YouTube has not only changed the way Gen Z consumes and interacts with football content, but how the sport itself is played by teenagers. Our resident sports comms expert, Ed Whitehead, has his say on an intriguing new addition to The O2 Arena.
Newsflash: Your average football-loving teenager probably doesn’t watch Match of the Day or Super Sunday, and their footballing influences are twentysomethings called Miniminter and Calfreezy, not ex-England captains like Gary Lineker or Alan Shearer.
For more than half a decade, YouTubers have helped shape how Gen Z engages with football. Much of their initial popularity can be attributed to FIFA, creating fun videos with clickbaity headlines and thumbnails, focusing on things that any FIFA gamer can relate to – Career Mode, outrageous goals, and Pack Openings, which have become a kind of digital cottage industry of their own.
Most of these gamers found fame in their teens. And as with most football fans that age, they loved kicking a ball around as much as they loved playing FIFA. This soon gave rise to the creation of more football-related content that their fans would love – Challenges.
Thanks to Soccer AM, Challenges are a slightly less alien concept for older generations. The Crossbar Challenge saw football squads every week try and hit the crossbar from the halfway line – it was usually fruitless, but always entertaining.
YouTubers took the humble Challenge and gave it the Michael Bay treatment. Penalties, Free Kicks, Top Bins, Volleys, Blindfolded, Giant Footballs, Slip n Slide, Rooftops, Fortnite-Themed, Challenges vs Dad / Mum / Brother / Sister / Girlfriend. You name it. And just as in the 90s when my friends and I tried to recreate Tony Yeboah’s 30-yard volleys, so kids today are obsessed with trying to replicate these challenges.
It didn’t take long before massive brands and football clubs started paying attention. Working for a well-known sports manufacturer at a previous agency, my team managed YouTuber collaborations with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and the GOAT himself, Cristiano Ronaldo (47m views – you’re welcome). We even provided the kits and boots for a YouTuber football match, a 27,000 sell-out at Charlton Athletic’s Valley Stadium.
YouTubers have been making big bucks from pre-roll ads for years, as well as collaborating with anyone from phone companies to shampoo brands to curate branded content to live on their own channels and reach their millions of fans. But while lifestyle vloggers like Zoella have achieved cut-through on the high street with makeup lines, and ‘Cleanfluencer’ Mrs Hinch has her own endorsed range of cleaning products, the opportunities for FIFA gamers to transition offline have been less obvious.
Step forward Harry Lewis, aka Wroetoshaw – a 22-year old from Guernsey with an eye-watering 14.7m YouTube subscribers, and part of ‘The Sidemen’, a mega-collective famed for FUT Pack Openings, Football Challenges, and general pranks and hi-jinx. Wroetoshaw has partnered with KickTown Football, a digital community dedicated to Football Challenges. KickTown have this week announced a bricks-and-mortar ‘concept arena’, dedicated to football challenges, opening at the O2 this December, and according to Lewis, have the bold goal of creating a ‘Football Challenge Theme Park’ next year.
We know that ‘competitive socialising’ destinations like Puttshack and Roxy Ball Room have proved to be a massive hit for the hospitality industry among Millennials, so can KickTown yield similar results with Gen Z? One thing’s for sure – with Wroetoshaw’s social clout behind them, driving awareness and consideration won’t be the problem. If the user experience can stand up, this could pave the way for a whole new leisure sub-sector.
Ed Whitehead is Associate Director at Fleet Street Communications, a self-confessed ‘average’ FIFA player, and a long-suffering (or relatively-recent malaise-suffering?) Manchester United fan.