The English football season ended on Saturday with its traditional showpiece – the FA Cup final. The stature of the famous old competition is open to question these days for a number of reasons. However, Arsenal and Chelsea served up a great game and, for me at least, a great result.
The financial clout of football and its TV paymasters always demand that the best play the best. The Wembley fixture was contested by two of the biggest names in English football while Saturday’s Champions League final will have similarly stellar sides in Real Madrid and Juventus. Their presence will bring eyeballs, media attention and, in turn, advertising revenues.
This is how the traditional treadmill turns.
Therefore I was intrigued by the 27,000 sell-out at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic FC, on May 21 for the Sideman vs The YouTube All-Stars. Some of the platform’s most-followed football vloggers were on show for the third year of this charity fixture. However, only KSI, Poet and Joe Suggs (boyfriend of Zoella) would resonate with the uninitiated.
Tickets were priced at £15 and £10. The first 10,000 went in 50 minutes, 20,000 were gone by the first evening.
If the number of views watching the live stream achieved the reported figure of 14 million then it was the most popular football game broadcast in the UK that weekend, one which also saw the final round of Premier League fixtures.
However, the context of these numbers is notoriously hard to unpick. By way of comparison, Match of the Day hovered around the four-million mark each week this season while the BBC’s last live fixture before the ‘You Tube game’, Chelsea v Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final, got only a million higher.
The most watched game on British TV in 2016 was the European Championship final with 12.3m. All but one Sky game in the same 12 months achieved less than 2m while no BT Sport fixture topped 1m. Elsewhere, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win got 9.3m while Laura Trott’s gold received 8.3m, the best of the Olympic coverage.
TV metrics remain a dark art to me but it is clear that there are lots of blurred lines in online/TV comparisons. For a start, the YouTube ‘live views’ figure was global, not centred on one country, and it will include those who watch the full game posthumously, as well as repeat views. Also, there will be an, admittedly small, proportion of viewers watching mainstream TV coverage on different devices which the measurements may not reflect.
Then, of course, there is that term “view” itself. On YouTube, the figure I have quoted will represent 30-second watch (if it were Facebook it would be two seconds). The TV ones were the average audience across the broadcast.
So let’s not get bogged down.
The point is that lots and lots and lots of people watched video coverage of a game involving players whose standard was little better than top-notch Sunday League. The viewership was almost certainly higher than the number watching conventional, high-quality games and, one suspects, many of these were from Gen C.
Yep, we can put another tick in that box. The one that says digital/social channels have vast numbers of, mostly young, eyeballs but television retains the leading players which means they have, for now at least, the vast majority of the influence and the revenue. It reminds me of the battle between newspapers and online a decade ago. And we know how that is playing out.
So let’s turn to the 27,000 people who turned up to watch. OK, it was a knockdown, one-off price and the financial commitment was nothing like the thousands a couple of season tickets at one of London’s Premier League clubs would cost. Or even the hundreds of a Sky Sports subscription.
But then Charlton attracted only 11,162 fans per home game last season. In fact, only six teams of the 72 in the entire EFL averaged more than the YouTubers got for their one-off.
Herein lies the irony of this game being hosted at The Valley.
In the days after the fixture, one of the club’s fansites lamented the fact that the stands were full, mostly with young people, creating a positive atmosphere with an overwhelming sense of community.
That is because Charlton fans are one of groups rallying against their club’s owners right now. A decade ago they were established in the Premier League, averaging near capacity crowds and often on the fringes of European qualification. Not bad for a club that had just spent 11 nomadic years as the tenant of other London clubs after ‘losing’ their home stadium.
Their decline had started long before Belgian businessman Roland Duchatelet completed his takeover in 2014. However, now down in Division One, there has been a heightened sense of hostility between ownership and fanbase for some time.
In August 2016, the club even wrote to a fan suggesting his season ticket would not be renewed unless he signed an “Agreed Behaviour Contract”. This was designed to prevent him posting what they described as “derogatory and inflammatory comments” about the club on social media. The emphasis was on silencing ‘the noise’, not giving them a reason to change the story.
So we already know that the viewership figures of the YouTube game should be making the powers-that-be nervous in football and television.
The new lesson should be for clubs like Charlton.
Those 27,000 ticket sales and 14m views were founded upon engaging relationships of openness and accessibility. It is about the ability to connect with an audience and make them care.
It has been enough for consistent clicks and, with that, the creators have reaped in sponsorship revenue et al. Viewers will even turn up in numbers to a cheap, one-off, charity game.
It is hardly the commitment of racing from work to catch Charlton v Northampton on a bleak November night. However, it is something. And, these days, something monetisable.
But while YouTubers have the advantage of a personal-cum-digital relationship with their followers, football clubs possess the massive, ‘natural’ advantage of having their fans ‘born into them’. Parents indoctrinate children in the same manner in which they were ‘forced’ into the fold. The meaning is shovelled in early on when we are so impressionable.
All football clubs have to do is pay them back in adhering to their values and supply enough on-field success to engender hope. Supporters will spin themselves a story about why their club is special. So, it is a matter of finding that narrative and staying as true to it as possible in your deeds and your word.
That is why Charlton fought so hard to return the Valley.
That is why their fans protested so long and hard when they were relegated from the Championship last season after a revolving door policy on managers and scattergun approach to recruitment. It just was not ‘Charlton’.
Likewise, that is why KSI lost sponsorship revenue over his “Reaction to Sexism” video.
That is why Zoella was criticised for using a ghostwriter for her autobiography, for not being transparent about sponsored posts and even for posting a picture showing off a little too much underwear.
It was all about matching their perceived expectations and beliefs.
Right now, it seems the YouTube bloggers are doing a better job than Charlton Athletic.
In the near future, they may start to erode the appeal of major teams and major broadcasters.
The numbers from the ‘You Tube’ game should not be ignored.