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Social Growth & Global Sports Events

Updated: May 9

How does the World Cup Influence Players' Instagram Following?

The Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has just come to an end. The exposure was bigger than ever before, with record stadium tickets sold and local fan event engagements, with more teams participating and many games being broadcasted globally. Would that increased exposure also lead to more interest in the players playing the game?

When every team had announced their WC-squad we made an overview of the number of followers each selected player had at that time. We wanted to research the influence such a big sports event would have on the public interest in its key figures: the players. Would a high performing player gain many more Instagram followers during the World Cup?

Who Follow the Players?

When we wrote an article about Generation Z we already mentioned this generation uses to follow the athlete first. Of course, the athlete should also provide them with interesting content to capture them and keep them engaged. Players participating at the World Cup had therefore an outstanding opportunity to get their attention. Especially young players should aim for this generation because they will become the most powerful generation already when they are still on the pitch. They will need them as fans, for both their own career growth as the growth of the entire women’s game.

Other generations might start to follow a player because of the team they support, or an outstanding performance. With the national and international media attention for the WWC, players’ names and images reached those generations’ eyes. The most outstanding players generally have a higher probability to be followed. In our research we looked for relations between social growth, individual/team performances, and social content.

The day after the World Cup finished, we made another overview of each player’s following base on Instagram and analyzed the numbers. Players of four countries (China, Korea Republic, Vietnam, and Zambia) have been excluded from the overall analysis due to the lack of players found active on Instagram. All other 28 teams had at least 20 active Instagram users in their squad.

Outstanding Individual Performances Some players performed amazingly during a single match, while others displayed consistent strong performances on the pitch during the entire World Cup. In total 54 different players received the VISA Player of the Match award, which we use as a clear indicator of a strong on-pitch performance. To compare their growth percentile, we used the average growth percentile of their team as benchmark.

Exactly 50% of these MVP-award winning players increased their Instagram following more than the average percentile of their team. Fourteen of these players even saw an increase of more than 100%! If you were not convinced about the percentages yet, for seven of these 54 players their following growth was the highest percentile of their team.

Percentages do not always tell the full picture though. Sam Kerr was one of the players who grew most in number of followers, from 1.2 to 1.6 million followers, but that meant she “only” grew 33,3%. Her teammate Clare Hunt saw her following grow with a massive 916.2%. Looking at the absolute numbers you can see why. She started the world cup with just over 2K followers, and after the tournament she had gathered almost 24K. An impressive percentage, but a small 22K is almost nothing compared to the 400K of Kerr.

Looking at the absolute numbers, we see that still seven Player of the Match winners have summed up the highest number of followers. Only Mary Earps and Ary Borges were both the highest growers in percentage as in numbers. Maybe the Golden Glove was part of Earps’ uprise as well, while Golden Ball winner Aitana Bonmati, Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa and FIFA Young Player Salma Paralluelo clearly saw their consistent performances translate in number of followers as well.

Overall you could conclude that those who performed well during the World Cup saw a positive response in their Instagram following, either in their growth percentage or in absolute numbers. When the performance is more outstanding most of the times the effect is bigger as well.

Outstanding Team Performances But how about team performances? Football is a team sports in the end. To analyze the outstanding team performances, we looked at some of the highest performing teams and the biggest surprises of the tournament. The four semi-finalists Spain, Sweden, England, and Australia were selected for high performance, while Colombia, Japan, Jamaica, and Morocco were considered as biggest surprises.

Both finalists had very similar numbers, both in absolute growth as in growth percentage. First-time World Cup winners Spain has with Balon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas a big star with 2.9M followers, while the English team has a more balanced distribution of followers. Outstanding players such as the aforementioned Aitana Bonmati and Salma Paralluelo, Jennifer Hermoso and final-winning-goal scorer Olga Carmona were together with Spanish football icon Alexia Putellas main responsible for the almost 1.5M extra followers by covering 73.5% of that total gained.

