Technology has completely transformed the world of sports, from the equipment athletes use to the tools available to referees. It’s also changed the way fans follow their favorite teams and athletes. For example, on YouTube we’ve seen a whole range of interesting new fan behaviors play out, such as a 50% increase in watch time of “funny” sports videos.1
To find out how else online video platforms like YouTube have changed the world of sports, we spoke to three of the most prolific and popular creators of sporting content on the platform: Dude Perfect, GoPro, and WWE. Here are four ways they say online video has changed sports and what it means to be a fan.
Redefining what we consider sports
Ever heard of wingsuiting? Maybe not, but it’s just one of many niche sports that’s built up an active and engaged following through online video.
“Online video has opened the door for new sports and activities that weren’t — and in many cases still aren’t — accessible on regular broadcast TV,” explained Todd Ballard, CMO of GoPro. “We’ve had many athletes over the years who have built their brands on platforms like YouTube. It’s given them the opportunity to speak to a broader audience, and it’s given viewers access to sports that are less mainstream.”
Online video is not just popularizing niche sports. It is actually redefining what we consider to be a sport.
In fact, in some cases, online video is not just popularizing niche sports. It is actually redefining what we consider to be a sport. “Sports entertainment embodies more than just the professional games or matches you get on broadcast TV,” said Coby Cotton from Dude Perfect. “Trick shots might not be what you’d consider a traditional sport — it doesn’t have a league or a championship. But one of the most popular questions we receive from fans is about how to do a particular trick shot.”
Breaking the third wall between athletes and sports fans
“Not that long ago, if a fan wanted to connect with a star athlete, they had to send a letter and hope they got some sort of response maybe six months later,” explained Ballard. This distance between sports idols and the fans who celebrated them made athletes seem distant and, ultimately, less relatable.
Now an athlete can post something and get immediate feedback from viewers.
But that relationship has changed. “YouTube created this real-time feedback loop that never existed before. Now an athlete can post something and get immediate feedback from viewers. That level of engagement really builds an emotional connection between them and their fans,” Ballard pointed out.
And it’s not just the interactive nature of online sports video that’s helping forge this deeper connection — it’s the breadth of content sporting creators can now make available to fans. In the past, you were lucky if you caught a few words from athletes in a postgame interview. That’s no longer the case, said Jayar Donlan, executive VP of advanced media at WWE. “We’ve always been big believers in providing fans with access to our superstars, but online video has really allowed us to experiment with formats that give fans a different perspective on their idols. For example, we’ve got a YouTube series that features the parents of WWE superstars that really shows a different, more personal side to the athletes.”
It’s safe to say that most of us aren’t going to start doing back flips on our bikes over 72-foot canyons, like Kelly McGarry did on GoPro’s most-watched YouTube video. But we’re still being inspired by the athletes we see online.
“Sports enthusiasts are changing from being primarily spectators to participants,” explained Cotton. “Not everyone is born with the gifts needed to succeed in traditional sports like football, soccer, or basketball. But many of our most popular sporting videos are ones that anyone can take part in, regardless of their physical attributes — sports like go-kart soccer or giant battleship.”
The GoPro team has noticed something similar on its YouTube channel, which contains many videos of regular sports fans doing incredible things. “Online video has opened up opportunities for more ‘everyday’ people to become sports stars,” Ballard explained. And that’s also what we at Google have seen playing out in the YouTube data, with searches for “how to” sports videos more than doubling between 2016 and 2017.2
Putting sports fans in the driver’s seat
Until recently, you got your sporting fix whenever you could. If the TV schedule said a football game kicked off at 1 p.m., you dropped everything else to make sure you caught it. But with online video, fans are watching sports on their own terms. “Some of our most popular videos are highlights — things like top 10 live moments for our flagship programs, ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown Live.’ Fans really seem to crave content that makes them feel like they’re reliving these big moments,” WWE’s Donlan noted.
“We’re always looking to see how fans respond to our videos — both by looking at the data and by reading the comments,” Donlan added. “We use that information to determine the type of content we’ll create. For example, when we saw people were interested in seeing more from our female superstars, we started creating more of that content. We program our content for our community across platforms, and our fans are part of that creation process.”
In other words, online video not only gives sports fans control of the timing, it gives them some control over the content itself. And for content creators — whether they’re digital-only or offer a mix of traditional and online programming — platforms like YouTube give them new ways to engage with fans and provide data to help shape future content.