11 January 2024

“This is just the beginning!” How creators are changing the game in sports media – and why you can’t be left behind 

Charlie Skillen

Boldspace Head of Sport, Charlie Skillen, spoke to three industry leaders recently to get the inside track on how they are shaping up content in the world of sport.

If you’re a sports brand still sleeping on content creators, the train has left without you.

Not only are they securing a young audience that turned off from traditional media long ago, but they are now disrupting that mainstream space and gaining reputation beyond the social media community.

The traditional TV, radio, print, and digital media conversation around sport had been the reserve of the same ex-pros for many years. But creators have shaken up that landscape more recently and the lines between the two are more blurred than they ever have been.

Take Saturday mornings on Sky Sports, for example. This season, in the place of Soccer AM, which had dominated the schedule since the mid-90s, proudly sits an extended version of Saturday Social.

Not only is the live show dominated by football YouTubers arguing over tier lists, combined XIs and other formats popular across short-form digital media, it is designed to be chopped up across those platforms – with some of Sky Sports’ best-performing YouTube videos coming straight from Saturday Social.

Among the incredible marketing the PDC has done around the World Darts Championship, which enraptured the nation as 16-year-old Luke Littler got to a final against world No 1 Luke Humphries, is the sustained involvement of top-level creators.

Ethan Payne, known as Behzinga, of Sidemen fame, delighted the Ally Pally crowds with a pre-march nine-dart challenge – the video of which is currently lighting up the PDC’s popular YouTube channel.

His opponent that night, Elliot Hackney, MD of Fellas Studios, the video podcast network that has created multiple chart-topping shows hosted by the biggest creators in the UK. He knows this current trend won’t slow down.

When I spoke to him recently, Hackney told me: “I promise you, this is just the beginning. The creator clips on a mainstream platform’s channel is now outstripping that of ex-pros a fair amount of the time. You’ve only got to look at Saturday Social replacing Soccer AM to see the traditional TV narrative shifting.

“The sooner a big UK license holder taps into this market, the sooner they see numbers rise – people won’t ditch their Sky or TNT subscriptions because a creator is involved, but introducing them gradually will see a massive upswing in online engagement.

“And let’s face it, that’s where everyone consumes content these days.”

Taking notice of creators and their platforms is now a prerequisite for traditional media – as FourFourTwo editor James Andrew told me:

“It’s undeniable the effect creators are having across the industry – we’ve done several features on the phenomenon and gone behind-the-scenes at various shows,” he says.

“I’d like to use them a bit more throughout our platforms. They’re already now front of mind when we need fan voices on specific clubs, while the numbers these guys pull in on social media is massively attractive to a brand like ours.

“We’ve just relaunched our YouTube channel and of course have taken guidance on what works well on that platform. That’s invariably content made by these creators.”

It’s not just traditional media getting creators involved where the shift is apparent, but their whole creative strategy.

A decade ago, when the idea of serious sports conversation on YouTube and other social media properties was still in its infancy, the idea was to imitate the kind of discourse prevalent on Sky Sports and their rivals, and package it up for a young audience.

Hard-hitting opinion, game watchalongs, fan vox-pops – this was all standard stuff on TV 25 years ago

But watch a mainstream football broadcast now and the pundits, once non-partisan with bias the worst possible accusation, are now vocally in support of a particular club.

They shout each other down, go on rants and vocally defend (or, even better, chastise) ‘their’ team to the hilt. This is what plays best on clipped-up content for social media – where each broadcast gets a phenomenally valuable ‘second life’. The strategy is taken wholesale from this generation of YouTubers.

CBS is not available in the UK – football fans this side of ‘the pond’ may not have even heard of the US network a couple of years ago.

However, the popularity of the easy-going banter between Kate Abdo and her regular guests Thierry Henry, Jamie Carragher and Micah Richards have made them a hit across the globe with their social clips, with many fans rushing to their channels after a big game.

This digital strategy and genial on-air atmosphere is directly related to the content that creator platforms have been pushing out for years.

One of football’s top creators is more than aware of the shift. Rory Jennings’ punditry was once the domain of his YouTube channel, but the Chelsea fan is now a fully-fledged broadcaster on talkSPORT, Sky Sports, and as one-third of the phenomenally successful ‘The Club’.

He told me: “I’ve noticed a massive change in the type of companies interested in working with me in the past few years – I’m now just as likely to work with a big TV brand as I am a YouTube channel.

“I love it, it’s a massive vindication of what we do. It also brings me to a different audience. I have guys in their twenties watching me on YouTube, while the older lads I see at the football – or even their dads! – have seen me on Sky Sports or talkSPORT.

“People occasionally get upset, but it’s just the modern version of something that’s always been there… what was Tim Lovejoy if not an influencer?”

At Boldspace, we’re under no illusions about the importance of creators to hitting an ever-changing audience. A well-positioned piece with the right creator can smash campaign targets in one fell swoop and put any brand in front of one of the most desirable demographics.

Collectively, we’ve been working in the space since it started, and have links to the top creators in sport and beyond. If you feel you’re missing out while other brands are working with creators with millions of eyes glued to their every move, we’d love to discuss it. Just drop us a line.