The phenomenal success of popular Sunday league “YouTube teams” who build popularity and a fan-base by filming and posting highlights of their games on YouTube and social media has been well documented. So now that the YouTube teams have everyone’s attention and lots of followers, what next? Have the YouTube teams reached the peak of their popularity or do they need to do something new or different to grow even further?
These clubs have not only shown that they can generate hundreds of thousands of views online, but they can draw live crowds too. SE Dons drew a record crowd of over 2000 people when they reached Kent FA Sunday Premier Cup final in 2019. That was a higher attendance than most Conference National Clubs drew prior to Covid. The fact that they have hours long video and content libraries means they can keep their fanbase engaged despite the Covid related lockdowns and suspension of amateur football.
However the fact that Sunday football does not have an official “pyramid” via which its teams can progress up the leagues places a ceiling on their progress. Additionally, the model of clubs such as Rising Ballers (which was created to find a pathway for talented young players to enter the professional game) potentially inverts the success of its players and the team’s success. While several Rising Ballers players have moved on and been signed by professional clubs such as Sheffield United and other clubs abroad, these individual success stories create a lack of personnel continuity that may hinder the club’s long term future. In contrast, the success of their rivals such as Baiteze Squad and SE Dons is built upon their fans seeing and engaging with the same livewire players on camera consistently week after week, season after season.
The other challenge is that the YouTube team format has become saturated. These days too many teams want to be a YouTube team. Beneath the SE Dons, Baiteze Squad, Rising Ballers etc elite of teams with hundreds of thousands of followers, are several other copycat teams – ranging from those with followers in the low teens to a few hundreds. Success in this area has become ultra-competitive.
Despite the challenges that YouTube teams face, there is still room for growth. They could go the same route as Hashtag United and enter the FA pyramid by becoming Saturday clubs. However the ground requirements required in the pyramid and the increased travel would need a lot of money to finance.
Right now the YouTube teams are scattered across different leagues such as the Barnet Sunday League, Essex Sunday Corinthian League, Hackney & Leyton League, and Orpington and Bromley District League. While each team raises the profile of its league, it also means that the YouTube teams do not play each other very often apart from the odd pre-season (less than!) friendly match. That might be a silver lining.
One option is to form their own break-away “YouTube League”. Doing this could kill many birds with one stone. Firstly, viewer interest in such a league would be huge and would also generate additional advertising revenue for the teams involved. They could even exploit explosive sub-plots to promote the games – such as the controversial split of Baiteze Squad FC to play in different teams competing in different leagues.
Since some of the teams already have sponsorship deals with large brands like Puma (SE Dons), New Balance (Baiteze), and Sport Bible (Rising Ballers), a breakaway league consisting exclusively of YouTube teams would be very interesting to their sponsors who would love the increased exposure to their brands. This has serious commercial appeal given football fans unhappiness about being charged on a pay-per-view basis to watch Premier League games, and the frustration after extended lockdowns.
They would have to be careful though. Increased brand exposure comes with increased pressure to be perceived as “family friendly”. If professional athletes can lose sponsorship deals for bad behaviour, so can amateur footballers. They would have to be far more careful about their on and off-pitch conduct, and present themselves in a more PG way to stay on the good side of their sponsors.
The other thing they need to do is make sure that on-pitch success goes hand in hand with commercial success. Recently, northern teams have been “calling out” the YouTube teams and daring them to enter the FA Sunday Cup (the FA’s nationwide Sunday football competition) and test themselves against the northern teams from areas like Liverpool and Durham who have dominated the competition. The only London team to reach the semi-final in recent seasons (Portland from south London) are not a YouTube team. The YouTube teams to enter it (Baiteze Squad and Lambeth All Stars) were eliminated in the early rounds.
The cup of success for the YouTube teams is filling nicely. Yet they still have a very high ceiling.