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Shotglass Media Future of TV Snap

A new chapter for sports brands and fans

By Neil Smythe, Head of Sport

March 31, 2016 | 6 min read

Neil Smythe is Head of Sport for Shotglass Media (a FremantleMedia company).

When Setanta Sports entered the Premier League rights fray in 2007, football fans anticipated the disruption to our viewing habits caused by the break in Sky Sports' monopoly. As history has shown, however, there were other major players that were unassumingly lurking who would eventually change the way that fans engaged with sports, but on a much deeper level.

Facebook was founded in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006 - all fresh, global, digital platforms which immediately resonated with a young sports audience craving fast, reactive and relevant sports content with minimal restrictions on consumption. The introduction of these platforms - and many more, with Snapchat a more recent notable addition to the landscape - heralded the arrival of an exciting new chapter in sports content and social media influencers, opening new doors for fans and brands to get closer to the action in a more authentic and efficient way, irrespective of rights or official partnership status.

From the first televised football match on the BBC at the 1936 Olympics to the first episode of Match of the Day in 1964 and the historic 1992 Sky Sports deal, fans have always wanted to get closer to the action. That's no longer sufficient; many modern fans now also demand an active role in the conversation, to broadcast rather than being broadcasted to. Digital platforms have allowed this – fans can connect and converse anytime with a likeminded passionate community.

The growing popularity of original, digital sports communities such as on Squawka or The Football Republic are proof that millennial fans have an insatiable and increasing appetite for sports content outside of the official game. These networks and communities don’t have any official rights and they don’t represent any official clubs: what they do is provide content, context, platforms and a brand around which fans can gather to discuss – digital versions of their dad’s favourite pub perhaps.

Much like these changes in mass broadcasting, we’re also seeing an evolution in talent. Brands will always pay top dollar for global stars, and rightly so, but with the growth of digital platforms comes the rise of some unlikely icons and influencers whose fresh tone resonates with younger fans seeking an alternative to the mainstream.

AFC Wimbledon striker Adebayo Akinfenwa is a prime example. He isn’t a traditional football icon; he plies his trade in League 2, is nicknamed 'The Beast' and reportedly carries the BMI of a rugby hooker. But for many millennial fans, especially gamers, his star rises higher than that of his Premier League counterparts. Initially heroed by YouTube star KSI for being the strongest player in EA Sports' FIFA title, Bayo is now an influencer in his own right, with close to half a million Instagram followers and 239,000 YouTube subscribers. He also recently gained equal billing with Leo Messi in EA Sports' excellent branded production 'The Quest for the Best'.

Accidental cult status aside, the key to Akinfenwa's recent growth in popularity lies in his collaborative attitude within the digital community; whereas most top-level players are protected by layers of club, agent and PR, here is one who actively seeks out fan creators to work with. It works; his most successful YouTube videos feature influential YouTubers and have all gained over 1 million organic, engaged views. And this strategy is paying dividends for the player.

Duncan Ross, Vice President, PR & Athlete Marketing at Wasserman, who represent Adebayo Akinfenwa, commented,“Bayo has achieved global popularity through his ability to successfully connect with fans across his social media platforms by engaging with them and being open to conversation. Fans crave authentic content which can resonate with them and Bayo is a perfect example of delivering that.”

There are some brands understanding and benefiting from the new influencer model, too.

In the UK, mobile phone provider EE brilliantly mobilised online influencers with its hugely successful ten-episode series, ‘The Wembley Cup’, which took the UK’s biggest football YouTube stars and pretty much gave them the keys to Wembley stadium. By working with 28 of the biggest online influencers, EE was able to connect with millennial audiences in a more meaningful way than previous campaigns by reaching the influencers’ combined 25 million subscribers with content they would genuinely enjoy watching – and sharing and liking.

As fans, we'll always want to experience the game and its heroes in its HD (and soon, Ultra HD and then probably VR) glory; official rights will always be key to our content consumption.

But today, brands, rights-holders, clubs and players have so many opportunities above and beyond activating official partnerships or broadcasting rights. A new, exciting and shifting landscape of emerging platforms, talent and ways to engage. Fans are there, they’re talking and they’re not averse to talking to brands but the models and the content are changing and the most influential faces and voices may not be the ones you've looked at in the past.

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