One year ago, Leicester City’s social media feed was full of football gallows humour. The team had just escaped relegation from the English Premier League; manager Nigel Pearson was about to be fired and a charismatic Italian replacement installed.
It wasn’t hard to get hold of the press office. Now, the old joke that a week is a long time in football has a new twist. If the adage is true, a year becomes an eon. Leicester City are now champions of the Premier League.
They are English champions and have a ticket to the European Champions League, the most lucrative club competition in the game. Manager Claudio Ranieri and most of the team have declared that they are staying, the club’s social media following has entered a new Twittersphere and callers to Leicester City’s automated switchboard will find that media relations is not one of the nine push-button options.
Simply put, the club has gone global, making its home city famous for something other than having a king buried under one of its municipal car parks. According to media monitoring group Kantar Media, there were 5.5 million tweets as the final whistle neared in the 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham that confirmed Leicester as champions.
The platform saw an 86 per cent increase in normal activity that night. Fans tweeted using the hashtag #Havingaparty and as many tweets mentioning the word ‘party’ were posted as happened over the 2016 New Year holiday.
Leicester now has 727,000 Twitter followers, while the club’s lcfc Instagram account experienced greater growth in followers than any other UK account in the five weeks to 2 May, nearly doubling from 336,000 to 609,000, including a 100,000 gain on the night the title was confirmed.
In May last year, Leicester had just 45,000 Instagram followers. This overnight success, however, may cause some planning difficulties for Leicester’s head of media Anthony Herlihy and head of multimedia Sam Chambers.
With supporters, pundits and bookmakers unsure whether the triumph of Ranieri’s bargain basement team is the start of a new footballing paradigm or a ‘black swan’ moment that will only occur once in a lifetime, how will Leicester be able to map its communications strategy?
Should the club be investing in more powerful servers to accommodate the deluge of communications its success is bringing, or in a new striker in case Jamie Vardy’s goals dry up next season?
The financials are certainly looking up. Accountancy firm Deloitte is forecasting revenues of about £125 million in the club’s 2016 financial year, leaving it just outside the top 20 in the accountants’ football money league of the leading clubs in Europe. Even if next season is a footballing disaster, Deloitte sees revenue of at least £155 million in Leicester’s 2017 financial year. A repeat of this season’s achievements could propel this towards £200 million next season - not bad for an outfit that boasted 2014 revenues of just £31 million.
Fortunately for the club, its unlikely triumph is perfectly-timed, coming just before the value of the Premier League’s domestic broadcast rights rises by 70 per cent to £5.3 billion.
Dan Jones, head of Deloitte’s sport business group, points out that Leicester’s first appearance in the Champions League also comes shortly after the financial rewards from participation in that competition have risen by 30 per cent.
Whatever happens on the pitch in the next couple of seasons, the club’s moment in the financial sun should be long enough to earn a healthy tan. How should Leicester’s communicators respond?
Jae Chalfin, founder of sports website GiveMeSport, believes Leicester won’t need to do anything differently in social media, having attracted its new enlarged international fan base.
‘Leicester have earned plenty of new fans by being inherently different to the big clubs who usually dominate the league,’ he says. ‘They still have an ‘underdog charm’ in all of their output, so it’s not so much that they need to change anything now, but rather keep up what they’re doing.
‘From Claudio Ranieri’s idiosyncratic soundbites to Leicester inviting Jamie Vardy’s lookalike on the team bus and left-back Christian Fuchs’ live-tweeting of the title-winning party at Vardy’s house, they’ve been a breath of fresh air in terms of the access and making everyone buy into the dream in a way that’s completely different from the usual big teams. So there’s not necessarily a need to change.’
Caroline Winters, a partner at PR group FleishmanHillard Fishburn, agrees. ‘It takes more than one title to change the nature of a football club,’ she says. ‘It’s part of the local community. The fans will keep it grounded. What’s likely to happen is that the club will keep its local roots but develop a global fan base.
‘The brand will now be permanently global because Leicester City as Premier League Champions is a once-in-a-lifetime happening. They’ll be etched in global football history. But they’ll also be a brand attached to a moment in time, rather than something heavyweight which builds year on year.’
The omens look encouraging for traditionalists who want Leicester to remain a fundamentally local club, with City freezing season ticket prices for next season, rather than meeting increased demand with a hike in rates.
The club has also won new friends in printed, broadcast and social media with most commentators impressed with how Leicester communicated and engaged with fans and the general public through the season and in their moment of triumph.
