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Football PR: Why fights off the pitch make bigger headlines than the game on the pitch

Credit: Jamie Nagioff, senior account director at PR agency Ready10

Premier League managers have been embroiled in a series of public spats with TV pundits, showing the power former pros have when it comes to swaying fan opinion

Football has always been about the on-pitch action - of course it has - but recently it’s been the off-field antics grabbing headlines.

Even within the last few weeks, most of the talk following February’s Carabao Cup Final was not around the quality of the game itself, but rather of the public ding dong between Gary Neville and Chelsea boss, Mauricio Pochettino, after the Sky Sports pundit slammed the Blues as “billion-pound bottle jobs”.

And, this wasn’t the only pundit-manager disagreement during that same week. Manchester United manager, Erik ten Hag, bit back at Neville’s Sky Sports colleague, Jamie Carragher, for his criticism of the Red Devils. Despite admitting that Carragher may have “had a point” when he laid into United’s defence, Ten Hag queried the subjectivity of the former Liverpool star.

Swear tactics

Now, it’s important to note that managers kicking off at media personalities is nothing new. Former Newcastle boss, Joe Kinnear, once opened a press conference by calling the Daily Mirror’s Simon Bird a “c*nt”, while Sir Alex Ferguson famously boycotted the BBC for seven years, after the broadcaster ran a documentary questioning United’s dealings with Fergie’s agent son.

But, these legendary examples feel very specific to a particular event, and less about a few harsh post-match words about a side’s poor performance.

So, why are managers now so regularly getting caught up in public rows with TV personalities? Why are they not dismissing pundits’ comments, and backing themselves to do a good job within their clubs - subsequently maintaining, or winning, the affections of their fanbase?

Fan opinions

Perhaps it is because of that very issue: fan opinion. While pundits have always led football narratives through their TV work, we now live in an age of social media, where commentators have the ability to put out more opinions on more games, repeatedly hammering home messaging that can be considered ‘anti’ one club or another.

Another sizable development within football news consumption is the boom of podcasts, with UK audience figures across all sectors almost doubling over the past five years. Looking at football specifically, it is believed that two in five fans are tuning in to shows on the sport.

Football heroes

The continued growth of this medium has seen the likes of Peter Crouch (That Peter Crouch Podcast), Gary Lineker and Micah Richards (The Rest is Football) growing their stock amongst fans of the game. The more we hear from these characters, the more likely we are to build an affinity for them and therefore respect their sporting opinions.

And, in the case of Neville and Carragher, the popularity of The Overlap and Stick to Football podcasts has brought their views front and centre of the footballing conversation.

Through our work with Sky Bet, we are aware of the effect of these popular podcasts. Each week, we see the opinions of the hosts and special guests grab headlines, generating hundreds of pieces of coverage per episode across pretty much every national newspaper and major sports publication. We’ve also seen the Stick to Football guest trend on X, formerly Twitter, in each of the last few appearances, with Wayne Rooney’s and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s respective episodes amongst the latest to dominate the online conversation.

Power of pundits

The popularity of these shows and the sheer volume of coverage they drive means the messages being put out by pundits are being seen and heard by the masses - even more so than before. These ex-pros really are becoming comms powerhouses as a result.

With the constant drumbeat of views reaching supporters, elite level managers are waking up to the fact that opinions on their own performances are being increasingly swayed by former pros.

So, now we find ourselves in a time where Premier League bosses are lashing out against these narratives. They feel as though they can’t sit back and let people criticise them or their team because they know their own fans’ opinions are being influenced so strongly.

Rather than getting caught up in a war of words with TV pundits, perhaps coaches should refocus their efforts to on-pitch performances… and let their football do the talking.

Written by Jamie Nagioff, senior account director at PR agency Ready10

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