By Alex Fenton

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been using digital tools to analyse and interview football fans from all over the world to ask them about their experiences. This is part of my PhD research into online football communities. The post below is an extract of this research, which aims to shed more light on where international supporters come from, who are they and what are they interested in?

Where do international fans come from?

So far I’ve conducted interviews with people from countries like Russia, Italy, India, America and of course people closer to home. Whilst speaking to many fans and looking at different cases, I’m using Salford City FC as a vehicle for this study. Salford have acquired many international followers and fans from around the world since the study began in 2014. See below for an example of where some of these followers live, although this has grown since to encompass most parts of the world.

In addition, I’ve been using Social Network Analysis and participant observation as part of a Netnography. I wanted to share some of my findings so far about what international fans said when asked.

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What do international fans want online?

Here are a selection of comments from the international fans that I interviewed so far.

“Have players, managers, owners send them video messages via email, twitter, etc. Use first name.”

“Fans appreciate the recognition themselves. Live chats.”

“When/If an international fan is able to attend a match the club can go a little further with some recognition. Most, if not all fans appreciate the recognition.”

“Perhaps recognize them on the club website….a club could have a tab on their club website that shows the picture of the fan and where internationally they are from.”

This also ties in with the idea that relationships matter. Building up positive online social capital is a key factor for engaging audiences, which is part of my research. This answer also demonstrated a social capital related response.

“Maybe a #askPlayer could be interesting!! Than more videos related to normal life in Salford connected with the football team just like the documentary.”

“You can know better players and the community of Salford otherwise everything is limited to the football pitch and sometimes is very interesting knowing all the background.”

The relationship to the club, its players, management and fans, behind the scenes and interacting online was seen as crucial for international fans to increase their engagement and strengthen their connection.  The building up of social media capital and connections with key people and celebrity was also important. The video below is a good example of the power of celebrity. Famous West Ham striker Michail Antonio, Salford’s manager Anthony Johnson and the University of Salford Football team star in the below video for Umbro.

The ability for international fans to be able to engage, interact with fans and celebrities and engage through video and other content is also crucial. My research also included interviewing experts in the field of sports and digital media. I interviewed the CEO of a top digital consultancy specialising in sport and he commented on how important video, engagement and relationships are to the social media algorithms:

“All systems have some kind of profiling or are working on it.  On that basis, it’s important from the club’s perspective to have all those different types of people engaged because then the more people who are engaged the more it proves to the algorithm that there’s a distribution of net worth, that people are relevant and therefore it raises the profile”. “Unless you’re putting a lot of video and doing media spin behind it, basically your stuff is never going to get seen.  And that’s obviously a problem. Connecting those fans up is also a good thing, because the more connected they are on social the more the system recognises the value and then rewards the club appropriately.”

This highlighted the connection between digital content, the social media algorithms and the connections this creates. Another comment from a fan from the USA sums up the power of social media capital.

“The relationships are essential.  They call it social media for a reason.”

You can see my talk on this subject from the recent Football Collective conference here:

There is a lot more could be said on this topic and I am feeding findings and other articles into my website www.alexfenton.co.uk and presenting at various conferences. I hope this short extract from my research has given you a few ideas but I would very much welcome your comments or ideas on this subject, drop me a line or share this post on social media.

Please see my presentation at The Football Collective conference here: