Newfound confidence and the influence of American sports

CHELSEA raised a few eyebrows when they included a link to Mykhaylo Mudryk’s personal Instagram account in their own account’s bio earlier this month as they finalized the signing of the Ukraine international.

The reaction was probably the crux of the matter as they felt it was a signing of such significance that they announced it during a match against Crystal Palace. But the ploy also emphasized the growing primacy of players’ individual social media accounts at a time when the appeal of individual footballers was greater than ever.

Maintaining social media accounts has become an important part of a footballer’s career, although fewer and fewer are doing it themselves. Instead, it becomes a job for her agency.

Sam Bailey is Head of Marketing at agency Unique Sports Group, which he joined from Jay-Z-founded agency Roc Nation. Unique clients include Ireland internationals Adam Idah and Dara O’Shea, as well as Chelsea’s Reece James and Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano.

Just as players and clubs will hire specialists in different areas, he says, so will players for their social media accounts.

“There’s always been a debate, from high-level pros-turned-experts, to people managing players’ social media, so in that sense it’s been scrutinized quite closely,” he says The42. “We try to understand more about our customers, who they are and what they want to achieve in the long term, and provide them with a team of professional experts who can help them get where they want to be.”

The agency usually clicks “Publish” – which helps avoid Victor Anichebe-style glitches, but Bailey says anything posted has been pre-approved by the player in question. The agency’s commitment, he says, is to project the player’s authentic personality.

“With every idea, authenticity is the most important thing. If a player doesn’t believe in it, people can see through it.

“In the beginning, it’s not rocket science. It’s not “We’re going to get you to a million followers in a year” or anything like that. We’ll look at where the player is in his career and then we’ll start to understand a bit more about his personality. What makes them tick, what is their backstory, how did they get to where they are? What are you passionate about? We knit that story together so they can focus on what matters most, which is performing on the court every week.”

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Sam Bailey (right) with Roc Nation customer Kevin De Bruyne.

Grimly, the agency can also act as a kind of firewall between the player and online abuse, cultivating direct connections to social media platforms to try to combat the worst comments. The channels becoming comment sections have discouraged some gamers from joining social media, but there are cold business reasons to sign up.

“The players are also business people and have a business acumen,” says Bailey. “One always forgets that players at the highest level are paid large sums of money, but at the end of their careers they don’t go down, they go down. It always has to keep an eye on what a player does after his career.

“Brands are now getting smarter about how they spend their money: again, they don’t look at what it costs for a post or just the best poster, but at what value they can create as a partnership. It comes down to who the player is: what they stand for and how they feel about themselves.”

There are many high profile examples of players using social media platforms for reasons beyond transactional. Bailey was at Roc Nation at the same time the agency was representing Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, both of whom were speaking out on issues far more important than the game itself.

Days after he was racially abused by a Chelsea supporter while playing for Manchester City in 2018, Sterling contrasted two headlines from Britain’s Daily Mail on Instagram, accusing the British media of “fomenting racism”.

Sterling compared a headline on Tosin Adarabioyo which read: “Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25,000 a week splashes out on £2.25m villa on the market despite never having started a Premier League game hat” with the headline of another story about Phil Foden : “Foden buys his mum a new house for £2million”.

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“They have two young players starting their careers – both play for the same team, both did the right thing which was to buy a new house for their mums who put a lot of time and love into helping them get there where they got to,” Sterling wrote. “But look at how the newspapers get their message across to the young black player and then to the young white player. I find that unacceptable, both innocent, didn’t do anything wrong, but only the way it was worded. The young black man is viewed in a bad light. What fuels racism[d] Aggressive behavior.”

Rashford, meanwhile, famously sparked a swift U-turn by the UK government in 2020 following his campaign to extend access to free school meals into the school holidays. A lesser influence of both bodies was their contribution to a changed perception of footballers in the UK: players are no longer expected to express their opinions about anything outside of football. According to Bailey, this is partly due to the growing American influence on English football.

“Previously, players were afraid of their platforms and afraid of saying the wrong thing in case of backlash. Now it’s the other way around: it’s seen as a way to show who they really are. This has been happening in America for some time, but the fact that it’s happening more and more here now is not to be taken lightly.

“What I admire most about the American market is the openness and honesty. The way they do things, how they have stood against things they don’t believe in, inside and outside of sport, is very inspiring. Colin Kaepernick is the main one that comes to mind: when he took his knee, it was big news for all the right reasons. This is an unstoppable market, an unpredictable force. And with the 2026 World Cup, football is on the rise.”

That American influence is now ubiquitous in England, most evident in the fact that eight of the 20 Premier League clubs are American-owned. Some of the biggest player agencies in England are now also being bought up by American syndicates, with Stellar Group being bought by American talent agency ICM Partners in 2020. (That means Jack Grealish and Beyonce are now technically under the same agency.)

Bailey’s Unique group is, well, increasingly unique in remaining independent, but their players’ confidence in expressing themselves online indicates a changing landscape.