“Given how players are routinely over-scrutinised and abused, this refreshing expression of self is even more powerful”
So says Ahmed Shooble of the brilliant VERSUS in a recently penned essay recalling his experience of the strained relationship between traditional mainstream media and footballers. As marketers, we can also help the media by creating moments and opportunities for players to express themselves across sponsorship campaigns for example and showcase the value of humanising football players to help create authentic storytelling through their unique personalities.
In the ever-evolving world of football media, the dynamics between professional players and the press have undergone a significant transformation. Predictable and rigid content with scripted responses do not work, today's players are seeking opportunities to express themselves genuinely.
A Quest for Authenticity
In the modern era of football media, authenticity is essential. Players are no longer willing to offer up telegraphed answers to clichéd inquiries. Instead, they seek opportunities to express themselves freely. Journalists and media outlets are now more aware of the importance of posing questions that delve deeper, allowing players to reveal their true personalities and interests. This approach builds a more genuine understanding of the individuals behind the athletes.
One obvious arena of authenticity for footballers is fashion. Footballer Fits is a great example of players showing expression outside of football acting as the platform that supports ballers expressing themselves away from the pitch, they are on a mission to eradicate football’s mindset that athletes are one-dimensional and should ‘stick to what they’re good at’.
The Power of Diversity in Football Media
One pivotal shift in football media is the push for greater diversity and representation. Initiatives have been launched to encourage more individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to join the field of football media. The result is more meaningful and relatable content, as it permits a wider range of perspectives and stories to be shared.
The Influence of James Maddison
The impact of this evolving media landscape is evident in players like James Maddison. Maddison's warmer and more charismatic approach to media interactions, such as his banter with Bukayo Saka after the North London derby and the Sky Sports punditry panel serves as a case in point. These moments of genuine connection between players and the media not only humanize the athletes but also make them more relatable to the public – no bad thing at all when perceptions of inflated egos and bank accounts still prevail.
Relatability has also become a desirable trait amongst pundits, panellists and media with the likes of the enigmatic Micah Richards replacing, the slightly more traditional, Graeme Souness. This evolution is symptomatic of Sky’s heroing of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher who have fostered a closer bond between pundit at player since their debuts on Sky. This is not exclusive to male media persons either, with the likes of Jill Scott surging to the forefront of the national football consciousness when she entered punditry immediately following her playing career and endearing herself to the public on I’m A Celebrity. She’s relatable and people love her for it!
This trend has clearly been taken on board by rights holders as well with the likes of the FA, led by national treasure Gareth Southgate, encouraging their internal media teams to work more closely with the media to generate more engaging content that encourages player interaction so that media days no longer feel like a chore for them. As a result, we see the England players personalities shine through across content and interviews.
Countering Negative Narratives
The transformation of football media is not solely about showcasing the lighter side of players; it is also a defence against harmful narratives. The more players are portrayed as individuals with unique personalities and interests, the harder it becomes for those with a more harmful intent to malign them later. The 2019 incident involving Raheem Sterling's response to racial undertones in the media emphasizes the importance of this shift towards authenticity and representation.
The Role of Non-Traditional Media
While former professional players often provide a level of familiarity that facilitates authentic conversations with athletes, non-traditional media outlets such as TikTok and Twitch play a vital role in connecting with players on a deeper human level. These outlets offer a truer depiction of who players are off the pitch, revealing their passions, inspirations, and values. This multifaceted approach to media coverage enriches the fan experience and connection to players, whether that be Alphonso Davies jumping on TikTok trends or the Argentina squad crashing Sergio Aguero’s twitch stream, these outlets bring us closer to the players!
Beyond the Pitch
Football today extends far beyond the 90 minutes of a match. Fans are increasingly interested in understanding what inspires players, the issues they face away from the pitch, and how they spend their downtime. The interplay of football with culture, fashion, and music has created a vibrant ecosystem, with players at the centre. Therefore, media should reflect and embrace these crossovers to empower this break from tradition.
Empowering Player Narratives
In the vision to explore new ways of presenting players' stories, the media can play a pivotal role in changing the public's perception of elite athletes. Instead of attempting to catch players out with out-of-context quotes to sell stories, media outlets should prioritize humanising players and making them more relatable. This approach not only benefits the athletes but also enhances the fan experience and the overall image of football.
As so eloquently explored by Ahmed, the evolving relationship between footballers and the media is an ongoing journey, but the direction is clear: toward greater authenticity and representation. As we continue to reverse the damage caused by strained relationships and harmful narratives, it is imperative that the football media industry empowers players to be the authors of their own narratives. This shift enables players to express themselves, fosters deeper connections between athletes and fans, and ultimately enhances the rich culture surrounding the sport. Football media has a unique opportunity to shape a future where the focus is not solely on performance but on the vibrant personalities and stories of the players themselves.
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