By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

July 5, 2021 | 14 min read

Football isn’t just played on the pitch. As well as battling it out at Euro 2020, some of the sport’s biggest names are also major players on social, where brands have long looked to use them as a way to reach consumers. So who has the most influence in this year’s tournament? The Drum teams up with Emplifi to find out.

By all available measurements, football is the most popular sport on the planet, casting a shadow farther across the globe than any other game. And while individual clubs and national leagues are major brands in and of themselves, it’s the players who are its biggest ambassadors.

Of course, their national and club squads aren’t the only teams these footballers play for. As brand ambassadors, they’re some of the most effective attackers in marketing, regardless of their tactical role on the pitch, and their presence on social media is the biggest element behind that success.

Yuval Ben-Itzhak, Chief of Strategy at Emplifi, says: “Social media is the ideal channel for football players and clubs to reach and engage with audiences at scale. Football is one of the world’s most popular sports and entertainment, where both players and clubs have the opportunity to use content to increase their fan base.

“After the Euros, and in time, I’m sure we will see football clubs leverage social commerce to sell tickets and merchandise directly on social media platforms. We’ve seen this in other industries, which provides fans with further engagement.“

But of the players competing for glory at this summer’s Euro 2020, who is the most influential? And what can we learn from analyzing their performance?

To find out, The Drum and Emplifi studied activity on major social platforms during the tournament to find out which players had the biggest and the most engaged following.

We looked at 10 star players competing in the championship – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, French players Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappé, Marcus Rashford, Belgians Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, and Polish striker Robert Lewandowski – with a particular focus on follower growth and engagement with posts during the tournament.

Celebrity players

At least on social media, Juventus attacker Cristiano Ronaldo is the most popular European player at this year’s tournament – by some distance. His fellow former galácticos Gareth Bale, for instance, is the next most-popular player on Twitter, but has only a fifth of the following Ronaldo does. Current Réal Madrid players Benzema and Kroos also score highly for their social media presence. All four are players nearing the end of their careers and their social following reflects their status as established names in the sport.

Total followers of players in sample

Player Facebook Instagram Twitter
Cristiano Ronaldo 148,915,164 307,480,105 92,535,769
Gareth Bale 38,186,281 53,315,473 18,667,723
Karim Benzema 34,177,057 45,388,866 12,731,991
Toni Kroos 23,726,364 43,984,705 9,168,853
Paul Pogba 22,731,551 40,111,368 8,710,622
Kylian Mbappé 21,606,875 28,110,634 6,156,638
Marcus Rashford 13,410,721 20,749,277 4,564,496
Kevin De Bruyne 11,264,628 14,251,447 2,809,272
Romelu Lukaku 9,718,379 10,292,615 2,336,959
Robert Lewandowksi 8,670,775 7,088,488 1,657,324

New fans

Despite club football dominating the sport’s schedules, international games are memory makers with the power to convert casual observers into lifelong fans. That’s true on social too, with our sample of 10 footballers growing their followers during the first three weeks of the tournament.

% Growth of new followers during Euro 2020

Player Facebook Instagram Twitter
Cristiano Ronaldo 0.25 0 0.39
Kylian Mbappé 8.91 0.3 1.64
Paul Pogba 3.76 4.23 1.09
Gareth Bale -0.09 0 0.07
Karim Benzema 1.52 1.19 0.97
Toni Kroos 2.61 0 0.57
Robert Lewandowski 2.89 0 1.12
Kevin De Bruyne 6.67 4.08 1.86
Marcus Rashford -0.06 0.64 0.83
Romelu Lukaku 3.38 0.19 2.3

Mbappé, for example, increased his Facebook followers by 8.91%. De Bruyne and Pogba saw increases of 4% and 4.2% respectively on Instagram, while the former also came first on Twitter. Their significant growth during the competition is possible when starting from a lower base; consider Ronaldo’s following – his 0.39% increase on Twitter, for example, is equal to a gain of over 350,000 followers, which is the largest in the sample by number.

