International fans are a big deal when it comes to the Premier League’s massive marketability and financial muscle, with the English top flight enjoying the highest global television audience of any football league.
Modern clubs at the top of English football take full advantage of growing an international fanbase, with sides such as Liverpool or Manchester United in recent years jetting off to preseasons in Asia and Northern America for seemingly ‘pointless’ trophies and tournaments far from home. But this is all part of the branding strategy that draws in fans from far and wide, one that aims to interest foreign audiences in a team which in some cases they will never get to visit.
Take notice as well that the most commercially successful European clubs have multiple language accounts, Man United for example have linked on their Twitter their Spanish, Indonesian, Japanese, Malay and Arabic language channels. Clubs from across the top five European leagues have also developed a number of academies and opened official merchandising stores across the world, with clubs keen to create links to the populous Far East in particular.
Top Premier League sides for a while now have put a lot of effort into courting the attention of foreign football fans, so with the project of getting Aston Villa back into Europe’s elite should it be looking into expanding its global reach?
Villa already has a network of international official Lions clubs that are active around the world, but in truth these it seems are limited to areas that have historical links to the UK or hosts of large Expat communities such as the US. Bluntly, the three years spent in the Championship has done Villa’s reputation overseas no good, as media coverage is less frequent while in the second division and watching Villa play is more difficult as the Premier League is broadcasted so widely. Now Villa are back in the Premier League and with a spate of signings generating some global interest, is it time to capitalise on the opportunity to build a bigger international fanbase?
Let’s first talk about what prompted me to start writing this article, that being the power of player signings and what probably seemed like a dream for Villa’s social media admin. After the signing of Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trezeguet’ according to Socialblade, the club’s Instagram and Twitter follower counts were boosted by 23909 and 11802 respectively by the end of the next day. More impressively in the week after the signing, Villa’s official Facebook page gained 215486 likes. This as you expect is massively above its average performance for just a week and can be surmised as a result of a large Egyptian contingent showing interest in the Claret and Blues, after their talented countryman’s signing.
Trezeguet and fellow summer signing Marvelous Nakamba in fact had a pronounced impact on Villa’s popularity outside of the UK according to Google Trends, which can show the patterns of searches on the world’s most popular website. After the signings of each of these players, their nations of Egypt and Zimbabwe became among the top five to have searched for the term ‘Aston Villa football club’ in the last month. In fact, for a while Aston Villa was a more popular term than that of ‘Manchester United’ in Trezeguet’s country, while ‘Marvelous Nakamba’ and ‘Aston Villa’ peaked as searches in the midfielder’s homeland.
Capturing international fans is all about awareness and it’s fair to say these signings resulted in this in Africa, which as a continent is one of football’s greatest producers of playing talent and fanatic football fans. As I’ve already mentioned clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool have been quick to raise awareness in potential future football powerhouses, with academies set up far from their traditional catchment areas that allow them to not only hoover up talent, but also provide a visible and tangible presence of the club in that country. Being domestically well known is great but presuming Villa as a project continues well, in the future in order to sign top imported talent greater global influence would be useful.
For example, Villa hero of a bygone era Christian Benteke thought Aston Villa were based in London, a blunder which surfaced in the press on the same day he announced his love for fellow Premier League side Arsenal. Benteke was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo before moving to Belgium for who he played internationally, but he was still an Arsenal fan. At this part of our history we’re just not as high profile abroad as other Premier League clubs, both as a result of being less successful in the TV Era and also a lack of forward thinking.
Awareness and international visibility are not purely a welcome boost for whoever manages Villa media’s digital presence or a useful scouting mechanism, but a genuine key to commercial success. Now, some fans don’t like to linger too much into the money behind the game, but I think at this point everyone accepts that having financial backing is somewhat of a prerequisite of a successful football club in the first tier. Top clubs can earn around the same amount or more than the coveted Premier League TV money from ‘commercial revenue’ , which includes sponsorships and partnerships between the club as well as merchandising. These are more abundant and profitable when clubs have a higher brand value and awareness, Villa need to increase their international audience if they want to compete or get anywhere near the top in the future.
Whether it’s a purely cynical financial motive or not, to focus more on the prestige and fanbase of Aston Villa abroad I would argue that foreign fans should be welcomed with open arms. Some fans may regard foreign supporters as ‘plastics’ or ‘glory hunters’, the latter of which would be a poor argument for anyone who in the last decade had supported Aston Villa. But I ask you dear reader if there is a sight more heart-warming than someone from half way around the world who loves your club, watching them win for the first time? Or more heart-breaking then them seeing their club lose instead.
There are signs to say that Villa are moving in the right direction in terms of attempting to interest international support, in a statement about the recent preseason trip to Minnesota this was said:
“A key element of the club’s ongoing strategy is to reach out to our fans all over the world both online and where possible in person by playing matches”.
It seems like the new regime, who in Wes Edens already has experience of developing a sporting ‘franchise’ in America, know the value of international fanbases. For the financial sustainability and as such footballing success of the club, it would be a welcome step forward to try and compete with the top Premier League clubs for global recognition and prestige. The commercial might and any overseas investment abroad may be a key to Premier League success in the future and any fan from anywhere will be receptive to that. Let’s face it there can never be too many Villa fans in the world, so let’s swell our ranks in the Premier League’s spotlight.