Just when you think that 2020 can’t throw up any more surprises, Marcus Rashford, a 23-year-old footballer, becomes the government’s loudest source of opposition.
At the time of writing there’s been no U-turn on extending the provision of free school meals when faced by Rashford’s campaign.
But by generating support and sentiment through his 3.7m Twitter followers, there looks like being only one result.
Rashford’s non-party political stance has captured the hearts and minds of millions and will also be catching the attention of the only people as unpopular as MPs – Premier League owners.
Project Big Picture and the price of pay-per-view revealed the big clubs’ need for new revenue streams.
Next, they might turn their attention to monetising something already within reach – their own players’ social media channels.
Even before the Covid crisis got the sport-starved looking at their phones more than ever, Twitter was football’s home from home.
Breaking news, transfer rumours and ‘banter’ all boomed on the platform. Yet big clubs have had an uneasy relationship with the channel, which has an undoubted problem with abuse.
Rather than rile rivals or even their own fans, most clubs took a very vanilla approach to social media.
The channels of most players are generally equally averse to any form of controversy.
In the last 18 months, things have started to change, thanks chiefly to the social conscience of Rashford, his international team-mate Raheem Sterling and Italian club AS Roma.
All have used the audience of millions at their fingertips to make a difference.
Football’s soft power is primarily being channelled through social media but, like anything in the modern game, it won’t take long for change to become monetised.
Rashford’s unforeseen impact
With clubs needing the revenue and few brands likely to be forking out for global ad campaigns, expect sponsors to start leaning on clubs for more access to players and their followers.
You may assume that sponsors paying millions to clubs would already get players’ tweets and posts as part of the package. But you’d be wrong.
When filming sponsors’ content with players, you will always ask if they will be sharing the results on social channels.
Club reps tend to not meet your eye and mutter something vague like “hopefully, if they like it.” That’ll be a no, then.
An unforeseen impact of Rashford’s campaign is that those days are probably gone.
Yes, players’ image rights are complicated. But the new player power is too good an opportunity to miss for the unholy trinity of clubs, sponsors and player agents.
So how might this play out?
Clubs will start making access to their players’ social media a contractual term (“the views expressed here are those of my employer”).
This access can then be sold on as part of partnership deals — can you imagine how many of Manchester United’s 50-plus partners would want access to Rashford’s audience right now? — but only once an agent has calculated its value and ensured there’s no clash with the player’s own sponsors.
Could it even influence transfers?
Once agents get into the mix our thoughts inevitably turn to transfers.
Social media value and a player’s positive reputation could soon come into a club’s thinking when looking at new signings.
What team wouldn’t want the likes of Rashford and Sterling in their ranks, especially at a time when club owners are gaining negative press?
In the same way that cycling teams seeking new sponsors send their riders to the front of the race to gain media attention, we could soon see clubs signing players with positive PR in the hope that sponsors will follow.
This may all seem speculative, pie in the sky.
But in a game where a player on a rumoured £350,000 a week can anger foreign sponsors through a tweet, be left out of the squad and then offer to pay the wages of a mascot dinosaur that has been made redundant to cut costs, anything is possible.
Matthew Fletcher-Jones is a sports PR consultant.