“Charlie bit me,” Harry Davies-Carr, aged three.
The sight of a three-year-old boy named Charlie having his finger bitten by his baby brother was once the defining image of YouTube. It has been viewed nearly 600 million times and, despite no longer being the most-viewed YouTube video of all time (which once it was), ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ remains in the top 10.
But just as the young faces in that 57-second film from 2007 had to grow up, so too did YouTube have to mature. And just as nearly all growing boys discover football at one time or another, YouTube is also now doing the same.
If you want to watch any of the goals ever scored by a Brazilian at a World Cup, which as that nation hosts the tournament next summer many might wish to do, YouTube will soon be the place you can find it. There are over 15,000 goal clips already on the site.
These are not the products of nocturnal uploads by teenagers in darkened bedrooms but have been deliberately authorised by clubs and leagues themselves. This is intriguing, since a very significant part of what so many clubs and leagues earn is from their contracts with free-to-air and pay-tv broadcasters whose rights are often litigiously protected.
Indeed, six years ago the Premier League filed its first lawsuit against Google and YouTube. It remains a plaintiff in the continuing $1 billion case filed by Viacom against YouTube in 2007 alleging complicity in copyright theft. Against this backdrop the migration of football to the platform that supposedly threatens the game’s multibillion-pound rights model seems counterintuitive.
Yet England’s Football League, which shares the Premier League’s London offices, became overnight the biggest network of football channels on YouTube when it signed a partnership deal in August. The League’s chief commercial officer, Richard Heaselgrave, told Insideworldfootball what he sees in the platform.
“The idea they’re eating our lunch is discredited and outdated,” he said. “The simple sports-rights model with a domestic deal negotiated point to point with a terrestrial or paid channel is a model that’s probably not maximising your value today. YouTube won’t take away broadcast-rights fees, it’s just another way of developing a market.
“But how are fans consuming their football? And will they be our fans 20 or 30 years away? At the Football League we’re very clear – if you are not introducing local kids to Wycombe Wanderers or Reading they will soon be sucked in to a vacuous ‘fanness’ of Chelsea and you’ve got a long-term threat. You need to give the content to them and YouTube will do that.”
Even the Premier League clubs who have been opposing it are now recognising the value of YouTube as a complementary element of a rightsholder’s portfolio. By Christmas it is expected Newcastle United will be the only English top-flight side without a dedicated YouTube channel. Executives at YouTube and the Football League alike talk about how under this new digital model clubs have to become media organisations in their own right.
Figure 1: Football rightsholders with YouTube channels available in the UK
Bundesliga (Germany) Highlights
Ligue 1 (France) Highlights
Argentinian League Highlights
J League (Japan) Highlights
K League (Korea) Highlights
Coupe de France (France) Highlights
Russian Premier League Highlights
Major League Soccer Highlights
Approx. 15 other professional football leagues Highlights
150 football clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus etc Behind-the-scenes
To which end, a dozen Football League clubs will attend a “YouTube university” in the coming months, aimed at improving how they deliver their content to an online audience. But for all the talk of long-term aims and development, there is up-front financial benefit too.
Google, YouTube’s parent, sells advertising against the clips it uploads, and the revenue share between the rightsholder and YouTube works 55%-45% in favour of, in football’s case, the club or league. Its software can track who owns the clips by cross checking everything uploaded against a vast archive of footage to ensure rights are not infringed. “This is not a trivial exercise,” Stephen Nuttall, YouTube’s head of sport in the EMEA region (from where its global football operations are run), told Insideworldfootball.
“There are 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute and we cross-ref all of it with an enormous reference library to make sure the original rightsholders’ interests are protected and responded to. We can block it, track it to see what happens to it or we can monetise against it. In fact, many sports bodies generate more than half the money they receive from YouTube from user-generated video they’ve monetised.”
But despite the internet-ad sales model, and the alternative nature of its delivery – across the internet and not via satellite or cable – YouTube has not turned its back on the more traditional revenue model.
“Predominantly we are ad funded at the moment,” said Nuttall. “But now we offer subscriptions services in 10 places around the world. It started in the US and has rolled out from there.
