The transfer rumour has become an art-form – but how do transfer rumours get made, and what tricks are used?
If you’ve ever visited a website or opened a newspaper, you will know that the majority of transfer news is rubbish.
What was once a means of filling up empty spaces in a paper during quiet periods has expanded into something that several sites and papers now rely on for traffic and money.
There is an appetite for transfer news and speculation that can be easily monetised by providing that information.
All you need is a source to back up your info and boom, you have a transfer rumour ready to draw in the views.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter what that source is, so long as you can technically call it a source.
There’s a simple truth that exists with transfer rumours and it’s this: the reliability of the information does not matter.
A website or paper looking to push rumours does not care where the rumour comes from, and will, in some instances, even invent rumours themselves.
While this contradicts journalistic standards which demands outlets report actual, factual information to its readers, it’s a common practice that manifests itself in different ways.
The purpose of this blog is to examine those different ways, so you know what to look out for during any transfer window.
The Source Rabbit Hole
I was covering an Arsenal transfer rumour for work when I encountered what I informally call the “circle of crap”.
The rumour in question was being reported by the Mirror who, several lines into their article, said the information originated from Tuttosport and provided the appropriate link.
It’s always better to read information closer to the original source, so I clicked on the link.
I found myself on Gunnersphere.com, an Arsenal fan site.
Gunnersphere also claimed it came from Tuttosport, but they had gotten it from Transfer Market Web and again provided the appropriate link.
I go onto TMW’s site and read that, indeed, the information has come from Tuttosport. Only, there’s no link this time, so I have no way of confirming that to be the case.
What we see here is a single rumour being passed down three different sources (four if you include my place of work), each one citing a different source other than the original.
Neither the Mirror or Gunnersphere did their due diligence to see if the information was real, and just passed on the information without checking.
Each time, something different is added to the story. The end result is a chain of information with questionable reliability but so long as it provides a link to a source an outlet can claim they’ve done no wrong.
Don’t shoot the messenger comes into full effect.
This is partly down to laziness. A writer doesn’t want to check where the information comes from and just covers it anyway using the source he’s been given. It’s technically not wrong. After all, the Mirror just reported what Gunnersphere said, who in turn were just reporting what TMW said.
Nor, do I think, is there any expectation for a reader to click on the links and look at the sources themselves.
So long as a hyperlink exists, a reader will just assume it’s the original source and move on.
That is, of course, if the reader has made it as far as the body of the article. I can tell you from experience that a lot of people only ever read the headline.
This is a trick you’ll commonly see used by the tabloids and gossip sites.
The end game is clicks, views and money and being wrong often doesn’t effect that as much as you think it would.
Some sites don’t even provide a link to the original source. The worst culprits for this are Talk Sport, who will often cite a foreign newspaper in there gossip but won’t provide the original source of information.
If there is no news, make it up.
That’s the impression I get whenever I read a “StarSport”, “SunSport” “Mail Online” exclusive.
But rather than attribute fake news to a source, they claim it as their own information. When that happens, the reader is unable to check the original source for themselves, and must then rely on the reliability of the outlet.
So why is it that the least reliable outlets produce so many exclusives?
Given the benefit of the doubt, there’s a chance that the information they’ve acquired has come from a real connection, but that connection itself is not as reliable as the connections of someone working for, say, the BBC.
Nonetheless, that is technically exclusive information that nobody else has received.
It’s something that also looks magnificent on a back-page or in a headline. It’s yet another eye-catch to attract the interest of the readers, even if the information itself is incredibly dubious.
Remember: a lot of readers won’t even bother reading the body of the article or checking the information themselves.
What you’ll find with a lot of these exclusives is that the story is either ridiculous or mundane.
One that was on the ridiculous end of the scale was the Daily Star exclusive about Arsenal wanting to swap Alexis Sanchez for Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.
This story came up numerous times during a period when the noise surrounding Sanchez’s future had quieted after two months of near non-stop rumours. This was the hottest transfer saga of the summer and couldn’t be allowed to rest.
The cynical among you will note the convenient timing.
Again, if we’re being fair, the Daily Star may have gotten some info from somewhere that Arsenal wanted a swap deal.
Indeed, several weeks later Arsenal did ask for a swap, but it was Raheem Sterling they wanted, not Aguero.
So how did Aguero’s name enter the conversation? Simple: he was also linked with a move away from his club, and happened to play a similar position to Sanchez. Hence, the swap deal was billed as a matter of convenience for both clubs.
