“What you're getting with fan media is engagement at scale”- this is how Matt Wilson sums up Ball Street Network, the parent company which oversees several hugely popular social media channels which obsess over football and are run by fans for fans.
Wilson attributes the growing popularity of the the channels, such as of Arsenal Fan TV, to their ability to offer an alternative to traditional sports media and highlights the untapped commercial opportunities for brands in the fast-moving space.
Recently, Ball Street Network, the company he co-founded in 2012, announced a summer YouTube football tournament starring some of YouTube’s biggest football teams and featuring football predictions game FanLeague as the title sponsor. Given the popularity of the space and its highly engaged audience, it’s of little surprise that several brands were keen to be involved.
— Ball Street (@BallStreet) June 15, 2017
Wilson describes the deal as a “refreshing alternative to the world where millions of ad dollars are wasted on advertising people don’t want”.
It’s a point which he has a lot to say on and an area where Wilson has been actively involved in since his early days at TalkSport back in 2002, where he helped redefine the channel’s commercial model.
FanLeague has followed Ladbrokes in investing money into sponsorship around Ball Street Network’s portfolio of channels. The moves shed light on a wider trend in the space, one where more and more brands are directing their sponsorship funds into YouTube football teams like Hashtag United and influencer channels such as Copa90, having realised the promise they hold over traditional sports media.
“This is where there is engagement at scale,” insists Wilson. “You might get scale with programmatic advertising but there's no engagement and you are ultimately force feeding an advert that is intrusive. You might get scale by sponsoring Soccer Saturday like Gillette has done, but again there's no engagement. What you're getting with fan media is engagement at scale.”
Arsenal Fan TV is perhaps the most renowned example of this. The YouTube channel hosted by Gunners fan Robbie Lyle has enjoyed a remarkable rise over the last year and now has over 468,000 subscribers on YouTube - to put that in some context Arsenal itself, one of the most famous clubs in the world, has just 14% more YouTube subscribers.
The model of having real fans produce content around their club purely for the love of their team is an attractive proposition for brands. Lyle’s outspoken and passionate sermons on Arsenal Fan TV speak directly to supporters in a way Sky Sports doesn’t, thus prompting a response and engagement with the content.
Still, the value of engagement continues to elude some brands, many of whom remain apprehensive in veering off the traditional sponsorship path. According to Wilson, just before the start of last season a big betting brand was close to agreeing a deal with Ball Street to sponsor 10 of its club fan channels, however the betting firm pulled out before the agreement was finalised and opted for a season long press sponsorship
“This space is moving very fast, but ultimately a lot of the people who are making these decisions are making the decisions based on what's safe and what's happened before rather than reverse engineering where consumer attention and fan engagement truly exists,” says Wilson.
He continues: “The current situation reminds me of the early days of broadcast sponsorship where brands were reluctant to pay big money because they didn't understand it. The market is starting to catch up though, and brands are waking up to the fact that there’s real value in these platforms.”
Ladbrokes is one such brand which has worked up the courage to veer off the traditional sponsorship path as it looks for more engagement with its audiences. Earlier this year the bookmaker agreed a deal with the Ball Street Network securing sponsorship of its portfolio of fan channels.
Wilson believes the fan channel sponsorship is the best sponsorship in football given the close relationship they will be party to through the sponsorship. He believes fans are able to see the value exchange in the deal, noting that they’re aware the brand’s investment enables the channels to flourish and provides them with the means to buy new cameras and equipment. The growth of Arsenal Fan TV is a testament to this, with Lyle having been able quit his job to concentrate on the channel full-time.
“What direct response do you really get from your outdoor advertising or shirt sponsorship?” asks Wilson. “If you come into [the supporter] community and you're participating with and enabling that community, you are developing a genuine relationship, you get engagement at scale and delayed gratification is one of your rewards.
“You're speaking to people very direct, it's a very personable communication and because of that you get great levels of advocacy from the audiences and the research from the Ladbrokes partnership clearly demonstrates this as we shifted attitudes toward the brand. I think the brands which recognise that are going to be rewarded with loyalty from consumers.“
Fan-run club channels are undoubtedly riding the same wave as influencers, but there’s more to it than that. The shift away from traditional media is more than just a ‘trend’, its systemic. You need only look at the decline in paid for TV subscriptions both sides of the Atlantic.
Wilson maintains that whether it be the corruption surrounding Fifa or scandals like phone hacking, fans have lost faith in these big organisations, which has had a seesaw effect in benefitting independent channels.
“I think the trust that was extracted from these areas has been re-invested into influencers who the audience see as relatable,” says Wilson.
“If you look at things through the eyes of football fans, they want consistency and they expect loyalty. With fan culture, fans notice when brands or broadcasters turn up to the big games acting like they care and then disappear. This applies to broadcasters too, broadcasters have had the rights and the resources, but have failed to treat every league like it's the Premier League, and that’s where we come in.”