In a lot of ways, Asbury Park F.C. is just like any professional football club in the world, with a vast array of merchandise products, a powerful brand identity, a mascot, a crowd of loyal supporters and even a nickname, the ’Tillies’. But there’s just one catch.
The New Jersey based club doesn’t actually play football.
So, how exactly has it amassed such a significant following and built a reputation in a sport in which it doesn’t actually participate? Well, social media has played a vital role, which once again demonstrates just how powerful the channel is.
A.P.F.C. was founded in 2014 by sporting social media professional, Shawn Francis and Ian Perkins, an English guitarist. The seed of the idea began as a bit of a joke between the two friends, when they realised that, despite the name, there is not actually a park or anywhere else for that matter to kick a ball into a goal in the vicinity of Asbury Park.
Whilst it seemed every other sports’ fans in the state had teams to belong to, with long established heritages, traditions and stories, football fans didn’t. Therefore, the pair created their own and, through their personal networks of contacts in sport and music, a buzz around the club began to spread organically.
With carefully curated social media channels, a website and a collection of exclusive merchandise, including football shirts, badges and other athletic apparel, all showcasing the club’s logo, the team encourages followers to show their support, as they would with any professional team.
They also regularly issue news updates and press releases on stadium plans and new player signings (all fake, of course), which are often picked up by the media and reported on as if they are true.
Fundamentally, all the commercial elements of a successful football franchise exist, just without the small detail of the game itself.
Straight red or pure genius?
Ultimately, A.P.F.C. is a parody of what modern day football has become. Today, teams are run as businesses with revenue and profit the central focus, which many supporters have begun to loathe. The reality that a ‘team’ can exist without playing is evidence of that fact.
The success of the concept is one that can be explained by the original definition of a ‘meme’, a term coined by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, whereby an idea of any kind that is passed around from person to person until it becomes so frequent and widely shared among a large population that it attains cultural value.
In some sense, the acceptance of football as predominantly a commercial activity, whereby brands are more significant than the sport, is an evolving meme. The word is derived from the Greek ‘mimeme’, meaning something imitated.
In the age of social media, the concept becomes a little easier to understand as internet memes typically imitate and parody an event or occurrence and are known for their ability to go viral. Those most successful infiltrate users’ minds to such an extent that they become part of our culture and are a way to timestamp a specific moment for recall later down the line.
What A.P.F.C. has created is something beyond simply an internet fad, and the idea is one that we can expect to see rolled out in many forms, as the meme evolves and spreads, just as the theory suggests. Whilst we wait to see the creativity and innovation this brings, one thing we can be certain of is how powerful a tool social media is in distributing messages, encouraging engagement and growing a base of loyal supporters, even if there isn’t actually anything for them to support.
In many ways, the aim of a brand is to become a much-imitated meme. Its ability to fulfil its primary purpose of generating sales is rooted in how well it is communicated. Of course, that involves lots of hard work, initially, but the most successful brands are able to associate themselves with such powerful ideas that they achieve a level of wide cultural acceptance. People want to associate themselves with those ideas, so they replicate them with such frequency that the brand is self-sustaining.
A.P.F.C. has created a genuine sporting brand, which is the envy of many sports teams. And, in the true essence of a brand, consumers have formed an emotional attachment to it, which is even more incredible in this case as its core does not exist. Rather, the attachment has stemmed from human instinct, whereby there is a need to belong to a group or tribe - this very concept is the foundation of branding and social media alike.