The increased integration of sport and social media over the past few years is a contributing factor to the expected increase in the number of social media users to 4.4 billion by 2025, according to GlobalData’s Social Media & Sport report.

Social media has opened up another channel for sports fans to interact with their favourite teams and players more easily and in real-time, a relationship that was absent in previous decades.

The report shows that 4.7 billion people use the internet worldwide, 4.2 of whom use at least one social media platform, “with many people owning accounts solely to follow their favourite sports teams or athletes.”

Tanveer Aujla, a sports analyst at GlobalData, commented: “The significant growth of social media in recent years has been driven by the increased usage of smartphones, with easy accessibility to platforms making life more convenient for users.”

Despite sports fixtures having been put on pause for a significant time during the coronavirus pandemic, the report shows that there were still over two billion sport-related tweets during 2020.

During this time, sports deepened its connection to social media, with channels such as Twitter and Instagram becoming an outlet for breaking news.

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An example of this is the death of NBA player Kobe Bryant, which accumulated more than 214,000 retweets and 428,000 likes.

The findings also indicate that political issues over the last 18 months have been a stimulant for the growth of sport-based social media engagement, with multiple professional athletes utilising their platform to express opinions and spread awareness of certain topics.

A particular issue was the Black Lives Matter campaign, with numerous sportspeople taking a knee during fixtures in support for racial justice and to highlight racial discrepancies that lie within society.

The hashtag ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ became the second most popular on Twitter in 2020.

With social media becoming an imperative tool to communicate with fans, sports leagues and organisations are continually seeking how to improve their digital assets.

This is evident from the abundant number of deals over the recent months, such as North American ice hockey’s NHL partnership with Greenfly, which will help streamline the league’s activity across social team, league and player accounts.

American football’s NFL deal with Twitter is a prime example of a partnership that has expanded its offering incrementally to align with the evolution of social media.

The partnership began in 2013 with the NFL utilising Twitter’s Amplify programme. Since then, it has undergone multiple expansions to integrate brand content, increase its video footage and, most recently, incorporate video highlights, breaking news and analysis, as well as curated match highlights and Twitter polls.

Other recent partnerships include Facebook and the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, DAZN and Snapchat and soccer’s German Supercup and TikTok.

Such is its prevalence and impact, social media can no longer be deemed a trend but a necessary vehicle to maintain engagement and revenue.

Earlier this year, English soccer’s Premier League was named as the most valuable sports league in the world in terms of social media, with the league’s digital inventory reaching £302 million ($426 million) per year.

Spanish soccer’s LaLiga, North American basketball’s NBA, Italian soccer’s Serie A and the NFL made up the rest of the top five.

Meanwhile, Premier League’s Manchester United topped the table for the club generating the most venue from social media, ahead of NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Serie A’s Inter Milan.

Looking to the future, the report indicates that social media users will “continue to grow as less well-developed digital markets improve their technology and infrastructure.”

It will also remain a constant as “platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have changed the way that fans watch sports forever.”