Chris Lepkowski: Toxicity and Trends – the evolving world of football transfers


Former Birmingham Mail Correspondent, Communications Expert, Author and current BCU Sports Journalism Lecturer, Chris Lepkowski debuts for Prost International with an insight into “the frenzied cattle market of player migration.”

See: Chris Lepkowski joins Prost International

Football transfers used to be so simple: a player with a strained smile would stand for photos in front of a sponsors back-drop and provide a few anodyne quotes about how delighted he was. Job done. Not anymore.

Since the introduction of the transfer windows in 2002, the frenzied cattle market of player migration has increasingly become a micro-industry within football itself. It has also changed the way news is delivered by the written media.

We are all at the mercy of ‘monitoring’, ‘keeping tabs on’, ‘linked with’, ‘scooping for’, ‘talks progressing’, ‘preparing a bid’, ‘leading’ or ‘joining the race for’, ‘wantaway’, ‘advanced talks’, ‘personal terms’, ‘closing in on’, ‘set to sign for’ and the one we all wait for: ‘Done deal’. All of this while we’re being hypnotised by the Sky Sports News ticker. And don’t we absolutely love it?

When asking my first-year BCU Sports Journalism students in 2019 about the reporters they admired, most went for the obvious names: a series of national journalists, any number of local ‘newspaper’ (in the traditional sense) reporters or the occasional broadcaster.

When I asked the same question a few months ago at least half of the cohort cited Fabrizio Romano. The transfer specialist has more than 10 million Twitter followers. In social media context, he’s bigger than Tottenham Hotspur (6.5million followers) and 13 other Premier League clubs.

Transfers have become a social media play-thing. Some outsource to specialist production firms, some use their own resources and staff. Clubs fall over themselves to find new ways to promote their new players. Ben Mee’s arrival at Brentford was accompanied by an arty video. Charlton parroted TV sitcom The Office to announce the arrival of David Payne, the third Swindon player they had signed. The video was swiftly removed following a sense-of-humour failure in Wiltshire.

Every transfer is a creative opportunity. Since 2019 Roma, for instance, have marked each player signing alongside a video featuring the faces and details of missing children – with the aim of generating publicity that could result in someone, somewhere, offering valuable information about their whereabouts.

Any club daring to post any non-transfer-related tweets risks being met with a series of replies demanding they ‘announce’ the latest player they’ve been linked with. Football fans don’t want football news anymore – they want transfer news.

And then we have the self-appointed ITK amateur ‘reporter’. The ITK is someone who regards themselves as being In The Know. It may be someone who has a mate working in the ticket office, knows the groundsman, or has spotted a player checking into a local hotel. The ITK will generally be trusting one or two people, with little thought or care of any consequences if they get any details slightly wrong. And if their transfer information comes off, and the player signs, my God do we know about it.

What of the demand placed on local journalists or national reporters covering specific regional patches?

A journalist’s role is piecemeal. He or she will be liaising with club communications staff, texting managers, WhatsApping players, speaking to the agents and many sources you’ll never get to hear about – all to try to establish a clear picture of where a player pursuit might be at any given point. It’s their job to do so.

The correspondent will be legally trained, well-networked and will have spent several years being eased into their craft.

Journalists are social media brands, with their performances measured by the strength of their Twitter numbers and interactions with an engaged audience. Some sports writers have even started delivering their transfer news behind paywalls –such is the entrepreneurial spin-off of player movement. Media organisations will quite happily churn out transfer speculation because it generates clicks. And clicks mean more revenue, which keeps the finance department happy.

Reporters are moving and living targets, with an expectation they’ll be across their own Twitter accounts during every waking moment. News of an imminent signing is met with a series of ‘Joe Blog at the far post’ or memes that you should never search for on a work computer. Any reporter late to the transfer news, or pouring cold water over a rumour, risks being the target of personal abuse in quicker time than it takes
to say ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’.

With society being more mental health-aware, it is worth a gentle reminder that social media and football transfers can be a toxic mix. In the fast-moving culture of player recruitment what wasn’t a story 10 minutes ago might be a big back-pager in half an hour’s time…and then might be off again. Few will blame the clubs, agents or players – but they’ll happily go for the messenger, trigger poised. Wellbeing management has become an unfortunate by-product for media practitioners, all because of the football fan’s mania for transfer news and speculation.

And yet, somewhere deep within the walls of any given training ground or football stadium will be a social media editor frantically plotting how to deliver news of your club’s new full-back.

All because we just cannot help ourselves.

Follow us on Twitter @ProstInt


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