The Lionesses rely less on outstanding stars. The day after the World Cup 20 of the 23 players had more that 100K followers on Instagram, while Esme Morgan became number 21 within a week after the final. It shows the interest in all players of the women’s team - already from their post-WWC performances - and the World Cup just gave it another boost.

The Swedish third-place winning players saw their total number of followers grow with almost 400K. Goalkeeper Zecira Musovic was crucial for the Swedish World Cup success, and this was clearly visible in her following base as well. She alone was responsible for 41.9% of the total following growth of the entire Swedish team! Do individual performances have a bigger influence then?

Co-hosting the World Cup clearly did Australia well, with a high interest of the local fans being translated in following their stars. Before the tournament started Sam Kerr alone was summing more than 50% of all followers but clearly, she wasn’t the only player the fans were interested in during the WWC. In total 10 of the 23 selected players saw a following growth of more than 100%!

South American highest performing team, Colombia, saw similar numbers in growth, with 8 players increasing their following base with more than 100%. They had less followers before the World Cup than the Australian team, but they also grew more than 1 million followers altogether.

Instagram is in Japan not the most popular social media platform, which is clearly visible in the followers of the Japanese players as well. Nevertheless, all Japanese players have an Instagram account and saw their accumulated following base grow with 32%. Tournament’s top scorer Hinata Miyazawa just had 3K followers before the WWC for example, and her performances made that increment to almost 13K.

Jamaica shows very similar numbers to Japan, with only little lower absolute numbers. They have one clear star with Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, taking up 29% of all followers of the Jamaican team. Duke Women’s Soccer player Solai Washington experienced the highest increase in followers though, with a growth of 401.2%.

Debutants Morocco surprised everyone by finishing above Germany in the group stage and the Moroccan football hype clearly didn’t stay in Australia because the Moroccan team increased their following base with 32.6%. Five players broke through the 10K following ceiling, while Nouhaila Benzine, the first female player to ever wear a hijab at the senior-level FIFA Women’s World Cup, gained most followers.

In comparison to the other teams, these 8 teams saw a significantly bigger increase in followers. Only the Philippines and Haiti had amazing percentages as well, with Haiti standing out with a 107.5% increase, from 202K to 419K followers.

As a conclusion, sports performance, both individual as team performance, has clearly a positive influence on the public interest in a certain player. Best performance does not mean highest interest though, as we will see in the following part.

What about Social Content?

We have touched both individual and team performances, and still the player who gained most new followers we haven’t mentioned yet. She was already the most-followed female player before the WWC and added a stunning 1.2M more followers: Alisha Lehmann. Currently she has 14.9M followers, which is almost the same number as both finalists’ squads sum up together. She actively published content during her World Cup adventure, with 20 posts, all containing high-quality and professional photos. That certainly helped her of course. Did the other best-scoring players of their national teams in following growth had a similar frequency/quality ratio?

Only a few came close to the number of World Cup publications Lehmann put on Instagram, with only Ary Borges also clearly seeing the effect of this post-frequency. For other big growth achievers, half of the number of publications did the job already - all of them publishing high-quality content. This quality of content was clearly influenced by the country the player is representing and the size of her Instagram account though.

High-quality, non-commercial images of the player herself are rarely posted by many players, not even of an event as big as the FIFA’s World Cup. Especially for players with a smaller women’s football history, such as Panama and Morocco for example, it must have been extremely difficult to acquire these images. For a sport in development such as women’s football, FIFA and the national FA’s should make a high effort to provide players with such content. Eventually we notice that the audience is triggered to follow the players and those who are able to post quality content gain even more benefits. In the end they are promoting the event, federation and sport in general like that.

Bigger Picture

The Women’s World Cup has been a great event, for both women’s football as for the players. It definitely gave a boost to the interest in high-performing players, with still more potential growth regarding social content. If this boost lasts for the long-term or was only a hype, we will analyze in the beginning of 2024.

The WWC itself has finished and still several players will stay in the picture due to positive and negative stories such as the winners-celebrations or the Jenni Hermoso-case. Let’s keep the spotlight on female footballers and the women’s game because they have showed once again that the world is interested in their stories!

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