“Some other sports’ partner [channel]s in the US have opted in and you can expect to see football channels doing the same in time. A YouTube channel is more economical than a club channel over satellite.”
For now Charlie Bit My Finger remains a bigger internet sensation than any clip ever involving a football and has been eclipsed only by music videos such as Psy’s Gangnam Style. But that may not be the case forever.
Football was transformational for the emergence of a new media sector as BSkyB grew from being two startups into a merged, multibillion-pound turnover, multimedia business after it first took exclusive rights to the Premier League in 1992. The sport has done very well out of the relationship, and the emergence of telecommunications companies into rights bidding such as the UK’s BT has propelled values still further.
Nuttall concedes there is still a “misconception” that YouTube is populated only by grainy clips of cute kittens. But if it is finally to move into the mainstream like BSkyB has, it is fair to assume YouTube will require something similarly transformational, like an exclusive bid for premium-sports content. With $56.52 billion in the bank on September 30 this year, that kind of acquisition is well within Google’s grasp.
Nuttall stops short of confirming this is the strategic aim. But not by far, since YouTube, with all its access to Google-query volumes and other data metrics, knows exactly what its audience wants. “We deliver 6 billion hours of video every month, up 50% year on year,” he said. “I see that continuing to grow even faster with increasing numbers of video-enabled tablets and phones.
“We have found that football is the biggest sport in terms of market potential and opportunity.
“YouTube is obviously a very, very fast-growing, fast-evolving business. We had never done live sport at a real scale until we did the London 2012 Olympic Games live in 65 territories around the world.
“Subsequently we have worked with the Indian Premier League [in cricket] and the America’s Cup [in sailing]. Lately we’ve had 150 live football matches. And as the business develops with the capabilities of the platform and the mainstream of our content we will look for more interesting places with more and more content providers.”
So as the football’s big-media players vie for the open rights tenders in competitions such as the 2015-18 UEFA Champions League cycle, they need to be aware of YouTube’s presence. For YouTube, to which the first-ever video was uploaded in April 2005, is not a baby any more, and could take a bite out of a lot more than a finger.
Football on YouTube in numbers
100,000 the number of videos uploaded by clubs
15,000 the number of goal clips on YouTube
400+ the number of dedicated football-channel “partners” on YouTube
271 the number of football clubs with YouTube channels
150+ how many live games YouTube broadcast in the 2012-13 season
37 the number of different League and Cup competitions with videos on YouTube
YouTube is a football world like no other
Clubs who operate on YouTube are talking to a different demographic to what they are used to. It is what Google calls the “Generation C” due to how it is connected to the internet, curates its own content and constantly interacts in an online environment.
Although at the top of the YouTube tree sit Real Madrid and Barcelona, who are also the world’s two biggest clubs by overall turnover, the viewing habits of this 16- to 25-year-old audience have made it possible for YouTube to support a broader digital ecosystem.
Figure 2: Top-10 football channels on YouTube in EMEA region
Rank Channel Subscribers
1 FC Barcelona 1,106,152
2 Real Madrid CF 957,211
3 FIFA TV 489,251
4 freekickerz 432,169
5 Copa90 410,029
6 Liga BBVA 397,455
7 Chelsea FC 272,615
8 Goal 235,209
9 Ligue 1 223,752
10 Juventus 218,740
Among the top-10 YouTube football channels in Europe are a few who have no access to formal footage whatsoever but who nonetheless cater for the appetites of Generation C. Freekickerz is produced by a pair of young Germans who showcase how to do football tricks; Copa90 has a collection of made-for-YouTube shows that bring fan culture with an unashamedly youth focus.
As the Football League’s Richard Heaselgrave notes, this is how clubs must think in the YouTube world. “The guys at Copa90 have a brilliant catchphrase: ‘The Game Never Stops.’
“That’s it. We know that as a competition we are fairly and squarely about entertainment for our fans, 24/7. Look at the mascot at Burnley who was sent off the other day [for handing a pair of glasses to the assistant referee]. How you’d deal with that on YouTube is different to how [the BBC] would on The Football League Show.
“Clubs need to recognise this and to be prepared to laugh at themselves and the funny things in football. That is one of the big challenges we now face. We have the eyeballs through YouTube but we need to do it properly.”
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.