Like other football clubs, AS Roma announced the arrival of a new player this week with the now customary transfer unveiling video on Twitter. Unlike other clubs, the Italian giants’ effort featured Katy Perry, a singing lion and a goat playing chess. Patrick Schick, the striker signed in a club record deal, did not appear once.
This is the latest in a series of increasingly bizarre and wildly popular videos that the Serie A side have released to announce their signings during the summer transfer window. As Paddy Power tweeted this week: “Roma's media team are on the 'shrooms and their unveiling video for Patrik Schick could well be the best of the transfer window.”
Speaking shortly after arriving at the office at 7am, the mastermind behind the surreal strategy, Roma's head of digital and social media Paul Rogers, does not sound like a man under the influence of magic mushrooms. “The reaction to the last video was, ‘what is this, they’re on drugs, I want some of whatever they’re smoking’,” he says – proudly. “I think we’ve owned weirdness this summer.”
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) August 29, 2017
Roma's social media activity hasn't always been this weird. For years, like everyone else, the three-time Italian champions would mark the completion of a signing with a pitch-side photograph of their recruit beaming gormlessly while holding a club scarf above their head. Then, in June this year, Rogers’ team hit on the idea of combining news of Lorenzo Pellegrini’s acquisition with some publicity for Roma’s new eSports team by creating a video of the midfielder scoring a wondergoal for the club in the Fifa videogame – with a twist. As the camera panned out, it revealed that it was none other than Pellegrini controlling himself in the game.
⚽️... ❗️#ASRoma pic.twitter.com/mjgBrwduHV — AS Roma (@OfficialASRoma) June 30, 2017
As one of the first clubs to do a transfer reveal video, Roma unwittingly helped create a monster. Before long, every club from Manchester United to Yeovil Town were making them, with varying degrees of quality. “It just seemed all clubs were going out of their way to find different ways to pan up and reveal the player,” Rogers says.
“I remember we were sitting round and saying, this has just got ridiculous, it’s pretentious, we need to mess this up. And then we just thought OK, let’s take it to extremes. Let’s do stuff that a football club wouldn’t be expected to do. Let’s mock the whole thing and go weirder and weirder and weirder.”
This was why Roma announced the signing of Turkish youngster Cengiz Under with their own take on the ubiquitous fan-created ‘welcome to the club’ videos that spawn on YouTube every time a team is linked with a new player. These videos typically take the form of a crudely strung together highlights reel set against a soundtrack of deafening Euro disco and are every bit as awful as that sounds. But even by these standards, Rogers describes Roma’s version as “horrific”.
“I remember at one point looking at it and going, it’s not bad enough, people might actually think we’re serious here. I said 'make the graphics worse, throw in an explosion'.”
Roma’s reward was 36,000 YouTube views and enough encouragement from social media users to suggest they were on the right track. When like-minded Southampton FC won plaudits for their own over-elaborate announcement video, featuring a Hollywood score and special forces descending on the club’s St Mary’s stadium just to reveal that reserve goalkeeper Stuart Taylor had agreed a one-year contract extension, Rogers’ team decided to strike. “We thought, what could be more lazy than to take someone else’s transfer video? And we didn’t ask them – we just took it and chucked in some weird stuff.”
Are we doing this right? ✍️ #ASRoma pic.twitter.com/u3qZ6OKFGm — AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) July 20, 2017
Roma’s spoof of the spoof, featuring added icebergs, fidget spinners and goats (an inexplicable recurring motif in their videos) went viral itself, amassing 7,000 retweets and acres of free media coverage. Other videos, including a parody of a cringeworthy announcement by Turkish club Besiktas and a wonderfully deadpan performance by hardman defender Aleksandar Kolarov, have proved similarly successful in racking up viral views and earned media coverage. “If there’s a thread on Reddit about it, you’ve probably done something right,” says Rogers.
Even though many bewildered observers still take Roma’s posts at face value, there is method to the apparent madness. Rogers, who joined Roma from a similar position at Liverpool in January 2015, says the colourful content gives the club a means to compete with such bigger and better resourced rivals. “We’re going to get killed by some people. Some people will be like, ‘this is awful’. But if you’re brave enough then the bigger picture is we win over lots of people.
“We’re not going to be able to change a Manchester United fan or Liverpool fan or Arsenal fan into not supporting their team and supporting Roma. But what we might do is get them to like Roma as well as their second team or Italian team.”
⚽️ ⚙️ ❓
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) July 22, 2017
Fortunately for Rogers, one of the people who “gets it” is the club’s American president and co-owner Jim Pallotta. It is a peculiarity of Rogers’ role that he is based in Boston, Massachusetts and not at the team’s stadium in Rome, where he only spends about a third of his time, but this affords him priceless access to the club’s chief decision maker. “We sat in my office watching the [Schick] video after we published it, and he was just like, ‘What the hell? What’s the reaction?’
“He gives us that freedom. That’s incredible from an owner. In some cases he pushes down to us to do stuff, to be more innovative or to take more risks or not to just do the normal thing. Usually in a football club you push up, and you try and get senior management to buy into what you’re doing.”
But not everything Roma do is so out there. Rogers contends that the club create “more content – sensible style content – around a signing than maybe any other club”. From the moment a new player touches down at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, the social media team begin streaming live footage of them being mobbed by thousands of fans. It is partly for this reason that Roma’s reveal videos are so bonkers: by the time a player has beaten through the crowds to sign their contract, there’s no secret to reveal.
Roma’s more conventional attempts at innovation have included star midfielder Radja Nainggolan donning a pair of Snapchat spectacles to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at training and becoming the first European club to broadcast an entire game through Facebook Live in July 2016. Rogers points to the farewell videos for retiring club legend Francesco Totti, which generated over 70m Facebook views in just one week, as evidence that Roma’s international media team spanning staff in Egypt and Indonesia can be sincere as well as surreal.
“We’ve got enough proper conventional totally engaging content on our website that we’re not really compromising on Twitter because we’re basically speaking a language that that audience understands. And the fact that half of the potential audience doesn’t understand it is not really a major problem; it’s part of the fun actually because the ones that get it get it.”
Having recently achieved another first by announcing a signing for someone else’s club (Neymar to PSG), Rogers is now toying with whether to release one more outrageous video – created for a player that the club never actually signed – before the transfer window closes this evening. “I don’t know if we can go that far,” he concedes for the first time.
Instead, the club’s newly acquired followers may have to wait until transfer business resumes in January for more radical Roma output. “It doesn't feel like a real job, it feels like school’s back soon,” says Rogers. “The transfer window will close and it’s like, OK it’s back to school now, we have to go back to being grown up and acting sensibly.”
In a madcap window that has seen PSG break the world transfer record to sign Neymar from Barcelona for a scarcely believable £200m, and English clubs spend over £1bn in fees, it is little wonder that Roma's own brand of absurdity has captured the imagination. The excesses of the modern game may sometimes make us forget it, but as Rogers reminds us, "football is supposed to be fun" after all.