Football (or soccer for our North American readers) is back. At least in Europe.

With England’s Premier League starting a few weeks ago and the rest of the major European leagues now under way, each week, for the next 6 or 7 months social media will be inundated with references to football.

Football players and matches generate millions of social mentions every day with the Manchester United hashtag #mufc alone driving around 1 million mentions per week.

And it extends far beyond just the matches themselves. There are social discussions about player transfers, coaches comments at press conferences, superstar selfies and interminable discussions about why team X isn’t performing as well as it should.

With Soccerex, the world’s largest global football convention taking place in Manchester between September 7 -9, we decided to dig in to the social data around the opening matches of the 2015/2016 Premier League season to uncover some social media insights about the football world.

soccerex banner

As follower numbers and even the players in the league are changing all the time, we’ve used the top 10 most followed players as announced by Twitter at the beginning of the season. But to answer this question fully, we need to look at a few different things. That said, the first and most obvious point of call is follower numbers and footballers have a lot of followers. In total, the top 10 most followed footballers (below) have over 70 million followers, more than the population of the UK.

most followed players 2

(Wayne Rooney leads the way in terms of Twitter followers as August 24th)

On this front Wayne Rooney is the clear leader with close to 2 million more followers than closest challenger Mesut Ozil of Arsenal. It’s also interesting to note that 7 of the top 10 most followed players are Spanish speaking, an indication of the level of support players get from the Spanish speaking world.

Wayne Rooney does however lead the field in terms of absolute follower growth with the England forward gaining over 200,000 followers in the last 30 days. However, in terms of follower growth over the last month it’s actually Mexico’s Javier Hernandez (aka Chicharito) who leads the way with a growth rate of around 2%.

follower growth

(Rooney’s followership grew by over 86,000 on just one day on July 27th)

Ozil and Mata Lead the Way on Engagement

But social media is really more about audience interaction than pure volume so which players are receiving the most social attention?

The best way to estimate this is to look at the extent to which a player’s social media audience is interacting with a player in terms of retweeting their posts, mentioning their Twitter handle in tweets and attempting to contact them directly through replies. The total of all these things is what we call “audience activity” and on that front, Mesut Ozil is streets ahead:

audience activity PL

(Ozil receives the most attention from his audience in terms of retweets and replies)

On average, the Germany and Arsenal star received over 8000 retweets per post with his most shared post a photo of himself and Per Mertesacker holding the Community Shield Trophy.

Interestingly, despite his big lead in audience activity, Ozil isn’t actually the most active of the social football stars. That title goes to Sergio Aguero, closely followed by Juan Mata:

owner activity pl players

(A week by week breakdown of the number of tweets posted by the 10 most followed Premier League footballers)

What this indicates is that although Wayne Rooney may have more followers and Aguero may be more active, Ozil has more active followers (or perhaps more interesting tweets!) and as the next chart shows, he also has wide global appeal:

pl sov

(Ozil’s Twitter feed is the most discussed in Europe and Asia relative to other stars)

So who is the top Twitter Performer in the Premier League?

As you can probably tell, we say Mesut Ozil as despite not having the most followers or being the most proactive tweeter, Ozil manages to engage his audience far better than his fellow Premier League stars and has strong appeal on every continent.

An honourable mention goes to Juan Mata who came second behind Ozil in terms of generating audience activity despite having a far smaller following than the likes of Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao. He also gets extra points for being so active.

For football clubs looking to expand the name of their brand around the world there is perhaps no better, more personal way to interact with their fans than through the voices of the players that make the game so special. And with players’ reach on social media expanding all the time, a player’s followership on Twitter may soon become as, or even more important than his/her shirt sales.

Match Buzz: Chelsea Dominate the Matchday Buzz in Opening Fixtures

Although buzz around footballers and football teams comes from all angles, it is of course the matches themselves that create the loudest social media buzz. But which of the opening matches was the most discussed and dissected by the social media public? One way to look at this is using the match specific hashtags (which Twitter assigned with special hashflags on the first round of matches) so specific match related conversations can be highlighted:

match hashtags

(A breakdown of the buzz around the first three matches of the Premier League shows tops clubs getting the most attention)

Chelsea’s home draw against Swansea drew the most attention with the match featuring 4 goals, the sending off of Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s outburst against his own medical team. In fact, Chelsea have been involved in the most discussed matches every week with their 3-0 loss to title rivals Manchester City and narrow victory over WBA the most discussed matches in their respective weeks.

Looking at the number of match mentions overall, we can also see a clear decline in mentions from the first week, an indication of the amount of extra attention the opening week receives though the level of discussion in the subsequent two weeks is still pretty high:

hastag usage drop

The most likely reason for the big spike in the opening week is because of the anticipation surrounding the first match of the season, but on this weekend Twitter also created hashflags for each match hashtag which may also have boosted usage.

Should Twitter bring back the match hashflags later in the season, we should be able to get a better read on the impact that these have on driving audience engagement.

Measuring Engagement in Europe and Asia

The Premier League is watched by football fans around the world from the mature markets of Europe to the emerging football markets of Asia. And interest on social seems pretty evenly matched:

europe asia demogs

(Asian nations are generating almost as much buzz about the Premier League as European nations)

Of course, the most match buzz comes from the UK, the home of the Premier League, but Indonesia, India and Malaysia are also driving a lot of engagement with Thailand not too far behind. Major footballing nations like Spain, Germany and Italy lag a bit further behind but this is most likely due to the strength of their own domestic leagues.

It’s clear from the analysis that the “Big 6” Premier League clubs – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham – tend to dominate social match discussions, but beyond that, smaller clubs are able to muscle in if they are proactive as the below chart shows:

pl hastags top influencers

(The most engaging sources using match hashflags includes the official Leicester City Twitter feed)

Aside from the usual suspects such as the Premier League’s online channels and major publications like the Daily Mirror, Leicester City also managed to drive a lot of engagement around their matches with over 15,000 engagements over their first games using match hashtags.

Hashtags have become one of the key ways in which football fans engage with matches and with their clubs, so keeping track of their usage lets leagues, clubs, sponsors and even broadcasters understand which teams and which clashes are driving the most interest. Such information can be used to measure the ROI of sponsorship activity, inform TV broadcasting schedules and help clubs drum up interest around big matches.