It’s how you play the game – digital, social and sports recruitment

Nathan Tyson was unemployed. 

His most recent contract had come to an end and so, like most of us, he reached out to his network to try and find a new position.

And, these days, that means LinkedIn.

The “professionals platform” is not considered a mainstream social media platform but we use it in a similar, if specialised, way.

It is the easiest way to cast the net.

However the 34-year-old was not after any old manual labour, he was a professional footballer. To be precise, a decent striker who has bounced between the second, third and fourth tiers of English football during a creditable 15-year career.

Tyson’s use of LinkedIn garnered media attention which, in turn, drew a curt response from the player himself. His argument was that he needed work and, these days, LinkedIn was the professional way to advertise your availability, whatever your skillset. After all a World Cup semi-finalist had done the same thing a couple of years earlier.

But then this is England and, where football is concerned, even the slightest derivation from the norm can be met with derision.

And, of course, Roy Essandoh has a lot to answer for.

Like Tyson, Essandoh was a striker. But, in fairness, his career rarely touched even the modest highs of the former. Essandoh’s numerous teams straddled tiers four to six in England along with more brief stops in Scotland and Scandinavia. And it was just after his contract ran out at a little-known team from Finland in 2001 that his story began. 

Wycombe Wanderers had injuries, lots of them. So the English third-tier side posted a ‘striker wanted’ story on their website. BBC’s Ceefax service picked it up and the post was seen by the 25-year-old’s agent. Essandoh was signed a week-to-week deal but did nothing in a couple of substitute appearances. Still the squad was stretched so he made the bench for the FA Cup quarter-final at top-flight Leicester City a week later. 

Despite the disparity in league position, it was a tight game. The tension got to Wycombe manager Lawrie Sanchez, who was dismissed from the dugout for overzealous protests when a penalty appeal was turned down with the score 1-1 with 15 minutes to go. He had to watch the final stages on a monitor in the TV interview area.

One of Sanchez’s last actions had been to introduce Essandoh. In the dying seconds, the moment arrived. The unknown journeyman headed home the winning goal to hand his side a game against the mighty Liverpool in the final four.

It was a wonderful FA Cup fairytale and remains Wycombe’s greatest achievement in the competition but, like Tyson, the ‘desperation’ of using digital had only made the story better. The BBC’s website called Essandoh a ‘cyberman’ and its article started like this:

“The internet has an answer for many things. A cheaper car, a last-minute flight, or a match-winning super-hero.”

Well, the world has changed since 2001. Ceefax not longer exists while sport and social media are linked like never before – especially when it comes to recruitment. 

Direct LinkedIn appeals are still relatively rare. 

A more established battleground is the U.S. colleges where social and digital media is used to entice the best high school talent. Europeans may have trouble grasping the enormous cultural, financial and sporting power of collegiate sport but they can certainly identify with the passion from the stands. 

High school - college - major league is the route for the vast majority of US athletes in the primary sports. The best talent traverses stage two via a draft. But stage one is a choice. So colleges need to sell themselves to a young crowd, hence a recent and dramatic change in emphasis.

"Nothing has impacted recruiting more in the last 20 years than social media," University of Nebraska director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson told EPSN. "It has revolutionized recruiting.

Iowa State (American) football head coach Matt Campbell added: "I never thought I would have a meeting to talk about hashtags and emojis, let alone have it be a focus in our first staff meeting. ... but stuff like that creates excitement around your program.”

In March this year Ohio State joined the growing band of college athletics departments taking on a new employee specifically to look after the digital side of recruitment. 

“It’s really a marketing thing – telling the story of Ohio State football in a professional way with 16-18 year old kids,” said the executive associate athletics director for administration.

But it is ‘social’ media of course and that means it is a two-way relationship. Colleges also monitor the accounts of potential recruits for suitability. You cannot blame them when an estimated $500,000 may be invested into each student athlete.

Over the course of the last 18 months, coaches have openly talked about discounting certain high school prospects because of their social media activities. Meanwhile another posted a redacted page of the files they keep on potential players’ accounts. 


All this is some way away from Nathan Tyson of course. He simply used the tools he had available to find a new club. 

And he got one.

After a trial at Carlisle United, he signed for Kilmarnock of the Scottish Premiership and made his debut as a 53rd-minute substitute against Partick Thistle in mid-September.

He updated his LinkedIn profile almost immediately.