What next for football's 'weird' social media craze?

A monkey using a laptop, a singing lion, a chess-playing goat, a footballer dressed as a wolf, plumes of whi...

Posted: Aug 19, 2018 10:44 AM
Updated: Aug 19, 2018 10:44 AM

A monkey using a laptop, a singing lion, a chess-playing goat, a footballer dressed as a wolf, plumes of white smoke from a restaurant chimney. Not forgetting the cryptic messages, Ikea-style pictorial instructions, magic tricks and Fortnite. Confused? Indeed.

Football clubs have increasingly been using social media to unveil player signings in unconventional ways, embracing eccentricity like an elderly British aristocrat living on a diet of stout and double cream. Weird has become the new normal.

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Frequently surreal, often funny, some unveilings resemble home movies or graphics hurriedly put together by a toddler, others are more akin to a Monty Python sketch.

For clubs with money to spare, unveilings have become 30-second Hollywood-style productions: Glossy, expensive, stylish. (Yes, Manchester United, that is you.)

The days of football clubs merely competing against each other for trophies and player signatures is now as antiquated a memory as the extinct hiss and crackle of dialing-up to log into Friends Reunited. They are now scrapping for retweets, likes and followers too.

It's been impossible not to notice the creativity, the plethora of posts popping up on a timeline, all wanting attention, all seeking to captivate. The equivalent of posting a clip of an elephant in a hot pink leotard roller-skating along Times Square. (Dressing a 6,000kg animal in figure-hugging fabric is not being endorsed here. Not even for retweets.)

But how did unveiling a new signing progress from pitch-side photographs of a grinning new recruit to AS Roma's acquisition of Patrik Schick being made public in a video featuring a goat playing chess? And what should we expect next from increasingly innovative clubs?

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Now for something completely different ...

First, to the monkey and the goat and Italian club AS Roma. To start anywhere else would be a travesty.

Yes, there is Turkish club Besiktas and the #cometobesiktas phenomenon which became the phrase of last summer when Ricardo Quaresma invited Portugal teammate Pepe to join him in the Turkish Super Lig in an amateurish-looking video, but AS Roma is to the player unveil what Picasso is to art.

The story begins in June 2017. Roma wanted to publicize its new eSports team and so, for the signing of Lorenzo Pellegrini, the club posted a 26-second clip of FIFA 17 being played on a big screen. Routine? Not quite.

After a virtual player scores, he points to the back of his shirt which has "Pellegrini" embossed on the back; the camera pans out to the man controlling the console, which was Pellegrini himself wearing a Roma shirt.

It was the first of many thigh-slappingly successful posts: 7,325 retweets, 13,877 likes, 1.78 million views and countless articles written.

"After that video, it seemed like a lot of football clubs started to compete with each other to see who could make the best reveal," Paul Rogers, Roma's head of digital and social media, tells CNN Sport.

"Although the videos were different, they started to look similar in that they focused on the gradual reveal of the actual player at the end.

"We wanted to do something completely different with our next video announcement -- for the Turkish player Cengiz Under -- so we decided to really badly parody the fan-created 'goals and skills' videos you always see on YouTube when your club is linked to any player.

"We made it as horrific as humanly possible -- mimicking the terrible graphics and music these fan editors use -- and then we just put it out there.

"I don't think we were trying to be weird, but we thought it was funny and the reaction on social media was great because everyone who saw it -- regardless of whether they were a Roma fan or not -- knew exactly the type of video we were making fun of.

"I think they were surprised a professional club had produced something that was supposed to look rubbish. After that video, I think that's when we really started to have some fun."

Things get really weird

Roma's content became weird and funnier. Rapidly. Its English language account began to entertain, to break new ground. They turned it up to 11.

Cue the Schick video which didn't feature the Czech forward, but a monkey, a lion, club legend Francesco Totti, a chess-playing goat and Katy Perry music. It was the video unveil equivalent of hearing "I Am The Walrus" for the first time.

Even if posts leave people conjecturing about what hallucinogenic the social team has devoured, AS Roma's English account's content has a recurring theme.

