Back of the Net

Who’s winning the popularity game and who’s destined for the bench? We identified the most loved and loathed Premier League teams and players online.

To say football is huge is an understatement and with the Premier League 2021/22 season upon us, millions of people are set to attend and tune in for every match. But the support doesn’t end there. Fans turn to the internet and social media to follow their favourite teams and players online. And you’ll even find people vicariously taking part as players or managers through video games or Fantasy Football. So, who are the fan favourites and who’s target of the most ridicule? We looked at social followings, sentiment of posts, search volumes and more to find out.

EPL Team stats

Worldwide Player Popularity

EPL's Biggest Influencers

The most popular Premier League Teams and players online

Scoring goals and winning matches isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to winning fans’ loyalty. People can support a team or player for all sorts of reasons personal to them. So, who’s winning the world’s hearts and attention?

Based on online global search figures, people search for Liverpool FC more than any other Premier League team and of their 2021/22 squad, Mo Salah is the star of the show, as the most searched for player. This said, combining the search figures for all individual members of each squad, Manchester United has the highest total search volume (9.4 million per month), with Cristiano Ronaldo topping the list (4.1 million per month) after his last minute move this season. He also takes the trophy for the most searched for player in the world.

When it comes to social followings, Manchester United has certainly got something to brag about. As the most followed team, they have a whopping 71.3 million fans across Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, beating Liverpool by a not-so-slight 16.5 million (54.82 million). Cristiano Ronaldo takes the top spot as the most followed player in the Premier League (and the world!), with a colossal 407.8 million followers across Instagram and Twitter – Far higher than Manchester United themselves and a huge 1,170 times more than Brentford FC (348.5k followers)!

At the other end of the scale, Brighton & Hove Albion and newly promoted Brentford FC are the least searched for Premier League teams and have the least social media followers.

How much could Premier League teams be earning from social media?

The teams and players have some pretty impressive social followings, which could translate to big bucks if they were to monetise their platforms (not that they’re strapped for cash!). Using the kind of earnings influencers can expect to take home based on their follower counts, we worked out which teams and players could be scoring the biggest pay cheques.

As the team with the highest following, Manchester United could be raking in as much as £89.8k per social media post. And Cristiano Ronaldo, as the highest-followed Premier League player, could be earning £602.8k per post. That would supplement the millions he has in the bank nicely.

Which team has the happiest fans online?

Football is a competitive game. So, naturally, commentary online represents a mixed bag of emotions. Whether it’s pure joy after a big win or frustration over a controversial refereeing decision, many turn to social media to celebrate or vent.

We used a social listening tool to assess the sentiment of Tweets about each of the Premier League teams to find out which teams are receiving the most positive and negative attention. Scoring 59/100 (with 100 representing the most positive sentiment), it seems Wolverhampton Wanderers receive the most upbeat Tweets. They’re closely followed by Leicester City and Leeds United, both scoring 58. Sadly, it’s not such positive news for Spurs though, with the sentiment of their Twitter mentions only scoring 23/100 – the lowest of all teams. They’re joined in the bottom three by Newcastle United (30) and Manchester United (37).

The most valuable players in Fantasy Football

With over 8 million players, Fantasy Premier League (FPL) is the biggest Fantasy Football game in the world. The idea is that participants take on the role of a football team manager, buying, selling and managing a fantasy squad. The price of the players depends on their popularity in the transfer market and the points they’ve previously won, with points awarded to players for everything from goals and assists to appearances and clean sheets.

To find out who the favourites are and who’s worth nabbing for your own team, we looked at Fantasy Football pricing and scores. Last season, Mo Salah and Harry Kane were worth the most at £12.5 million, but are they good value for money? With a respective 231 and 242 points to their names that works out at just 18.48/19.36 points per million spent. Goalie Emiliano Martínez, on the other hand, costs £5.5 million with 186 points. This works out to a decent 33.82 points per million, making him the best value for money. Interestingly, he’s joined by five other goalkeepers in the top 10 best-value players on FPL, whereas the 10 most popular (and therefore most expensive) players are mainly forwards and midfielders.

The expert take

About Dr. Martha Newson

Dr Martha Newson is a cognitive anthropologist whose research has featured across the BBC, as well as on Sky and Discovery. Her work with football fans spans four continents and she is currently leading research with the UK Ministry of Justice to investigate how major football clubs can help reduce reoffending rates by offering football training to people in prison or on probation.

What defines a traditional football fan? And how has fandom changed since the advent of social media?

The idea of a traditional British football fan still rings true for many people. These fans have a lifelong, unflinching loyalty to their club, likely a loyalty that they share with close friends or family.

Social media has given some football fans the opportunity to connect where they wouldn’t normally. Firstly, this seems to have resulted in the rapid emergence of multiple fan subcultures, identified by their behaviour (branded clothing), values (political or social issues), or knowledge of the game (football stats or player backgrounds). Secondly, international fans have opportunities to forge social connections with local fans like never before. Thirdly, social media is a platform that can be used to facilitate mass crowd rituals – be it gathering before a game or for football groups engaged in protests.

Do you think that players’ attitudes and behaviours have changed through the ages?

Due to the cult of celebrity in wider society, we see and hear more about players’ attitudes and behaviours than ever before. After several decades of players’ lives being relatively private, due to the high risk of public scrutiny via print media, social media has offered players the opportunity to share their own stories, for which there is a huge appetite. As people, players are probably not much different today than they were the last half a century. However, their lifestyles have changed drastically leading to a greater divide between fans and players. Equally, charitable giving among players is on the rise, partly reflecting societal trends for socio-political activism.

With such huge social media followings, do you feel that football players and clubs have a responsibility to behave in a certain way?

While I’m in support of clubs taking social responsibility and encouraging societally positive behaviours among fans, I’m not keen on moralizing players as individuals. Football players are there to do a job: play football, well. While they need to use their platforms responsibly, not all players have the personality to live up to being a role model beyond their sporting achievements.

Clubs, as money-making operations, on the other hand, have a social responsibility to ensure that no hate is generated on their platforms, that there is opportunity for diversity and engagement, and that they showcase positive role models from diverse backgrounds, communities, and levels in the game.

Do you think football fandom differs between generations?

Football fandom is both culturally stable and highly variable. Generationally, the game has seen big changes to fan culture. In the UK, current football lad cultures often emulate that of their grandfathers (the hooligan culture of the 1990s) so even though fandom is felt to change, the trends are recurrent.

Why do you think teams such as Spurs and Newcastle United receive so many tweets of a negative sentiment vs. teams like Wolverhampton Wanderers who receive much more positivity?

Cultures of hostility or positivity build rapidly on social media. It wouldn’t take much for a small group of fans to come up with a hashtag that could swiftly turn things in a different direction. One reason for extensive tweeting on a topic is that fans are looking to effect change and, in the British system where fans have little say over club management, posting on social media might feel like the only way to get their message across. Additionally, perennially low-ranking clubs, like Wolverhampton Wanderers, will have the most highly bonded and loyal fans due to the transformative nature of dysphoric matches where the team has lost or been relegated. This means that fans won’t be put off by losses.

In the aftermath of the EUROs final, do you think English football fans feel wrongly portrayed by the media?

Some fans will feel the media portrayal is fair and some will feel that it’s entirely inaccurate. There is, however, a theme of shame among England fans - of the national team losing, or fans behaving badly, or fans losing against other fans in international fights. This reputational concern around being seen as ‘good fans’ seems to be quite consistent among England fans. Overall, and in relation to this, there seems to be relatively high levels of consensus among fans that the image portrayed by the media captured only a small minority of England fans, a fan group that is otherwise co-operative and peaceful.