Whistle Sports’ John West: ‘Linear won’t grow as fast as OTT, which won’t grow as fast as social’

John West, founder and chief executive of Whistle Sports, discusses how the digital sports media company will use its new partnership with Andrea Radrizzani’s Aser and Eleven Sports to expand into new markets and deliver a social viewing experience that aims to satisfy younger, digital-native audiences.

Whistle Sports’ John West: ‘Linear won’t grow as fast as OTT, which won’t grow as fast as social’

As sports fans increasingly migrate online, and over-the-top (OTT) platforms compete against linear broadcasters in the battle for eyeballs, a new digital-native audience has been born.

This younger generation appears to prefer community-led content in creator-led digital forums, and an altogether more interactive and social way of consuming sport.

Whistle Sports looks to place itself at the bridge between broadcasters and rights-holders in reaching these audiences, uniting creatives with athletes, teams, competitions and networks. Having experienced steady growth over the past few years, boasting over 450 million followers across its 2000 channels and social media accounts, the startup confirmed in June that it has raised US$28 million as part of an ongoing Series D funding round.

The capital is being led by Aser, the global investment firm founded by Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani, and sees Radrizzani, who through Aser also launched international broadcaster Eleven Sports in 2015, join the Whistle Sports board of directors.

Whistle Sports founder and chief executive John West spoke to SportsPro about how the brand aims to use Aser’s local content expertise and global distribution network to help support its international expansion plans, and to develop, with Eleven Sports, a “new form of storytelling” bringing together sports, humour, entertainment and pop culture.

What were your biggest challenges you faced while raising capital?

I think the biggest challenge was explaining in a fundraising context to investors and possible investors, how we work. We see the world through this young audience lens, sort of 13-25. We have a small audience that’s also 25-34 as well, so we see young millennials, and they consume sports very differently. We’re a social media first company, and for a traditional media company that’s usually a third stream where they promote and get people back to their stream.

I think the good news for our capital raising was that ratings on pro sports on the TV are starting to decline, subscribers are starting to decline, and so what we were preaching four or five years ago has been gaining data to support it. The young audiences are going to different platforms and they want different formats around sports media.

What do you think it is about your services that’s most exciting to Aser?

The aggregate audience we have, if you add up the subscribers on YouTube and the followers on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, you get a platform of 460 million, and that’s global. Interestingly more of our audience is now outside of the US than inside where we started, and 25 per cent is in the UK and Europe. So we reach and engage a very young audience.

Eleven Sports is in ten countries now and it’s linear and OTT, and so Andrea felt that in addition to the reach of our audience, we provided that social component as well. So we’re in the process of creating content that will air across Eleven Sports and hopefully exposing that audience to what Eleven Sports has and vice versa.

Why do you see Aser as a suitable investor at this point— how do they fit in with the markets you’re targeting?

First, they’re global. One of the things we saw through research was that in younger audiences, they’re global sports fans. It’s the first generation whose sports fandom has not been constrained by the nationality or regionality of cable satellite. So they’re global sports fans, they care about sports on a global scale, and not just in their city. So we had to be global, and our content and audience is global, and I think that that global vision is very similar to what Andrea has with Aser and how he is building out Eleven Sports.

Secondly, Andrea’s previous involvement as the head of MP & Silva gave him tremendous knowledge and relationships across Asia and China and China is an area into which we are launching, and it’s probably the last market where we don’t have a big presence yet.

How will you use Aser’s local content expertise and global distribution network to expand?

I think it’s interesting that their content is predominantly live sports. Our content is not, it’s what we call ‘sports lifestyle’ and it’s about the team or the match or the player or the sport and the social commentary leading up and around it. And obviously the fan can watch the match on Eleven Sports and after the match, instead of the conversation dropping, our social audience and the content we create continues that, so it kind of provides this 360 ability to drive sports fandom.

We don't have the knowledge or capital to go into live sports and Eleven Sports has been growing quickly there

We don’t have the knowledge or capital to go into live sports and obviously Eleven Sports has been growing quite quickly there in that sector. In addition to soccer and tier one sports, they do interesting things, like in the US they have the rights to Drone racing. So a lot of the emerging sports that we’re seeing previously that were viewed as niche or fringe sports now have global social communities that are large, and so part of what we’re in the process of figuring out is how do we go to market with that kind of combined offering of the live event, but also the social content that can promote the event and continue that social conversation around it.

We and our 500 creators who make our network create about 20,000 videos a month and last month those were viewed 1.7 billion times. One of the things we see with data is this interest in the short format. Young audiences may not be watching the live matches, but they’re following and developing the sports fandom predominantly on social media. But obviously they might still want to watch the live event, they just want to also be on their phone in a social platform while they’re doing that. It’s an interesting combination of what we do well and what Eleven Sports does well.

A still from Whistle Sports’ original series, F2 Finding Football featuring an F2 freestyler

What do you see Andrea Radrizzani bringing to the company with his position on the board?

I think he has a tremendous network of relationships across the sports ecosystem and is highly respected. He also really is, in my opinion, visionary. He sees that over time, sports will migrate, as their audiences are dictating, to social platforms and whether that’s a live event on a social feed or whether that’s sports lifestyle content on a social feed, or obviously some combination of both, we truly believe that linear will not grow as fast as OTT, which over time will not grow as fast as social.

How has this deal revised your aims for Whistle Sports?

It’s really figuring out how to create this combination of a live sporting event on TV or OTT and then the social content we can create surrounding it, before and after. For a young audience, social platforms such as Facebook for the last couple of years have been getting live sports events on the platform. The challenge they have is that they lose the audience after the event is over, there’s no way to continue the conversation. We hope to be able to come up with something pretty interesting around that.

Linear will not grow as fast as OTT, which over time will not grow as fast as social

Do you see sports storytelling increasingly going in the direction Whistle Sports is trying to take it?

I think what’s interesting is every young fan today has in their pocket on their mobile phone, an amazing TV. They can watch content on that device. But it’s also an amazing broadcasting production tool, and so what we have seen is that we’ve gone from a one-to-many broadcast mode, where [the broadcaster] televises the event and they have their commentators that tell you how to think about it.

It’s not very intuitive for younger audiences who grew up in the decade of Facebook and YouTube. They would rather be able to take a video, edit it, select a soundtrack, upload it, share it with their friends. So I do think that it’s impacting and will continue to impact, what sports is and how fans want to interact with sports in a pretty dramatic way.

In the US, young fans are not attending so many live events; they don’t see as much of an advantage in geographically being there when they can see highlights elsewhere and use the social functionality of their feed. So I think it will be interesting to see how sports evolves over the next decade.