"Although they may seem strange, there's some sort of method to the madness," says Rogers.

Though the football team and its results on the pitch is paramount, Rogers says the club's president, Jim Pallotta, believes social and digital media is an "absolute priority" in the bid to make Roma one of the biggest clubs in the world.

"He told me on day one that we were in the entertainment business and engaging with fans -- and making content that brings our fans closer to the club -- was the absolute goal," explains Rogers.

"He didn't want Roma to just do what other clubs do, so we have taken a different path and done things our way."

Death of the video unveil?

The club does self-depreciation well, too, wittily muting any mention of Malcom on social media after Barcelona gazumped the Giallorossi to the signing of the Brazilian in July, while Rogers joked on Twitter that the world had missed out on "our best announcement yet."

But, true to form for a club which goes against the social media grain, this is the summer Roma killed off its quirky video unveil. After all, life moves pretty fast on social media, if you don't stop to look around once in a while that gif which was once rip-roaringly funny can quickly become lame.

And so, on May 31, 2018, Roma faded to black, tweeting a 60-second clip of a black screen to announce the signing of Ivan Marco with the date 30/06/2017 - 31/05/2018 accompanying the post.

"I think we've pushed it further than any club," explains Rogers.

"I don't know if there's anything more extreme than what we did with our announcement for Ivan Marcano.

"We'd actually announced the signing through a fake burner account but then we posted the 'black video.' It was basically our way of killing off the transfer video -- at least for Roma -- as it had all become a bit predictable.

"As successful as the videos we'd made in 2017 had been, other clubs were starting to make similar videos and people started to expect them from Roma.

"We never try and do what's expected of us. By killing that style of video for Roma, we basically challenged ourselves to come up with something new and original and since then, we've mainly used images rather than videos to announce players."

Rogers says the badly photoshopped tweet for Bryan Cristante's signing, which was the first time Roma has used an image rather than a video for a transfer unveiling, performed three times better than the club's most popular video announcement in 2017.

The signing of Swedish international goalkeeper Robin Olsen was announced with an Ikea-style instruction poster with the caption "Delivery for #ASRoma."

With over 5,000 retweets and 25,000 likes -- and even a reply from the Swedish furniture company -- it is the second most popular announcement on the AS Roma English account.

"I think that with people's attention span on social media at an all-time low, it's just much easier to just share an image that's very immediate than sit and watch through a whole video to find out if you really want to share it with your followers," says Rogers.

Are wealthier clubs missing a trick?

But the video unveil lives on in different guises despite the Italian club's change of tact.

Recently, Ligue 1 club Nantes used the video game Fortnite to announce the signing of midfielder Lucas Evangelista, while it was with a magic trick that Santi Cazorla was unveiled at Villarreal.

"Lots of clubs are definitely more adventurous now than they were maybe two or three years ago and I think that's because people who really understand social media are running those channels," says Rogers.

"Still, I sometimes look at what some of the biggest and best supported clubs in the world do on social media and think they're really missing a trick because while their follower numbers are massive -- due to the fact that they're usually the most successful clubs in the world with the most expensive players -- their social engagement numbers are actually very poor.

"I'm not saying other clubs should be like Roma or Bayern Munich's US account or Bayer Leverkusen's English account -- but at least try to show a bit of personality sometimes."

The 'democratization of signings'

Football clubs are a community and so it makes sense for them to communicate directly with fans, to leave the VIP seats and join the masses in the terraces with elaborate and quirky social media posts.

These sort of transfer unveilings are also a clever marketing tool.

"Everybody can be part of this," Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise, Salford University Manchester, tells CNN Sport.

"It's part of the experience, part of the co-consumption, co-creation. When you go to old player transfers, they were the preserve of journalists and club officials.

"It isn't any longer just for club officials and journalists because fans can be a part of it as well. It's about competition, engagement, the democratization of signings. It's about brand proposition, it's about who you are and what you stand for.

"There's something about the brand and the messages you're trying to communicate about the brand."

Visit cnn.com/sport for more news and videos

Roma has already begun its "backlash" against over-produced, overly-clever videos. Will others follow suit? Keep refreshing your feed.

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