It’s pretty safe to say David Annor is obsessed with soccer juggernaut Real Madrid.
He checks his phone several times a day for updates by following the club on Facebook and Instagram. He even glanced at it while standing in line to buy hot dogs during Real’s recent exhibition match against Manchester United at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
And despite his favorite player, Real star Cristiano Ronaldo, not being there, Annor checked his Instagram feed to see that Ronaldo, with 107 million followers — the third-highest behind pop stars Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande — was touring in China.
“I can’t stop,” said Annor, 31, in between looks at (what else?) his phone.
He’s among Real Madrid’s 200 million-plus followers on social media, a figure equivalent to two-thirds of the population of the United States. This consumption is part of a shrewd strategy by the club that’s won this year’s La Liga and UEFA Champions League. Arguably the world’s most popular soccer team, Real Madrid now aims to win the social media prize by creating social content to satisfy its loyal legion.
The club has such a strong presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, its social index value is worth about $1.7 billion (about half of the team’s estimated $3.6 billion value), the highest in pro sports, said Kyle Nelson, CEO of MVPindex, a social measurement platform.
Partly as a result of its online fan engagement, Real Madrid spent three weeks of its exhibition season in the US, where American football traditionally rules over the European variety. That includes last Saturday’s El Clasico against FC Barcelona in Miami, the first time the storied rivalry was played outside Spain in nearly 40 years. It’s been called “the biggest men’s soccer match in the United States since the 1994 World Cup final.” Real wrapped up its US summer tour on Wednesday in Chicago, in a match against Major League Soccer’s (MLS) all-stars.
In many ways, Real Madrid’s efforts reflect the newest game in professional sports: Using social media to build a large fan base outside a sports clubs’ local region. “The days of siloed sports are coming to an end,” said T. Bettina Cornwell, a University of Oregon marketing professor.
Sports has become one of the most popular topics followed on Instagram. About 243 million users, a third of Instagram’s 700 million users overall, follow at least 10 sports-related accounts, said Brandon Gayle, the platform’s head of global sports partnerships. Of those users, 146 million follow soccer, and basketball is a distant second with 45 million.
Real Madrid heavily uses videos and photos to capture teammates at, well, play. There are posts of them kicking an oversized soccer ball down the street, a snappy Instagram Story introducing new player Jesus Vallejo — complete with English subtitles, and defender Marcelo shaving the head of goalkeeper Keylor Navas in a show of solidarity with really sick kids.
Real Madrid is a model that other teams try to emulate, Gayle said. Its digital staff of 20 speak multiple languages and work practically around the clock to reach the club’s worldwide fan base.
The approach seems to be resonating. Real Madrid alone has more than 51 million Instagram followers (up from 3 million two years ago). That’s almost five times more than the combined totals of US pro sports champions, including the NBA’s Golden State Warriors (7 million), the NFL’s New England Patriots (2.6 million), the MLB’s Chicago Cubs (1.1 million) and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins (918,000).
But Real’s popularity doesn’t mean it’s inundating fans with Instagram posts, said Rafael de los Santos, who oversees the club’s digital strategy. Where other teams may put something online several times daily, Real has taken a “less is more” approach — sometimes going two or three days without posting anything.
“We’d rather have more quality than quantity,” he said. “We don’t want to bore our fans.”
Real knows that a single post can easily get a million views. This playful video showing Marcelo and Danilo throwing eggs and flour at each other has racked up more than 2.4 million since it debuted two weeks ago.
Real’s global reach can also be seen in its Facebook page. While 3 percent of its 104 million followers are based in Spain, the rest hail from Indonesia, the Middle East (Saudi Arabia), Latin America and the US, de los Santos said. Content is translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Indonesian, Japanese, Portuguese and English. It’s also packaged differently for fans in Costa Rica interested in Navas as compared with England, where midfielder Gareth Bale is a massive draw.
For its US exhibition tour, Real relies heavily on Instagram data to track its fans and pinpoint where they could have a “home field advantage,” said Gayle. That may be why it’s played matches in cities such as Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.
Sporting a white Real jersey, Adia Tabatabaei, 21, learned about the July 23 match in Santa Clara a day before on Instagram, assuming LA would be the club’s only California visit. She bought two tickets and got her mother, Ghazale, who likes Italian club Juventus FC, to wear one of her Real jerseys.
Tabatabaei watched under a scorching sun and took plenty of pics of Marcelo, her favorite player. She planned to post them on, you guessed it, Instagram.
“This is once in a lifetime,” she said. “I want to show the world I was here.”
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