Work rate

The number of followers, however, is only really a measure of reach, and an engaged audience is more valuable than a large one. The table below shows the average number of interactions per post, per 1,000 fans, for our sample.

Average interactions per post, per 1,000 fans

Player Facebook Instagram Twitter
Cristiano Ronaldo 13.15 24.64 2.16
Kylian Mbappé 44.92 49.45 24.81
Paul Pogba 17.08 16.15 3.69
Gareth Bale 8.25 10.09 1.24
Karim Benzema 15.54 27.09 5.77
Toni Kroos 14.48 37.36 4.57
Robert Lewandowski 20.08 34.00 15.28
Kevin De Bruyne 40.92 53.17 25.36
Marcus Rashford 17.05 32.26 2.69
Romelu Lukaku 20.10 17.77 2.11

Mbappé, De Bruyne and Lewandowski have far healthier engagement rates than Ronaldo or Bale – a fact that can be seen when we look at the most popular posts made by our sample during the tournament, by number of interactions, which again feature the Belgian and the Frenchman.

De Bruyne’s photo from Belgium’s game against Denmark led our sample on Twitter and Instagram, where Mbappé and Lewandowski also perform strongly. Meanwhile, Ronaldo was behind the top five posts on Facebook.

Theory of relativity

Discerning a link between social engagement and real world action is still something of a holy grail for social marketers. Ronaldo took the fizz out of Coca-Cola’s share price last month when he discarded the soda in favor of bottled water, for example. But few footballers can provoke a government into a policy U-turn – or face down one of the biggest governing bodies in world sport, in the case of Germany keeper Manuel Neuer and Uefa.

This is clearest in the cases of Rashford and Raheem Sterling, who’ve both been noted for their social and political activism off the pitch. A survey of 1,000 teenagers by Stem4, a mental health charity for young people, found Rashford, Sterling and his Manchester City teammate Phil Foden listed as top role models, ahead of England captain Harry Kane. Clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, the founder and chief executive of Stem4, says: “Rashford, Sterling and Foden’s determination and courage have not only changed policy in some cases, they are inspiring a young generation to take positive action, for themselves and their communities.”

Substitute bench

Engagement or reach aren’t the only measures of social influence, of course. The recent Celebrity Index report for the Euros, published by Statista, indexes the celebrity power of every player in the tournament. Its methodology pulls in not just social data but the current market value of each player and the number of articles written about them – and how positive that coverage was.

Statista Celebrity Index Euro 2020 – top 10 players

Player Celebrity ‘index’ score Social media followers (total Market value (in million euros) Number of articles (in thousands)
Cristiano Ronaldo 100 373.2 50 43.7
Kylian Mbappé 52.2 56.5 160 9.1
Harry Kane 39.2 3.2 120 14.6
Marcus Rashford 38.9 14.4 85 28.2
Bruno Fernandes 34.2 6 90 18.5
Kevin De Bruyne 33.9 16.1 100 9.3
Raheem Sterling 33.2 10.4 100 9.7
Jadon Sancho 32.7 6.1 100 11.5
Robert Lewandowksi 32.1 22.1 60 22.5
Trent Alexander-Arnold 31.7 7.1 100 7.9

According to Statista, Ronaldo accounts for 90% of the Portugal national team’s ‘star’ power. Celebrity, though, is subjective. Does coverage on the back pages make a player a more effective ambassador for a brand on Instagram?

English dominance

It’s no mistake that six out of the top players in Statista’s top 10 currently ply their trade in the English Premier League. Of the remaining four, Ronaldo first achieved fame in England and Jadon Sancho is set to head back across the Channel at the end of the summer. The League hosts the current European club champions and the biggest club brands in Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool.

Language also plays a role here. Though football itself claims to be a lingua franca and 24 nations compete at the Euros, English is the mother tongue of the web. It’s no coincidence that De Bruyne’s high-performing posts, written in English rather than Dutch or French, outperform Mbappe’s Francophone content.

Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport.

Euro 2020 Social Media Research

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