8 Ways YouTube Is Changing Sports Fandom (For The Better)

The age-old relationship between sports hero and fan has changed rapidly over the last decade, with technology - particularly online video and YouTube - playing a key role in turning fans and clubs alike into broadcasters, making heroes seem more human and allowing more access to niche sports, more visibility for women’s sports and greater depth of coverage.

Sport is the home of modern heroes - larger-than-life characters we (mere mortal) fans pin our hopes on and pay tribute to with our ticket money. It’s a new Mount Olympus where we’re supposed to stay back and watch as our Titans clash.

That age-old relationship between hero and fan has changed rapidly over the last decade, however, with sports stars more humanised and fans frequently filling the role of hero as new technology bridges old divides.

Whether it’s the World Cup or Winter Olympics, our view of sport is no longer confined to the stands - now we see it from all angles, with YouTube playing a pivotal role in that shift.

We’ve assembled a team of those in the know - YouTube creators, brand managers of iconic clubs and tournaments, and thought leaders in sport content - to discuss how the platform is changing the game.

1. It’s bringing women’s sport to the fore

Long marginalised on traditional channels, women’s sport is finding a more level playing field on YouTube.

“Through live coverage of women’s football on YouTube, and having a platform to showcase behind the scenes content and much broader coverage of leading female teams, there is a rapidly growing interest in the professional, amateur and participatory women’s game,” says Russell Stopford, Chief Digital Officer of Paris Saint-Germain Football Club.

The statistics back-up Stopford’s assertion; 149.5 million people watched last year’s UEFA Women’s Euros (July-August 2017) according to Nielsen figures1. In tennis, the women's game is attracting a growing global fan base through digital video: highlights of Jelena Ostapenko’ victory over Simona Halep at Roland Garros 2017 has in excess of 771,000 views on the tournament’s YouTube channel, an increase of 58% on similar highlights from the previous year.2

2. It lets fans into the dressing room

The immediacy of online video has allowed access far beyond the track, field or pitch, bringing stories, insight and perspective from the dressing room and beyond.

Take FC Internazionale Milano midfielder Radja Nainggolan, who on YouTube has found a platform to demonstrate his barbershop skills, or basketball superstar Kevin Durant’s intimate live streams from his home; an athlete who now helps other stars launch their own YouTube channels as a perfect signifier of the change underway.

“Fans demand total access to players, talent, and clubs,” says James Kirkham, Head of Copa90, a global football media business with 1.5 million YouTube subscribers. “Everything has switched from sporting stars as distant beings, only appearing on your bedroom wall poster, to demanding seeing their personalities in four dimensions, and interacting with them socially.

“Brands who get this win. Those who don’t, and only use their talent in a way they could have done 30 years ago, will miss the mark.”

3. It turns sports clubs into publishers

What are sports clubs, if not brands? Just as their analogues across many industries have done, clubs large and small are now reinforcing their identity and drawing fans in through video.

Manchester City became the first English Premier League side to hit 1 million YouTube subscribers last year3. Today it has 57 videos which have passed the 1 million view mark; statistics which cement the club as publisher in its own right, able to directly engage with fans without relying on the traditional gatekeepers. It’s a trend that can be seen across every kind of sport.

“The ability to surface content on the world’s greatest video search engine has huge benefits for the accessibility of the sport,” says Alexandra Willis, Head of Communications for the AELTC, Wimbledon Championships, a tournament now in its 142nd year. “The tone is certainly broadening too. There is still a place for traditional, considered, analytical highlights packages, but these can sit alongside short, punchy clips, blooper reels, and quick interviews.”

4. It allows deeper coverage than ever before

Traditional sports coverage had a pretty set format: press conference, live action, ex-professionals on a sofa waxing lyrical. Online video has disrupted that model beyond recognition, with forensic detail and personality acting as main drivers of the action.

For example Full Time Devils, a fan channel dedicated to everything Manchester United and with 436,000 subscribers5, talk tactics in detail impossible in traditional sports media. Recently the channel dedicated 52 minutes of in-depth fan chat to soley what formation manager Jose Mourinho should play6.

“The audience are dictating what sort of content they want on YouTube,” says Denis Crushell, EMEA VP of Tubular Labs, a company that provides analytics to many major sports channels. “What we’re seeing is experimentation and creativity in how you cover subjects such as football. Humour is a big element, as are long unscripted conversations, but equally there’s a growing area of professional content, where fan issues are explored in an immersive, documentary style.”

5. It hosts content by fans, for fans

Be it shouting from the stands or berating a team’s performance on a call-in radio show fans have always been vocal - but not with the impact and power they enjoy today, facilitated by social channels and online video.

“What’s hugely exciting is fans, with little or no budget, can get their voice heard through video platforms,” says Michael Butler of The Guardian Sport. “A chant you upload to YouTube might end up on the terraces the following week, just look at how the Mo Salah song caught fire.” (The video in question: an Irish comedian and Liverpool fan who clocked up over 2.7 million views.)7

Denis Crushell, Tubular Labs agrees: “Established fan channels, whether it’s Arsenal Fan TV, True Geordie or Full Time Devils, are huge not just on YouTube but as influencers in the game and media. They can have excess of 20 million views per month, and the majority of content is fans interviewing fans.”

6.  It puts the control of viewing in fans’ hands

In perhaps the most radical shift, “watching” sport has become more social, more immersive, and more interactive for fans.

A revealing study by Google and Ipsos Connect found that 80% of sports viewers said that they use a computer or smartphone while watching live sport, to search out player stats, message other fans, and watch related videos.8

“When you’re a sports fan it’s always on your mind, always part of the conversation,” says Jeff Nathenson, international MD of Whistle Sports, a media network which creates and distributes sports content worldwide.

“In the past you had to wait for the traditional broadcasters’ programming, now what social platforms like YouTube have done, every time you open up your phone there’s a chance to connect and interact with your team, player or sport of your choice, and for you to contribute to that dialogue creatively.”

7. It’s making all sports equal

In an environment where active, engaged fans dictate what they watch, even the most seemingly niche of games have found huge audiences through YouTube.

Case in point: The Lacrosse Network. When it was acquired by Whistle Sports in 2014,  it had just 2000 subscribers. Today, through a mix of highlights, comedy sketches, and unrivalled access to players, it has grown to 141,000 subscribers.9

“YouTube, and similar platforms, give a voice to all. That’s the beauty. No group is too small. Everyone has equal worth and billing, and the same chance of success,” says Jeff Nathenson of Whistle Sports. “The nature of the platform means discovering and finding the marginalised is part of the fun.”

8. It inspires participation

By giving fans the confidence to be more active, form supportive communities, and search out and develop new skills, YouTube is providing a springboard for future athletes across the globe.

In the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Adam "AJ" Edelman made it onto the Israeli team after only four years in the sport, and without a coach. Instead he watched hours of YouTube videos to master the skills required.10

It’s a benefit not lost on some of the sporting biggest brands on the planet.

“As part of our strategy we look to increase the amount of people watching and interacting with hockey,” Chris Neilson of the FIH.  “Not only has YouTube given us the opportunity to do this and touch new fans, it’s also given us the ability to cover the game at a grass roots level to ensure the hockey story is being told throughout the world and inspiring the next generation of, not just fans, but players.”  

These conversations speak to a revolution in sports coverage, access and fan power, driven by the unique relationship video creates between publisher and viewer, and distinguished by the active, engaged sports audience who make YouTube their go-to destination for content. With our heroes and fans growing closer than ever, it appears the only way is up Olympus from here. Game on.

Winning with apps: 5 ways to punch up your mobile playbook