How YouTube Changed Foot­ball

In only a decade, the video-shar­ing ser­vice has turned sup­port­ers into ex­perts, play­ers into memes and trick­sters into stars. FFT in­ves­ti­gates why...

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words Huw Davies Illustrations Joe Wal­dron

Ronald­inho was a fraud. Nike’s 2005 ad­vert for their Tiempo Leg­end boots, dur­ing which the non­cha­lant Brazil star re­peat­edly pings a foot­ball back off the cross­bar from 20 yards with­out it touch­ing terra firma, had be­come the big­gest video on YouTube. Yet here was a Nike spokesman ad­mit­ting, “The shots against the cross­bar have been re­worked and re­fined on the com­puter.” Sup­pos­edly two of Ronny’s four strikes did hit the bar (which you’d think would be enough), but it didn’t mat­ter. The video was fake. Nike had ac­com­plished their mis­sion, how­ever. Boy, had they. While the footage was a world away from to­day’s pol­ished, sculpted ads – it was filmed in real time, ended abruptly and had no sound­track be­yond the ball tap­ping against boots and thunk­ing against wood­work – it was the first YouTube video of any kind to reach one mil­lion views. And this was only YouTube’s beta site. In­deed, it took a good three weeks for Ronald­inho and Nike’s com­bined trick­ery to rack up a mil­lion clicks; by way of con­trast, last year’s trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens amassed 112 mil­lion views in its first 24 hours. An ad­vert for a foot­ball boot had shown what this new, ob­scure web­site could achieve. A few weeks af­ter Nike’s ‘Touch of Gold’ video had hit seven fig­ures, and 11 years ago this month, YouTube was of­fi­cially launched, be­fore be­ing bought by Google in 2006. The in­ter­net wouldn’t be the same again… and nei­ther would foot­ball.

No­body in foot­ball took YouTube se­ri­ously in its early days, and it’s easy to see why. Just as YouTube it­self had, like Face­book, be­gun life as a ‘hot or not’ rat­ing/dat­ing site – be­cause ev­ery­thing on the in­ter­net even­tu­ally comes back to sex – the first foot­ball videos be­ing shared were too triv­ial to up­set the sport’s movers and shakers. Even the use of li­censed match footage wasn’t con­sid­ered a threat, de­spite the revo­lu­tion­ary ac­ces­si­bil­ity of YouTube’s free streaming ser­vice in a world where videos were ex­pen­sive to host, hard to find and risky to down­load. The most pop­u­lar early foot­ball videos in­cluded the four-sec­ond ‘Neil Len­non heinously head­butts Alan Shearer’s foot’ and the four-minute ‘The ul­ti­mate Zi­dane Head­Butt video’. The lat­ter was up­loaded just a few days af­ter Zine­dine Zi­dane nut­ted Marco Mat­er­azzi in the 2006 World Cup Fi­nal, com­pil­ing 42 com­edy GIFs that mashed up Zi­dane’s Glas­gow kiss with Pokemon, Street Fighter and even MC Ham­mer. It wasn’t that orig­i­nal, most of the clips hav­ing been lib­er­ated from an on­line com­mu­nity called YTMND (‘You’re The Man Now, Dog’), yet it drew mil­lions of views. Still, the whole world had al­ready seen Zi­dane and Mat­er­azzi’s spe­cial mo­ment; a comic mash-up go­ing vi­ral wouldn’t change much. This was noth­ing like the cat­a­clysmic ef­fect that YouTube had on the ca­reer of Tom Cruise, whose rep­u­ta­tion never re­cov­ered from on­line memes mock­ing his in­fa­mous couch jump on Oprah not long af­ter the site’s launch, nor the ca­reer of Howard Dean, whose widely-shared yelp in an Iowa cau­cus speech – ‘The Dean Scream’ – turned him from demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to an in­ter­na­tional laugh­ing stock. Foot­ball fans were yet

