Man United now more popular on social media than Barca or Real Madrid – thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo scored 24 goals for Manchester United last season, but his greatest contribution may have been to shore up the club’s commercial appeal during their worst campaign in Premier League history.

United have seen engagement with their social media content, such as shares, likes and comments, almost double to more than two billion interactions in just 12 months, even though they suffered on the pitch. 

The arrival of CR7, who has 465 million followers on Instagram, in August 2021 signalled a dramatic escalation in social media activity and experts have credited him for the remarkable upturn in the club’s online fortunes.

Of the 25 most popular posts put out by Premier League clubs last season, 10 related to Ronaldo and the top three were all about the superstar striker.

As a result, the Red Devils have become the most popular club on social media worldwide, soaring above Barcelona and Real Madrid for the first time, in terms of engagement.

Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford in August and has given the club a huge boost

The figures are significant because commercial sponsors look at social media interactions when considering where – and how much – to invest. An active engaged audience is considered more valuable than the total number of followers.

Such is the size of the ‘Ronaldo effect’, that financial analysts believe it will be a significant factor behind United’s efforts to try to hang on to their wantaway star this summer.

Ronaldo has asked to leave United and is not on the pre-season tour to Bangkok, where his team mates are due to face Liverpool on Tuesday, after being granted compassionate leave for personal reasons.

‘His commercial value will influence the club’s decision to let him go,’ said Dr Rob Wilson, an expert in sports business at Sheffield Hallam University. ‘United were not bothered about Paul Pogba leaving [to return to Juventus], but there will be bigger conversations behind the scenes about Ronaldo. This is more than just a game.

‘It is signings like him that have kept them at the top table with regard to commercial development rather than slipping behind, which is what they should have done given their playing performance.’ 

‘That is why Manchester United will not want to sell him. His market value as a player is less than his value as a commercial entity,’ he added. 

Dr Wilson said United’s latest commercial deal, securing, the global technology firm DXC as the shirt sleeve sponsor, in a multi-year deal worth £20M is an example of the ‘Ronaldo effect’.

‘It is the single biggest shirt sleeve sponsorship in Premier League history,’ said Dr Wilson. ‘And this is a team that finished sixth. 

‘What sponsors want is engagement, they are not bothered about followers. Engagement has exploded under Ronaldo.’

United have received a huge boost on social media since announcing Ronaldo's return

United have received a huge boost on social media since announcing Ronaldo’s return

United are still looking to strike new deals with an airline partner, after they parted company with Aeroflot following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they are seeking sponsorship for their training ground, so there is a big incentive to keep the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in the building, said Dr Wilson.

In addition, existing sponsors are reported to be putting pressure on the Old Trafford hierarchy to ensure the superstar striker stays at the club, since they have already invested heavily and did so in the expectation of Ronaldo-levels of exposure for a few more years.

United’s bosses, as well as their commercial partners, are well aware that what Ronaldo brings, Ronaldo also takes away.

Juventus enjoyed an extraordinary boost during the Portuguese striker’s three years in Turin, but in a new analysis for Sportsmail by the streaming and social intelligence company, Conviva, it is clear they have also suffered a dramatic reverse effect when he left for Manchester.

‘The benefits of having a social savvy personality like Cristiano Ronaldo on your team exist beyond his football abilities,’ Nick Cicero, VP of Strategy at Conviva, told Sportsmail.

‘Cristiano Ronaldo is the most followed individual in the world for a number of reasons, but first and foremost it is the popularity of European football. No other sport in the world commands the engagement and following like the European football leagues.

‘Combine that with a charismatic, outspoken and supremely talented individual like Cristiano and you have a recipe for social success.’

When Ronaldo left Juventus after three years, the club  experienced a decline on social media

When Ronaldo left Juventus after three years, the club  experienced a decline on social media

United appear to have stepped up their efforts to keep the player at Old Trafford, with manager Erik ten Hag unequivocal in his comments in Bangkok on Monday.

Asked about the 37-year-old’s future, ten Hag said: ‘We are planning for Cristiano Ronaldo for the season and that’s it. I’m looking forward to working with him. Cristiano is not for sale. He is in our plans and we want success together.’ 

Ronaldo is in the vanguard of new trends in football fandom, which have captured the attention of the biggest clubs.

Two years ago, mega clubs were rocked by a study of fans, commissioned by the European Club Association, then under the leadership of Andrea Agnelli at Juventus. 

It revealed the extent to which the global fan latches on to success, but also revealed that among some younger audiences, the affinity with a club is determined by their devotion to individual players.

While this was less likely to be the case in countries like England, in some emerging football markets, such as India, which has a population of 1.4 billion people, club choice can be influenced by a favourite player among almost one third of supporters.

Ronaldo is now living proof of how club can dramatically extend its reach and revenues through its transfer policy, even if it suffers a downturn on the field of play.

The uplift in revenue is not all about shirt sales, either, rather clubs can monetise their global following through commercial partners.

Hence, in the future, super-popular players could help insulate the biggest clubs from the ups and downs of competition, as Ronaldo has for United, which helps give them the financial certainty they crave.

Ronaldo (above) has helped double number of engagements United receive on social media

Ronaldo (above) has helped double number of engagements United receive on social media

‘The benefits of a heightened social presence, resulting from bringing a social savvy player like Cristiano to your team can not be understated,’ said Cicero.

‘We expect clubs and sports teams around the world to invest in building their player’s personal brands as a means to grow their own brand in the coming years,’ he added.

All this adds a new dimension to signing players.

At United, total engagements with social media posts increased from 1.1bn in the season before Ronaldo arrived to more than 2bn, last term, with each post generating 75,000 interactions on average, say Conviva.

Ronaldo featured among the top football Instagram content in Europe, with Lionel Messi

Ronaldo featured among the top football Instagram content in Europe, with Lionel Messi

CR7 was also dominant in Facebook content, according to the social media company, Conviva

CR7 was also dominant in Facebook content, according to the social media company, Conviva

CR7 had a particularly significant impact on video, with the number of views per clip almost tripling to 193,000. And the total number of followers when up from 144m to 170m.

The achievements are all the more remarkable because the huge growth has come in a season in which the team struggled to 16 wins, 57 goals and just 58 points, their worst return in almost 30 years of the Premier League.

The total audience still lags behind the Spanish giants, with Real Madrid boasting 281m followers and Barcelona 267m however they cannot match United for engagement. Barcelona enjoyed 1.6bn engagements last season and Real 1.4bn.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s departure from Juventus has had a chilling effect on their social media presence, which may hurt the club financially when they come to negotiate big commercial deals.

When the Portuguese star signed in 2018, Juve’s revenues grew by £50m as a result of merchandising, attendances and some deals, according to Forbes. In the second season, sponsorship with Jeep and Adidas were renegotiated, doubling the money.

Now, Conviva have found the number of engagements per post is down 53 per cent and the total number of engagements fell 43 per cent to 28m, according to Conviva, while the total number of followers only increased slightly by five per cent.

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