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‘No one gets closer than us’: Media startup Dugout on football’s digital migration

‘No one gets closer than us’: Media start-up Dugout's football lockdown lessons

When the pandemic hit, football competitions froze, content dried up and fandoms became exclusively digital. Football media startup Dugout, already embedded with top clubs, saw its behind-the-scenes video output became a storytelling priority in the fallow months. Co-founder and senior vice president Sebastian Gray shared what he has learned about the beautiful game, opening up on the value of archive, live and gamified content.

Dugout creates, repackages, distributes and monetizes football video content for 120 clubs, four leagues and three federations. It has unparalleled access inside the sport – ‘No one gets closer than us’ is its mantra, after all.

The company was co-founded by 10 of Europe’s biggest teams in 2016 when they came to the realisation that they needed to improve their content production capabilities to engage with fandoms and unlock commercial opportunities, particularly as clubs and players become media platforms in their own respect. Now with the Uefa Champions League, Europa League and the Euros moved, and numerous leagues vetoed or delayed, storytelling is doing a lot more heavy lifting in football.

Or it was, until we found ourselves in this weird limbo state, where football sneaks back into empty stadiums and fans celebrating triumphs risk the ire of the authorities. Stakeholders are fast adapting to a world where fans are digital-only. In this space, they look to recoup lost commercial value for sponsors and partners.

Dugout’s operation distributes to around 350 million unique people via a global network of publishers. Its video archive embeds and autoplays on relevant content, monetized with pre and mid-roll ads around pre and post-match interviews, live action from the training ground and off-field activities. Clubs and sponsors get that extra reach while publishers are fed quality, engaging content.

It has created value where there previously was none, an achievement that has seen 22 new publishers joined the network over the last few months.

Archive value

The first thing Gray noticed was the new emphasis on archive content in lockdown. ”People suddenly realized their value.”

There‘s emotional space in the modern fan for nostalgia and every day hides a sporting anniversary – if you have the content and the means of distribution to recognise it. Perhaps this means resurfacing footage of a player when they sign a new contract or marking a memorable season in a club‘s history.

Gray said: ”When we started the business, we knew club video archives were undervalued. No one was using it, it was a commodity. Meanwhile, the rights market was a very complicated game.”

More media organisations are recognising the value of archive content, as proven by ITV‘s re-airing of England‘s run at Euro 96. But, as with many other sports, esports football is also filling in the gaps.

Digital fandom

Clubs remain keen to engage with fans during lockdown. There’s still season tickets, broadcast packages and merch to sell.

Gray said: ”There is no physical fan right now. It doesn‘t exist. Therefore, you can‘t think about game day programming around the events in the stadium. Every single fan is a digital fan today. This has really accelerated clubs adopting a new strategy.”

There‘s newfound value in content that wouldn‘t have made the cut previously.

”Where we‘ve seen real value is actually in stuff traditionally that people wouldn‘t have picked up [during the normal season]. So that might be behind the scenes in the cub canteen that wouldn‘t [that wasn‘t used because of the] aggressive timeframe of the season.”

It‘s not that it wasn‘t good enough, but that the priority was always around supporting tight sporting schedules instead. Now, in many respects, fans are getting to look at their favourite teams in a new light – hungry for footage, some clubs have even taken to mounting Go Pro cameras at stadium car parks, to record players‘ arrival for the game, thus extending the matchday experience further.

Now that physical distance has been imposed, there‘s more value than ever in using digital to get fans in behind-the-scenes.

Live-streaming

Dugout has had the breathing space to come up with new formats; one is live-streaming.

It‘s been a long journey to this point, Gray said: ”We knew we would be able to innovate our business once we understood what engagement looks like. And it always stemmed on the idea of understanding what a fan wanted” As it has scaled up, it has learned what people actually watch. It‘s now confident enough to push into resource-intensive live broadcasting - which is easier than ever.

Fans engaging on publishers‘ sites have already sought out football content, and Gray thinks this is the perfect place to distribute live content. ”We know there‘s an intent from a consumer in that space. And the publishers really provide a narrative, they provide knowledge, create debates, and stimulate the ability for fans to have a conversation.”

Its first live-stream event was Manchester City’s esports charity tournament, with top players on the bill. Then 17 June, it streamed Arsenal‘s pre-match build-up ahead of their clash with Manchester City. There‘s more to come and a growing confidence that these shows can integrate with the live blogs of publishing partners. The matchday experience can be prolonged if correctly integrated into the right context.

Gray said: ”Clubs have this huge stadium that is empty. But they still want to use it as the heartbeat of their club around game day. Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to walk down this path or go to a seat that was full or restricted for security reasons. Now they can become a broadcaster themselves and can create an entire two or three-hour pregame program.”

Perhaps it is following the trials and tribulations of the home team from the car park and into the locker room for a pep-talk from the manager. Or there‘s a pre-match gig from a local band, an esports competition or perhaps an interview with a club legend. As well as through Dugout‘s channels, there‘s Facebook and YouTube distribution through the clubs.

”Now you can flick a switch, and it will instantly scale to deliver millions and millions of views to people,” said Gray.

What’s next?

There’s a huge amount of experimentation going on around creating engagement with audiences. One of these potential routes is gamification and quizzes, on its video units.

It is creating competitions through the Dugout Play banner, through which fans can enter competitions for exclusive signed shirts, experiences and memorabilia – in exchange for a bit of data and some survey insights. These efforts have helped solidify an insight that most football fans have soft spots for as many as four teams – or, they're fond enough of them to try and win tickets and merchandise from them, anyway. For Dugout’s members, there’s a key pathway to strengthening these allegiances. Barcelona, Chelsea, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid are already in the mix.

And then there are Dugout‘s video units on publisher sites. Now that archive content has been joined by live-stream footgage, are quizzes next? Could interactive video asking how many goals Marcus Rashford scored last season, or who won La Liga in 2002, drive more engagement? Gray’s pretty sure it will, if rolled out correctly.

Of course, this all depends on the buy-in from brands too. They’ve been sluggish, the impending recession has already slashed budgets and the sports freeze hasn‘t helped. But there are still huge competitions on the horizon, such as the delayed Euro 2020 (in 2021).

Gray concluded: ”A lot of the conversations that we’re having for the 2021 season are caveated with an idea of flexibility.” The big question hanging over the sport is whether fans will be back in stadiums in 2021 – something that will have a big impact on where budgets go. Dugout’s going to build that digital-first product regardless.

At the start of the pandemic, football publisher Goal explained the editorial and commercial challenges of the lockdown. It positioned itself as the perfect place to cultivate football fandom in the absence of the sport.

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