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...

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Huw Davies Il­lus­tra­tions Joe Wal­dron

FFT in­ves­ti­gates how a sim­ple video web­site changed the way we watch foot­ball and made stars out of fans and trick­sters

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, 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 £897m 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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