“I WANTED TO GIVE THE FANS A VOICE”
From humble beginnings, Arsenal Fan TV has quickly become an internet sensation
“I thought it would be nice to hear from the people who invest all their time and money into going to games,” Arsenal Fan TV founder Robbie Lyle tells FFT. “I wanted to give the fans a voice.” Together with his partner Tao, Robbie grabbed a video camera and a microphone and stood outside the Emirates Stadium as fans streamed out following a 2012 North London Derby against Tottenham. “We were unknown at that stage,” he explains, “but my thinking was: ‘There are 60,000 people here. By the law of averages, someone will want to talk about the game.’” They initially enjoyed a cult following, before the opening day of the 2013-14 campaign proved to be a breakthrough. Arsenal fans had grown exasperated by the club’s lack of transfer activity over the summer, so when the Gunners lost their season opener 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, emotions were running pretty high. A finger-jabbing fan by the name of Chris Hudson gave Robbie an interview that somehow combined fury, weariness, utter chaos and razor-sharp clarity. “Everything he said encompassed what everybody was feeling that day after the Villa defeat,” remembers Robbie. “He was just talking straight from the heart.” The video went viral and has now been watched over one million times on YouTube. Having initially ignored the project which was filmed on its doorstep, the club has since invited Robbie to press launches and behind-the-scenes events. Even Arsenal’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis, a regular target of some colourful outbursts on the channel, has admitted that he enjoys the videos. “I spoke to him at a club event once,” Robbie recalls. “He said to me: ‘Look, I know I often get some criticism on your channel, but I think you guys do everything in a very professional and fair way – so just keep on doing what you’re doing.’” Robbie has fulfilled his dream of giving the fans a voice, but he’s done so much more than that. He has made them stars.
There is, however, some good news for genuine football supporters. One of YouTube’s most popular sporting channels is Copa90, which brands itself as ‘by fans, for fans’. Very few in football – only Nike, Barcelona, Real Madrid, FIFA and a handful of freestylers (more on them later) – have a bigger following than a group dedicated to the fan experience, and they hold no little influence. “No one gave us a chance,” says CEO Tom Thirlwall, who co-created Copa90 in 2012. “Everyone said that a football media business without any football rights or recognisable football talent on screen was emphatically not going to work. And in 2012, sport made up less than half a per cent of the content on YouTube, with football a subset of that. But we made it our mission to capture and champion the voice of fans. “What amazes me today, four and a half years later, is that we will get briefs from some major global brands, leagues and tournaments who want ‘a fans-first approach’. Isn’t it amazing that when players want to play in front of them, clubs want to recruit them and broadcasters want to sell their product to them, the fans have been forgotten? Brands will say, ‘We’ve had three or four agencies working on this for months and here’s our line…’ – and it’s ‘Connect to fans through authentic content that speaks to them.’ Wow. OK. So what have you been doing up to now?” In creating videos on subjects ranging from the intense rivalry between Red Star and Partizan Belgrade to a Syrian refugee trying to forge a playing career in Germany, Copa90 can tell stories to a large network of fans (one that has been boosted further by popular videos on Lionel Messi and FIFA 17). They’ve managed to establish a connection, something that’s not gone unnoticed by football’s heavyweights. “We’ve done a lot of work over the past couple of years with Major League Soccer,” Thirlwall tells FFT. “We have had conversations with the FA and the Premier League. Federations have approached us to say, ‘We have a problem connecting with fans and we understand that you have this authentic connection, so we would like you to help us.’ Our ambition is In recent years, YouTube has seen the camera turn 180 degrees. Football fans can be minor celebrities, as can people once mocked for uploading videos of goals ‘they’ scored on FIFA or PES (or, inexplicably and inexcusably, Football Manager). Anyone can be a player now. Football freestylers are self-made celebrities. Blessed with quick feet, confidence and a camera, these skill merchants – many of whom pursued a career in professional football only to find they lacked the requisite physique, drive or broad range of talents – have found a different way to make a living from their ability. Freestylers and clips of professional footballers’ flicks and tricks account for many of YouTube’s most-watched sports channels. F2Freestylers – arch-ballers Billy Wingrove and Jeremy
Lynch – now have nearly five million subscribers. “We try to think of things no one has done before,” Lynch tells FFT. “We’re working through a list of 100 or so, but almost every day we think of a new one.” Wingrove adds: “We have managed to make our job from another avenue. We’re filming with Barcelona players! Six or seven years ago, it didn’t even exist. We created it, basically.” YouTube’s impact has been massive. Skilled footballers who don’t make the grade now have another route into the game. And when 17 of YouTube’s 40 most-watched football clips are either freestylers or skills reels, the site could even be affecting how today’s young players play. Will the next generation of footballers be more concerned with fancy flicks than hat-tricks? If that happens, it would be the most significant case of YouTube changing football, more than a decade after Ronaldinho wowed the world with his crossbar tomfoolery. For now, YouTube’s only impact is in football’s growth, fan culture, celebrity, scouting, education and the way we spectate. And it has got every episode of Renford Rejects.
to become an important influence on the game going forward, giving fans a voice and a platform.” Think on that the next time you’re browsing on YouTube for football’s funniest howlers.