It's taken a while, but football clubs are slowly getting an official presence on Facebook to match the fan-made pages. Mark Segal logs on to see who's ahead of the game and who's getting left behind

As Simon Cowell found out at the end of the year, you underestimate the power of Facebook at your peril. The campaign to make Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name the Christmas number one was a classic example of how social media, and Facebook in particular, is changing the way people connect with each other.

Football has yet to have its Facebook moment and as is usual with new trends and ways of communicating, it’s more the fans than the clubs which are leading the way. It appears many clubs are reticent about appearing on a platform they have very little control over and you can understand their fears. On Facebook pretty much anything goes. Any article, status update or picture you publish can be commented on and often these comments are less than flattering. Why would clubs bother?

Also, there’s very little money to be made through Facebook. You can promote tickets or merchandise on the site and provide a link through to the official site, but it’s unlikely to bring in huge amounts of traffic. But if clubs are looking to connect with their fans in a new way, keep them up to date with all the latest news and offer content in a different way, then Facebook is the place to be.

It’s no surprise, then, that some clubs have taken the plunge. Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have official fan pages for Facebook users to sign up to, with the Liverpool page attracting over a million fans. Once you link to the page, any updates appear on your own personal page and you can comment on and interact with other fans across the world. Although if you’re looking for insightful debate you may want to look elsewhere.

Most of the content comprises links back to the club website but you can also view video and pictures, and take part in competitions. But while three of the top four have a presence on the site, the most popular club is conspicuous by its absence. The largest Manchester United group on the site has over a million fans signed up to it but appears to be in dispute with the club over image rights.

As clubs struggle to define their strategy for Facebook, for one group in football, the players, the decision was taken out of their hands. Having a favourite player has always been part of football culture but in this age of players as brands the support has become ever more devoted. And the modern way of showing your love of a player is to set up a fan page on Facebook.

But as the number of these pages grew, the more Facebook became nervous about the use of copyrighted images and the kind of comments which were being left. However, instead of shutting down these pages, they asked the PFA to set up official player sites which have become a huge success. The PFA, through a company called Sports New Media who run the union’s Give Me Football website, now controls over 100 fan pages for the Premier League’s biggest players which have attracted over three million fans worldwide.

It is still possible to set up a page devoted to your favourite player but the thinking is that if someone is looking for a way to get the latest news about Wayne Rooney, they are more likely to join a group which has over 167,000 fans, rather than the second biggest which has 10,000.

The sites are pretty basic with, it seems, limited input from the players themselves but they are proving very effective and can be expanded upon at a later date. Unlike Twitter, which is at its best when used as a real time news service, there are far more possibilities with Facebook which could explain why clubs are taking their time before getting fully engaged.

But if English football is now competing with global brands in the way the likes of Manchester City’s Garry Cook and Richard Scudamore of the Premier League believe, then a site which has over 350 million users just cannot be ignored. As more and more clubs become involved, they will need to consider what they want to get out of the whole experience and ultimately how Facebook can promote and help them achieve their goals.

From WSC 276 February 2010

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