John Bick, chief executive at Gable Communications who previously acted for Manchester United at PR agency Financial Dynamics, says: ‘This is a phenomena that has extended well beyond the back pages. It’s caught the imagination of the world.
‘I think Leicester have handled it all remarkably well. They’ve been incredibly measured and very straightforward. The way Leicester have faced the outside world through all the ups and downs of the season has been really mature. They’ve come across in the media as very amicable but they’ve also demonstrated a sense of humour. I would expect them to treat their fan base in a similar way.’
Chalfin agrees. ‘Leicester’s Premier League Winners graphic, sent out just after they’d won the league, received 410,000 retweets, so they were well-prepared and ready for when the big moment came,’ he says. ‘They captured the aftermath brilliantly as well. Their social media team did a good job of riding the wave.’
Analysts now see new markets opening up for the club in terms of merchandise, sponsorship and pre-season tournaments. ‘Leicester City’s rise this season in sporting terms has been nothing short of remarkable and we expect their brand value to follow suit,’ says Finn Dowley, sports analyst at brand marketing group Brand Finance.
‘The champions’ sponsorship deal with travel retail group King Power and its kit deal with sports clothing brand Puma are some of the smallest in the Premier League, but the global exposure they’ve received this season has made them a very attractive proposition for commercial partners.
‘Furthermore, their growing popularity with fans in Thailand and across Asia as a whole will provide significant economic uplifts.’
Rob Mason, managing director of sports marketing group IMG Consulting, believes that fully exploiting the opportunities may require a change in the sponsorship policy of Leicester’s Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, King Power’s founder and chief executive.
‘At the moment, King Power is on Leicester’s shirts and its stadium as its owners have a model of keeping commercial partnerships linked to their ownership and King Power,’ he says.
‘But if they want to change that, the value of the Leicester shirt on the open market right now would clearly be very substantial.’
Winters sees opportunity and also danger in Leicester’s task of taking its brand further. ‘The Leicester journey has been followed all around the world fans in countries far and wide who have adopted them as their team,’ she says.
‘Leicester has an opportunity to build relationships with those fans for the long-term through continued conversation. Smart investment in platforms and content will bring the Leicester City experience to life virtually for millions.
‘But this could also be Leicester’s biggest challenge yet. There will be some sponsors who want to jump on the bandwagon and reap the immediate awards that such an achievement by the underdogs bring.
‘But many partners now look at the long-term for significant investment and may be hesitant to take a risk on what many perceive as a one-off achievement. It will demand some smart judgement calls.’
The key questions, according to Ryan Luckey, assistant vice-president of Corporate Sponsorships at American telecoms giant AT&T, are whether Leicester can sustain its success over time, grow the fan base, increase engagement and drive revenues from this success in the next season.
‘Winning the Premier League elevates Leicester as a significant brand within the English Premier league and for a time, puts them on the top tier of global football,’ he says.
‘This will drive new heights of social media engagement and activation from their current sponsors. To be permanently global will require sustained on field and commercial success, but there’s no better time to leverage this success to drive a greater global fan base.
‘Emotionally, they should benefit from strengthened brand awareness and affinity to improve sponsorship revenues, especially in the short term. Analytically, they’ll need to leverage this success to grow their fan base to warrant larger, sustained sponsorship revenue growth over time.’
For Steve Double, a former head of media relations for the Football Association who is now a partner at PR agency Bell Pottinger, the biggest opportunities are now about exploiting Leicester City’s new international reach and successful challenger brand status.
‘What challenger brand wouldn’t like to be associated with Leicester City, the ultimate in triumphant underdogs?’ he says. ‘Leicester can now follow the model of the likes of Manchester United and the other so-called bigger squads by attracting country-by-country sponsorship partners.’
The reality remains, however, that Leicester City is still a minnow, compared to football’s giants. Manchester United, for example, have 7.7 million Twitter followers, while Barcelona have 17.5 million and Real Madrid have 19.3 million.
‘Brands aren’t stupid,’ comments Mason. ‘They do their research on the sizes of fan base around the world and, while Leicester now have a huge amount of increased awareness and a much bigger fan base than they used to, they’re still a long way behind established big players in the Premier League.
‘They’ve had an extraordinary rise in awareness and exposure and that will continue as champions next season. You can’t expect them to suddenly start competing with Manchester and Arsenal. But they have taken a very big step forward and now have a big opportunity to move to another level.’