Basketball, Cricket, Soccer, Global

TikTok, TikTok… Why it matters that Liverpool and the NBA are buying into a Chinese video platform

In his latest column, SportsPro senior writer Sam Carp scrutinises our news archives and asks why the sports industry should care that sports teams and leagues are launching their own accounts on a new social media app.

by Sam Carp
TikTok, TikTok… Why it matters that Liverpool and the NBA are buying into a Chinese video platform

As a video automatically starts to play, steaming hot water pours from a recently boiled kettle and onto the silver Aston Martin below. In the background, ‘Reverse’ by American rapper Vic Mensa – featuring G-Eazy, obviously - blares out as the mechanic emptying the kettle lowers himself to car tyre-level before the clip abruptly cuts out.

The above scenario was the highly unusual, slightly unnerving experience that confronted me when I first opened TikTok, which curiosity drove me to download after recently-crowned European soccer champions Liverpool became the latest to board its bandwagon just over a week ago.

Should you happen to be one of many subscribers to SportsPro’s Daily Deal – and if you are reading this, there is a good chance that you are - then you have probably heard of the latest strand of internet culture to have made its way into the sports industry.

It has been, some might say, like clockwork. A brief search through our newsletter archives shows that the likes of the NBA, Bayern Munich and cricket's ICC have also all now signed up to the short-form video app which – having apparently reached one billion downloads – is catching the attention of sport’s eagle-eyed social media strategists.

Why though, I have been asking myself, should we care? And what, we should be asking ourselves, does TikTok have to offer sport?

At a time when World Cups are getting underway and Donald Trump is having tea with the Queen of England, it could be argued that there are more newsworthy topics than which sports organisation has launched a new video channel to reach a wider pool of fans.

The ICC recently partnered with ByteDance to have Cricket World Cup content on TikTok

Admittedly, the basic premise that numerous high-profile sports teams and leagues have created a username, entered a password and set up an account on an unfamiliar social media platform might seem inconsequential on the surface, but their reasons for doing so are still worth exploring.   

First, though, a quick history lesson for those who don’t know TikTok, the video-sharing site from the onomatopoeic noise that echoes out of a grandfather clock. 

Initially launched in 2016 by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance as Douyin in China, TikTok only hit the international market in 2017. A year later it was merged with Musical.ly, a teen-friendly US video app built around lip-syncing, which was purchased by ByteDance at the end of 2017 with the aim of leveraging the digital platform’s young user base.

In its current form, which is available in over 150 markets and 75 different languages, TikTok still has music at its heart, giving its users just 15 seconds to create compelling video content to the sound of their chosen backing track. Creators can then string multiple clips together for up to 60 seconds of total recording.

It is a simple concept - and similar to Vine, the beloved seven-second video app shut down by Twitter in 2017 - but one which, as of June last year, has amassed 500 million monthly active users while also helping ByteDance achieve a valuation of US$75 billion.

TikTok is becoming an integrated part of internet culture

TikTok’s true value to sport, though, lies with the demographic of its audience. In a world dominated by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, a new kid on the block must come armed with a proposition that can really convince marketing teams that it is worth incorporating into their social media strategy.

Stats such as these should always be treated with caution but, as of March 2018, unofficial data from App Ape Lab claims that more than 60 per cent of TikTok’s global users are under the age of 30. In addition to that, 40 per cent of that user base is said to be under 20.  

Apply the latter of those two figures to the 194,000 TikTok followers Liverpool have accumulated since joining TikTok on 24th May and you get 77,600 users from the so-called Generation Z audience that sports are so desperately trying to reach. Apply the same methodology to the NBA’s 4.6 million followers and that’s supposedly just over 1.8 million teens for the league to engage with.

The challenge for these sports, though, is creating content for an audience that is not necessarily there to watch highlights or interviews like they are on other social platforms. TikTok is instead a place where cringeworthy content which might get torn apart on Twitter is deemed worthy of going viral; where a snippet of a teenager dancing to Miley Cyrus in her bedroom generates thousands of likes.

It is no surprise, then, that sports teams and leagues still do not seem quite sure what to do with it. Despite their Uefa Champions League triumph on Saturday, Liverpool have currently posted just ten times on TikTok – only one of those videos features action from a game. Other content has included Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain throwing dance moves in front of an empty Anfield stand and Virgil van Dijk planting his lips on the European trophy to the tune of ‘One Kiss’ by Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa.

For now, however, what sports are experimenting with on TikTok is not as significant as the fact they are on it. In January this year, Liverpool chief executive Peter Moore warned that sport must embrace different technologies to avoid losing fans to newfangled forms of entertainment.

“We are an industry that needs to harness technology to make sure we don’t miss an entire generation of young people growing up that don’t have that love for football,” Moore told the Arabian Business magazine. “We need to package content in bites of 60 to 90 seconds to keep their engagement.”

Since making those comments, perhaps Moore has realised that whittling content down even further – say, to 15 seconds – is a necessary route towards meeting a younger audience that does not want to consume sport by traditional means. Of course, it is unlikely that Liverpool’s 64-year-old CEO pressed ‘enter’ on the club’s TikTok account himself, but these things are not unrelated – execs everywhere are recognising the need to go where the audiences are.

And, for now, it is within that context that sport’s relationship with TikTok should be understood: they might not yet know what to make of it, but what they do know is that they have to be there.