The end result was two separate stories being rolled into one to extend the saga. This in itself is another common trick to extend the life of transfer rumours.
Stories about Sanchez’s move to City must mean that City are losing a player to make way for a new arrival, and that results in stories about those players, factual or not.
A rumour about Aguero leaving would die on its own, but throw in the potential Sanchez arrival and suddenly it has life.
We then get to the big exclusives that does not provide any new information at all.
Take, for example, this exclusive from the Daily Express.
If you have been following the Alexis Sanchez saga, you would know that none of the information provided here is anything new.
It’s been reported by multiple outlets multiple times since the summer transfer window closed.
The report reads like someone’s conclusion that they’ve drawn from readily available information, rather than genuine and new information obtained from sources.
Yet here it is, labelled with EXCLUSIVE in big capital letters.
According to odds from…
A more dubious practice is the involvement of betting companies in transfer rumours.
There is a market on players joining certain clubs, and outlets have used developments in those markets to make stories for years.
You’ve likely seen the “Club A odds-on favourite to sign Player B” story, or the “Betting Company A has slashed odds on Payer B joining Club A” story.
Odds based on speculation, or speculation based on odds, wasn’t too bad until the two sides started coming from the same place.
A recent example of this was pointed out by Sport Witness. They noted that Sky Bet had odds on a story that they themselves had produced. The betting company was producing its own story before stating the odds on its outcome.
The relationship between Sky Sports and Sky Bet is one worth keeping an eye on if you want to see this in action.
You’ll often see Sky Sources break some transfer news before Sky Bet give their odds on that exact transfer.
In effect, to calls the veracity of the original news into question. It makes you wonder if the news was invented for the purpose of attracting bets.
Some outlets will even use so-called Twitter ITKs for sources.
There are some people on Twitter who have access to inside information, but there are also a lot of wannabes and opportunists looking to capitalise on the transfer craze.
There’s usually one source every summer that masquerades as ITK until revealing at the end that he was making things up to see how many people he could fool. Unfortunately, it usually turns out to be quite a lot.
It’s those “experiments” that really demonstrate how the reliability of the source is irrelevant if it’s producing information that people want to see.
As an Arsenal supporter, I’ve seen countless fellow fans rely on the word of select individuals.
Perhaps the most voracious fan group for transfer news (and therefore the most exploitable), a good number of online fans fell for a huge hoax in 2013.
A Twitter use by the name of Wayne Gooney spent the summer tweeting “info” about Arsenal’s targets.
The headline signing would be Wayne Rooney from Manchester United. On top of him, the club would sign Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid, Angel di Maria, also from Real Madrid, and Marouane Fellaini from Everton.
As time went by, and none of these players arrived, fans continued to cling to every assurance he gave.
In the end, none of these deals happened, and Wayne Gooney admitted to having no info whatsoever.
The point here is that if readers are hungry enough for news they will believe even the most unlikely of sources.
Each of those players were mentioned in the papers as Arsenal targets. Arsenal were actively after Higuain, and they did sign a player from Madrid, but it would be Mesut Ozil, not Di Maria.
Those names was in the fan consciousness through sheer repetition alone, which brings us to our final trick.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
I’ve lost count of the amount of rumours about Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Riyad Mahrez, Thomas Lemar, Kylian Mbappe, Arda Turan, Mauro Icardi, Andrea Belotti, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Karim Benzema – and this is from last summer alone.
There was noise around each of these players even though only one of them moved clubs in the end. That’s the idea, though: the noisier something is, the harder it is to ignore.
Outlets don’t want rumours going out in a vacuum. They want clicks, and one way to get those is to hammer key words into the everyday vocabulary of their readers.
In football’s case, it’s usually player names. If you look around your corner of Twitter during transfer windows, I bet you’ll see the same names being mentioned by people; the same names that happen to appear in the news again and again.
It’s an exploitable loop of creating a buzz and then profiting from it. Hence you get updates that aren’t updates.
You get new reports that contain no new information, but just reiterate what was said before.
Another Arsenal example here was the Alexis Sanchez saga.
Every new report contained the phrase: “Manchester City are confident of signing Alexis Sanchez”, followed by a summary of the saga so far.
This went on for weeks while nothing actually happened. But it wasn’t without benefit.
Reinforcing the point so much meant readers would start to associate the two things together.
It becomes a narrative, and narratives are far easier to follow than sporadic news updates.
Combined with the addiction for transfer news, you have a winning formula.