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The work done on social media when the Bundesliga became the first league to return during the pandemic was important but understated. Why is a role in sports social media still exploited and misunderstood?
The Bundesliga becoming the first European league to return during the coronavirus pandemic was a huge moment for German football. The image of the league and its clubs was center stage. A lesser covered but still important aspect of German football's return was how the league and its clubs handled the spotlight on social media.
Schalke's attempts to convince Premier League fans to support them went viral, Leverkusen's English account, famous for its satirical approach to community management, was engaging even before the football returned, their Connect 4 game against Hull City the weekend after lockdown proving hugely popular.
Even RB Leipzig's unorthodox approach to mark the departure of Timo Werner got people interacting. Before COVID-19, Bayern Munich's US Twitter account used social media to build one of the largest network of fan clubs in North America. This was a success story for German teams.
While the enormous value we place on numbers and images in the digital world is part of another conversation, there is no doubting the power of social media. And there is much more to the job than meets the eye.
Working in this field in 2020 will likely see you confronted with customer service, corporate communications, translation, graphic design, analytics, sponsorship activations as well as social responsibility. Some sources in the industry also said they spend significant time explaining the job and/or platform to their seniors. While multiple jobs in one is not uncommon, doing so in a digital world with millions of people and organizations working to get your attention, engagement and interaction all the time adds to the challenge.
"That makes it hard to hire for and to manage ... The medium is in that sense ahead of the structural ability to support it. It needs more stress-testing, greater institutional understanding and more internal collaboration," one source inside the industry who preferred to stay anonymous told DW.
For a job that was born organically in the industry and initially outside of business structures, it took a long time for institutional understanding and true recognition of the role to arrive. When it was clear, and in some places it still isn't, that working on a social media account was not the same as having one, demand and respect for the role grew. Too often though, the reward has not.
The expectations and responsibilities of the role remain lengthy, but in far too many places the position remains a fringe job that fulfils a requirement but that companies don't appreciate the scope of. Perhaps that is because, as the same anonymous source told me, "it doesn't always translate into direct business results (a result of multiple other variables) and is so dynamic and fast-changing that it's difficult for traditional business to always get a grip on it."
Perhaps it's also because of agencies. Many teams and leagues outsource their work, as is the case for many of the Bundesliga's international social media accounts. This can be a smart solution, particularly when multiple languages are involved, and there are plenty of excellent agencies that consistently deliver high-quality content and pay accordingly.
Outsourcing is not without its problems though, as recent examples in the Bundesliga have shown. Bayern Munich's Arabic website, run by an external agency, recently posted the news of Leroy Sane's signing a day before it was supposed to. On Twitter, Schalke's English account congratulated Zenit St. Petersburg for winning the Russian championship even though the German account did not. Other than the sponsor Gazprom, there does not appear to be a connection between the two clubs.
Beyond the professional errors, there are also questions about pay.
"When I started along this career path, I fell into the trap of overvaluing the opportunity and letting a company undervalue me," former agency employee Daniel, who requested we don't use his real name, told DW.
"I started on €200 ($228) a month at the age of 21 as the only native English speaker at a German agency. As a result, I ran multiple projects, from two English websites for Bundesliga clubs to script translation for Japanese drift racing. I left after 20 months with my highest paying month - my final one - coming in at €800.
"While I'm grateful for the skills I was able to hone, I have since found out that the skills I developed are worth at least fives times that in a company that isn't keen to take advantage of employees to line their own pockets."
Another member of the social media industry who also preferred to stay anonymous told DW they were once offered a job by an agency to manage a team of people running 12 team accounts for only €1,500 a month.
Without regular and clear communication, as well as a strong understanding of the scope of the role, there is also concern that outsourcing leads to clubs losing their voice. Agencies can and do deliver content that performs well on social media, but whether it is in line with the club's values is another question.
In fact, outsourced or not, some Bundesliga teams' international social handles often convey a drastically different tone to the clubs' real-life identities in Germany. But as the saying in the industry goes, "good engagement doesn't make it a good idea."
Mental health matters
Beyond poor understanding of the role and all the ups and downs of outsourcing lies a greater concern for those who work in social media. The "always on" approach has a draining affect on people's mental health. Many in the industry describe regularly feeling exhausted by the nature of constantly being "plugged in," particularly in an era where digital connectivity is already high outside of people's professional lives.
A 2019 article in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction found evidence suggesting "excessive smartphone use may increase the risk of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional disorders in adolescents and young adults." A 2017 study published in the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research showed that simply having your phone in the same room, even if it's switched off and you're doing all you can to ignore it, can reduce available cognitive capacity.
With this in mind, there are genuine concerns as to whether enough is being done in the industry to promote the important role of disconnecting.
Already in 2020, in a modernized, globalized sporting world it is clear how important the work being done in social media is. With one of the busiest seasons ahead, much more will be expected of those filling timelines around the world. Now appears the right time for the value of the role to be assessed, the scope of the position to be clear and the support on offer to be improved.