to har­ness YouTube’s po­ten­tial, while the sport’s higher-ups just didn’t re­ally care. YouTube was, though, in­still­ing foot­ball sup­port­ers with an in­tan­gi­ble power of sorts. With match ac­tion be­ing shared by like-minded peo­ple across ev­ery con­ti­nent, show­ing ev­ery­thing from the sea­son re­view of a club in the English third tier to Jonathan Blon­del’s high­lights pack­age, fans be­came more well-in­formed. High­light reels, usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by ei­ther DMX or some ear-as­sault­ing Europop, showed them the best of what they could ex­pect to see from an ex­otic new sign­ing. Users cre­ated ‘wel­come’ videos, even if they didn’t sup­port the club that was do­ing the wel­com­ing. In the sum­mer of 2006, when YouTube was still in its in­fancy, Car­los Tevez joined West Ham from Corinthi­ans and a clip reel that same day drew more than 100,000 views; the ac­count’s only other video gar­nered 68. Portsmouth fans had to set­tle for a slideshow of in­com­ing pretty boy Niko Kran­j­car, which ticked a dif­fer­ent set of boxes en­tirely. This knowl­edge was su­per­fi­cial, of course. If it’s true that in 2016 we’re liv­ing in a ‘post-fact so­ci­ety’, then foot­ball fans on YouTube were years ahead of their time. Any player could be and still is re­duced to clips of re­gal bril­liance or rank in­com­pe­tence, made to suit a nar­ra­tive. The truth is what you and YouTube want it to be. And for the ever-grow­ing pro­por­tion of sup­port­ers who en­joy dis­cussing foot­ball more than watch­ing it, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of con­densed match high­lights pro­vides bite­size chunks for easy di­ges­tion. Still, the pro­fes­sion­als wouldn’t get in­volved with all this non­sense. Or at least, they shouldn’t have done. Back in Au­gust 2008, New­cas­tle’s man­ager was Kevin Kee­gan and their di­rec­tor of foot­ball was Den­nis Wise, as baf­fling a con­cept then as it is now. When Wise ad­vised the club to sign Uruguay mid­fielder Ig­na­cio Gon­za­lez, Kee­gan said he wasn’t good enough. As an ar­bi­tra­tion panel re­view­ing Kee­gan’s sub­se­quent exit would later at­test, “Wise then told him that the player was on YouTube, and that Kee­gan could look him up on there, but he found that the clips were of poor qual­ity and pro­vided no proper ba­sis for bring­ing a player to a Pre­mier League club. More­over, no one at the club had ever seen him play.” New­cas­tle signed Gon­za­lez any­way, and the fall­out was quite some­thing. Kee­gan re­signed from his post in protest and was later awarded £2 mil­lion by the ar­bi­tra­tion panel, Wise was sacked and New­cas­tle were rel­e­gated at the end of the sea­son. No won­der those in the game eyed YouTube with sus­pi­cion. Foot­ball clubs are more, well, wise about YouTube now – in more ways than one. Newly wary of its pit­falls, they nonethe­less em­brace the medium rather than fear it. Manch­ester City led the way. “When I came here in 2009 the club had just made the even big­ger de­ci­sion to go free on their web­site,” Michael Rus­sell, Head of Ci­tyTV, ex­plains to FFT. “Ev­ery other foot­ball club in the land had its TV con­tent be­hind a pay­wall. “If you’re free, you might as well go where the big­ger au­di­ence is: YouTube. Of course, the club had never been on tele­vi­sion, and it’s a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion for a club to go dig­i­tal if you have got a TV chan­nel that em­ploys 50-plus mem­bers of staff. How­ever, in terms of grow­ing au­di­ence, there is no bet­ter place than YouTube. City fans come to ManCity.com, but the world is on YouTube.” And not just the foot­balling world, ei­ther. Manch­ester City were among the pi­o­neers in re­al­is­ing that a vi­brant and in­clu­sive chan­nel could at­tract young in­ter­net users who weren’t even into foot­ball. “The Har­lem Shake is the club’s most-viewed video,” says Rus­sell, who can be seen danc­ing in the video while dressed as a baby (ob­vi­ously). “We were the first Pre­mier League club to do the Har­lem Shake, and it showed just how on-trend we were. YouTube is all about tempo, and we pride our­selves on jump­ing on cur­rent trends.” City are far from re­ac­tive, though. As well as be­ing the first English club to make their videos free, they were the sec­ond to sign up an eS­ports player: teenager Kieran ‘Kez’ Brown rep­re­sents the club of­fi­cially by par­tic­i­pat­ing in FIFA tour­na­ments and then post­ing YouTube videos. City don’t rely on Ser­gio Aguero and chums to draw peo­ple into their world. An April Fool’s prank called The World’s Worst Ref­eree fea­tured zero first-team­ers yet racked up more than two and a half mil­lion views. City were early adopters of Tun­nel Cam, too. “It was only go­ing to be a three-minute video,” Rus­sell re­calls. “But when I filmed 17 min­utes and watched it back, I said, ‘I am not

get­ting rid of any of that – it’s all fas­ci­nat­ing.’ At that time, you didn’t know what tun­nels are like. Now all the broad­cast­ers film in there. I’d like to think we had an im­pact on that.” The re­sult is that Manch­ester City have the third-high­est num­ber of YouTube sub­scribers of any sport­ing fran­chise in the world, trail­ing only to the La Liga be­he­moths Real Madrid and Barcelona. YouTube as­sists in the club’s rapid growth across the globe. And it isn’t just clubs that are turn­ing to YouTube. Some of the world’s big­gest foot­ball matches and even tour­na­ments have been streamed there – not by a dodgy net­work rid­dled with pop-ups and abu­sive com­menters, but through of­fi­cial chan­nels. The Copa Amer­ica has been broad­cast­ing ev­ery match live on YouTube since as early as 2011. BT Sport, a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice, drew a record num­ber of view­ers for last sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League and Europa League fi­nals by show­ing them for free on YouTube, de­spite hav­ing paid a whop­ping $1.4 bil­lion for the two com­pe­ti­tions’ broad­cast rights. With tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion rat­ings for live foot­ball suf­fer­ing across the board, this may be­come a grow­ing trend. But what of the fans, who be­gan foot­ball’s en­try into YouTube? Some would ar­gue that they are the jesters now. The in­ex­orable rise of fan TV, led by the un­of­fi­cial chan­nels for Manch­ester United and Ar­se­nal and later pig­gy­backed by many more, has seen an in­creas­ing num­ber of en­raged, in­can­des­cent match-go­ers spit vit­riol into a cam­era af­ter their team’s 0-0 draw, to the amuse­ment of view­ers at home. “When you boil it down,” wrote Jonathan Liew in The Tele­graph two years ago, “the YouTube fan phe­nom­e­non is the world laugh­ing at the work­ing-class foot­ball fan. Well done, ev­ery­one.”

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