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Opinion | US teams are losing home field advantage on social media. Here’s a game plan to fight back

Jeff Nathenson, the managing director, international at digital content company Team Whistle, explains how social media teams at US sports franchises can defend their turf as European soccer’s interlopers continue to encroach.

by Jeff Nathenson
Opinion | US teams are losing home field advantage on social media. Here’s a game plan to fight back

“The inches we need are everywhere around us.”

Al Pacino as Tony D’Amato on Any Given Sunday.

Quick trivia question: which sports franchise has the most US-based followers on YouTube? Lakers, Cowboys or Yankees? The correct answer is D: none of the above.

Barcelona are the most popular sports team in the US on the country’s most heavily trafficked video streaming platform - and they aren’t alone in dominating the local franchises. If you compare the five top soccer clubs on Forbes’ valuations ranking with the top five US-based sports teams, the soccer sides have 11 times the average monthly views and 30 times more subscribers.

This strong European showing isn’t exclusive to YouTube. Soccer teams are doing better in the US market on Instagram, where the top clubs have an average of five million followers. The closest teams to that average following are the top three National Football League (NFL) franchises, who average 4.3 million followers in the US. On Facebook and Twitter, the US teams beat the soccer clubs, but only slightly. As both of those platforms skew older and are more news-oriented, the current output that focuses on press conferences and results keeps the US sports teams in the lead in their core market. 

While US sports franchises lag behind on YouTube, it’s not due to a lack of effort. On average, US teams are posting double the videos of the European interlopers. However, soccer videos are earning 24 times the viewership per upload on average. This, in turn, feeds subscriber growth of the soccer team channels, making it increasingly harder to catch up.

In the second half of 2019, soccer teams were growing their subscriber base globally on YouTube 18 times faster than US sports franchises. That disproportionate global success impacts on viewership in America.

Why are the soccer teams outperforming? Firstly, the teams have more independence to operate in the social space. European leagues are less restrictive and ambitious clubs have ventured out earlier and aggressively into the new world of social media, as that’s where new fans and sponsorship deals can be won.

By contrast, the US leagues continue to play a heavy-handed role in dictating social strategy for teams, restricting access to digital content as well as often asking for revenue shares from sponsorship deals. Equally, the leagues limit the areas where US teams can market their properties. This disincentivises US teams from having a global marketing and sponsorship strategy - a strategy that could best be implemented on social platforms.

But the shortcomings aren’t just the fault of the leagues themselves. Teams are doing too little on the platforms to earn highly engaged audiences. There are too many press conferences and packaged media, mostly designed for outlets other than social, that find their way onto team channels. If you are trying to appeal to younger audiences on these platforms, put forward the stars and formats that fit the demo. Unsurprisingly, the usual video sports tropes aren’t going to cut it. Your head coach’s press conference is unlikely to be a YouTube success.

Marketing executives at sports teams are asking for more access to players for their social programming. Restrictions imposed by coaching staff and agents leads to channels without the personalities young fans crave.

Don’t believe me that the current content mix doesn’t work? Sit down with your most readily accessible teenager and have them watch through your favourite team’s YouTube channel.

So just like every successful sports film, there needs to be a fourth quarter comeback story, right? But that means throwing out the existing playbook, bringing in some unexpected bench players and trying something completely crazy and different.

You might think that European soccer teams have the unfair advantage of playing in the world’s most popular sport. An international outlook is part of their DNA, from scouting through to merchandise sales. But the US sports teams have yet to fully grab hold of the opportunity right in front of them. After all, they are the gatekeepers of key cultural touch points in the world’s biggest media market.

So here is a plan for US sports teams to win on YouTube and Instagram:

Firstly, we all need to be in it together. The league, the teams, and the players have to coordinate in ways they haven’t yet to capture the hearts and minds of younger audiences.

Leagues need to prioritise their network of stakeholder channels and not just their own. That means giving teams greater access to the trove of digital assets as well as shared data and analytics to improve both viewership and revenue. There are big social teams at the leagues who need to view successful team channels as equally important to their own.

For teams, the use of players’ time off the field generates greater value when it’s part of a global marketing and revenue strategy and not just dispensed for local sponsors and season ticket holders. Agents in turn should see the value of their clients’ time spent on teams’ social content - they do, after all, know how important social followings are for sponsorship deals. An athlete’s team can help them grow faster, so work together. (Unless, of course, you represent Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a social reach of just under a half billion, in which case you really don’t have to do anything on this front.)

For the social departments at clubs, you need to experiment more, develop new ideas, and make sure every video you upload matters. As mentioned above, soccer teams are putting up half the amount of content and getting 24 times the views.

On the data side, look for comparisons that challenge your organisation. The Dallas Cowboys have a social reach of 16 million people. Just across town in Frisco is Dude Perfect - formed by five friends from their days at Texas A&M - who are absolutely crushing it on sport with a global reach of 83 million. There’s the data set that you should be using for benchmarking, as opposed to comparing yourself to the Patriots. (Full disclosure: Whistle has had a commercial relationship with Dude Perfect for the past six years.)

Finally, prioritise social by giving it the resources it needs to succeed. Money is tight in this Covid era, but before the global pandemic trends were already pointing towards an ageing US sports fanbase. We know where young people are spending their time - both before and now, during the pandemic.

That slab of glass that is always in their hands is also where your sponsors and broadcast partners want you to be in order to hype up their products. But in order for this fourth quarter comeback to succeed and for teams to be competitive against the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Liverpool, everyone needs to make this a priority and then put in the energy, resources and dedication to dominate.

We know the score. We know we are trailing our opponents. Now we just need to get out there and find every inch.

About the author: Jeff Nathenson is the managing director, international at Team Whistle, where he leads the organisation's strategic relationships with major sports bodies. Prior to his current role, he was head of soccer at YouTube and also worked at Turner and IMG. He is spending his lockdown in scenic Hammersmith, London.