The “my club’s bigger than your club” argument has been a staple of futile fan debate for years. Whether it’s size of stadium, historic performance, league status or away attendances, supporters are constantly seeking ways to assert their team’s dominance over another. The explosion of social media has added a new dimension to this discussion. Now, the number of followers has for some become a modern yardstick of a club’s popularity and influence.
As a 39-year old who’s been immersed in football since the 90s, I was intrigued by this notion and set out to investigate which Championship clubs are winning the social media battle, and whether followership could even be a reliable measure of each club’s stature, or whether it’s too transient and superficial to reflect true size.
To be honest, the results were fairly unsurprising and yet, from the perspective of Coventry City, pretty sobering.
Of course, that’s only the case if you believe these numbers to be important. Some will dismiss them as vanity metrics. That’s fine. But on the face of it, it does appear that our club has been significantly disadvantaged by its absence from the top tiers of English football during the formative years of social media’s emergence.
It’s not really a complicated investigation to be honest. I simply collated the follower numbers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok for all Championship clubs, then ranked them and looked at which clubs had spent any length of time in the Premier League in an attempt to spot any patterns.
To construct a sensible assessment and keep the social media influence at the heart of the question, I decided to focus on the period from 2010 onwards. This choice was deliberate, considering social media’s impact on football gained prominence around this time, and platforms like Instagram were non-existent before 2010 in any case. So by limiting the analysis to this period, I hoped to hone in on a more meaningful connection between clubs’ social media growth as a consequence of online presence, rather than reference Premier League appearances from the 90s that felt largely irrelevant.
The findings reveal a strong correlation between Premier League appearances and a larger social media following. Clubs that have appeared in the top tier of English football, especially for prolonged periods, enjoy a significantly larger online following compared to those that have languished in lower divisions.
Clubs that you could argue are of similar size to Coventry in terms of stadium, local population, historical performance – namely Leicester, Southampton and Norwich (sorry, but they are similar) – can be seen to have vastly bigger social media audiences, thanks primarily to their presence in the Premier League at various points between 2010 and 2023.
Annoyingly, Leicester are light years ahead of all clubs in the list, with over 21 million followers across the four platforms; 14 million more than 2nd place Southampton. But that’s hardly surprising as, let’s face it, they didn’t just compete in the Premier League – they also won the bloody thing. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that doing so comes with a global follower boost of stratospheric levels.
Beyond all that madness, Leeds boast a pretty mammoth social media audience even without a particularly glowing or lengthy Premier League appearance history during this time, reflecting an illustrious history and already global fanbase prior to social media. Some clubs will always generate huge interest, and we can’t pretend that Leeds need the Premier League to be considered anything other than a massive club.
On the point of massive clubs being massive, we note Sheffield Wednesday – hailing from a city with over half a million people and a surrounding catchment area – also demonstrating their hugeness and stature as the only team in the Championship with over a million followers that hasn’t been in the Premier League during the social media era. Of course some of this could be down to superb marketing, but with no Wrexham-level activities to speak of in that time, it seems reasonable to assume them to be another side with the “already a big club” reality about them.
On the other hand, clubs like Coventry City, despite a rich heritage and substantial stay in the top tier during the latter 20th century, have struggled to amass anything close to comparable online presence due to a prolonged absence from the top flight.
At a basic level I think there are plenty of reasons to believe we should align closely with neighbours Leicester, or other high-flyers in this list such as Southampton, but having spent precisely zero years in the Premier League during the last 14 years, and eight of those out of the Championship entirely, the numbers paint a fairly damning picture of the difference multiple years of severe underperformance can have on brand growth capabilities.
The Premier League effect? Ask Luton…
I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, but Luton Town isn’t a massive club. Don’t get me wrong, I like them, I love what they’re doing this season, and their fans were particularly gracious in victory after the playoff final. But they’re a club that, like Coventry, has been away from the top tier for a long time and were not making a particularly huge dent in the online world.
Until this season. Naturally, that’s all changed since promotion. If you’re interested in the speed of growth that accompanies Premier League promotion, look at what’s happened to our friends at Kenilworth Road.
This time last year they had close to 422,000 social media followers in total. At the same point Coventry City had circa 432,000. We were winning!
Journey forward 12 months, following heightened international exposure ourselves, we should be pleased to see Coventry City making decent strides and acquiring a further 120,000 followers across all channels in that time. But it’s nothing compared to Luton. One promotion to the Premier League later and they’ve amassed an inexplicable 927k new followers across the four channels I’ve measured.
Caveat galore – many of those will be generic followers and international fans, etc, but as a visibility outlet, their social media channels will never be the same again. Even if they’re relegated this year, we can see from how other clubs sustain their volumes that they will retain a large portion of those new eyeballs on their club.
The Championship playoff final is known as the richest game in the world, given tangible financial rewards to the winner, but the brand and audience exposure leap that accompanies it is clearly extreme.
It’s pretty obvious when you think about it, but I’m not sure as a club we’ve ever really considered just what changes will come our way if we did get back to the big time. The Premier League is an entirely different environment to when we were there back in the 90s.
While social media followership may not be the sole determinant of a club’s greatness or size, it undoubtedly provides insight into the scale of its reach and influence, especially in the digital age. For Coventry City and other clubs that have yet to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite in the social media era, the challenge lies in leveraging social media effectively to engage their own fans and, as best they can, enhance their visibility on a wider scale whenever the opportunity arises.
I look at these figures and can’t help but acknowledge that certain teams (naming no names) are “bigger” entities than us right now. Even if we may be matching them on the pitch.
By the way, highlighting these numbers is in no way a criticism of the current Coventry City PR and Marketing team, which I believe has made stark progress and introduced a marked sense of professionalism and modernity to its output since the ultra low budget days of League One and Two. But looking at where we currently sit in the league (and Doug King’s intended trajectory) this info really does highlight the gap between us and our rivals and the opportunities larger audiences will afford them, as well as the eye-opening shift we can expect to see if/when we do finally make it to the Premier League.
The charts might not make fantastic viewing just now, but what’s clear is that it takes just one season of success to tilt the balance in your favour and elevate clubs to places they’ve never been before.
That’s incredibly exciting.