, team or players as they can get and sponsors who want as much visibility as possible across the web rather than being compartmentalised – no matter how big that compartment may seem.

That’s probably not what the pioneers of all this technology had in mind in the early days but that’s the impact of real world business on initial idealism. The platforms will do what is most profitable for themselves and the danger is that if rights holders work too closely with the heavyweight social platforms they are giving up control to already mega-powerful organisations.

Rights owners are effectively feeding the machine by handing over data about their fans or, at least, adding data to create more focused profiles which the social platforms can then use to sell to those fans. The problem is that the platforms then become more protective of their data and selective about what they hand over to third parties – such as SnapRapid, which further restricts rights holders options when gathering data and utilising it.

So here are some key questions rights owners should consider when developing social media strategies.

If no one but the social media platforms can access full data, what options do rights holders have? Are social media companies using the fact they have access to so much data, as leverage? Are they sharing the data fairly with third parties? Who wins from this situation if it gets out of hand? Who loses? ….you make the call.

The point is that these are the realities of the 21st century media landscape and its power-brokers. It’s business in the raw but in sneakers and with a smile. So take care out there to make sure that you are getting what you, your fans and sponsors want and need from social media rather than freely handing over value in return for restricted connectivity. Knowing what fans are doing, where and when is now table stakes, betting the house, rarely works out, even in a World run by likeable geeks.

Russell Glenister • 1st August 2016

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