SVGE Analysis: Sky Sports and Whistle Sports take on Copa90 but YouTube is the winner

The battle for the millennial sports audience is happening online and astonishingly without the rights to show live action that has been the mainstay of pay TV broadcaster growth. Coverage of soccer in particular might never be the same again if the success of YouTube channels Copa90 and Whistle Sports continues on their current trajectory in reaching a community of younger fans at the grass roots of the global game.

US-based Whistle Sports claims 110 million subscribers across multiple channels including 25 million on YouTube, 51m Facebook fans, 11m Twitter followers, another 20m on Instagram and 4.5 on Vine. UK-based Copa90 averages 3.6 million views and 13.8 million minutes watched per month since launching on YouTube in 2012, recently reaching the milestone of 1 million subscribers.

“We could be seen as the greatest threat to linear TV sport broadcasting, but also potentially the clue to how they reverse that trend, and how we could become the biggest complement to that,” says Tom Thirlwall, CEO of Copa90’s parent Bigballs Films. “We have that young audience, and we know how to move that young audience around.”

Sky Sports is only too aware of the drift of audiences outside of the live presentation to digital media. However it chose to work with and invest $7 (£4.6) million in Whistle. The partnership, which began a year ago, unveiled its first collaboration last month, a social media channel for Sky’s flagship Saturday talk show Soccer AM.

“This is our first dedicated millennials video service,” says David Gibbs, director of digital media at Sky Sports. “We’re trying to talk to the audience in a different way by telling the story of an event in a different way and giving that millennial audience something they might not get through traditional platforms.

“We’re using the Soccer AM brand to talk to the millennial — or under 25 — audience,” explains Gibbs. “We know that this age group is engaging with our content on linear platforms but we’re seeing an increased amount of short form video consumption. What we’ve done is create bespoke scheduled content around a number of themes. This is complementary content to the linear schedule. Viewers will be encouraged to comment, like and share content.”

Thirlwall reveals that BigBalls held discussions with Sky Sports. “It was not right for us to go onto Sky’s platform,” he says. “They’ve seen our success and decided to adopt a similar approach. They need to. The subscription-based appointment to view audience is getting older. I don’t know any business that can survive by ignoring the next generation of fans.”

He continues: “If you tried to pitch anything around sport to a broadcast commissioner 4-5 years ago without showing a single piece of footage from a game, the door would be shut as fast as they would break into laughter. Our approach to connecting with a connected audience is vindicated. The stories outside of the 90 minutes are exactly what the Generation Y audience wants.”

Stories the traditional media have forgotten

Copa90 stories include the less obviously glamorous ones such as Derby Days in Dublin and Sarejevo and the crowd-supported resurrection of Spanish club Real Oviedo.

“These are not online click-bait featuring Messi or Ronaldo,” stresses Thirlwall. “These are the stories the traditional media have forgotten. These are stories about a constituency of soccer fans that the mainstream ignore. While they fill the schedule with live appointment to view, reruns or highlights that their data tells them audiences want to watch, our editorial is built on constant dialogue with fans.”

Production is constructed around the “anatomy of a story” based on when and where the audience is going to engage with a particular story. “We look at official platforms, vloggers and influencers around an event and look to break down the story into different packages to sit on multiple platforms,” he says.

Fast turnaround video is shot on Canon C300 DSLRs and cut on laptops running Adobe Premier. More high end features will be given a grade in Soho.

Content was initially published on the YouTube Copa90 channel. More recently, distribution has also been on BigBalls’ own sites (such as the Copa90 website), across social media and new video platforms like Vessel and Viber. The latest distribution strategy is Copa Collective which will see Copa90 films seeded across a variety of professional and independent digital channels.

“Copa Collective is a like-minded group of magazine publishers, freelance journalists and bloggers or instagrammers who we have united to work on with editorially to make sure more of our stories get circulated on more networks,” he says. “It’s about formalising a football influencer network.”

BigBalls makes money from YouTube revenue share and, increasingly, from branded content working with Vodafone, Nike, Adidas and others. An example is the video, How Stats Won Football: From Moneyball to FC Midtjylland made with Hyundai.

“The biggest asset are fans and the moment we piss them off by overtly selling to them then we lose them,” says Thirlwall, a former director at agenies Leo Burnett and McCann. “We work very closely with brands and their agencies to establish the best way of presenting a story. Brands recognise that the best way of reaching this audience is to tell credible, authentic stories that fits our editorial tone and style.”

It is looking to increase its output and build audience in the US using KICK TV, the digital network it acquired from Major League Soccer at the beginning of the year. South East Asia is also on the company’s roadmap for expansion within the year.

“Our ambition is to become an era-defining sports media business,” he declares. “That said, we’ve a long way to go before we truely create a global football media business. There’s so much of a runway to go down just in football.”

Sky and Whistle social channel

The theme on launch of the Soccer AM social channel was around EA video game FIFA 16. Sky Sports/Whistle has also developed two regular scheduled programmes, a late night Friday preview of the weekend games using stats and data and a Monday morning review show featuring quirky stories from the weekend’s football action.

“What we liked about Whistle was some of the commercial opportunities they create by working with brands to create branded content opportunities,” says Gibbs. Whistle Sports has attracted LG, Sony, Subaru and Gillette to create custom brand campaigns.

From 2016-2020, Sky will also be able to take advantage of a new deal with the Premier League allowing it to show clips from every EPL game across its digital platforms, including in-match content and highlights.

As with Copa90, content is being versioned into different lengths for different channels. Elements from the longer format Friday and Monday shows on Facebook and YouTube are edited into shorter clips and distributed to other social networks during the week.

“We still want to keep the same quality and principles you would see in any Sky production but this is filmed much more on the fly,” Gibbs says. “It it is quicker, slightly raw. It is not people behind a desk in suits. It’s a different type of production mostly of 3-4 minute clips. We think both [production styles] work.”

Challenged as to whether Sky was late to the game in trying to reach millennials, Gibbs said, “Not at all. This is all about extending our reach across TV and digital.”

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