Whistle Sports: How young audiences are leading their own sports viewing revolution

Digital-native viewers are a headache for the traditional sports broadcast players, leaving a growing gap in live and linear audiences. John West and Jeff Nathenson explain how Whistle Sports intends to act as a bridge to younger viewers.

Whistle Sports: How young audiences are leading their own sports viewing revolution

It is hardly news to anyone in the sports industry that digital distribution has fragmented audiences in an unprecedented fashion. The old certainties of a fading era have been challenged and the major players are all seeking answers, launching OTT services and revisiting their commercial and programming models.

Perhaps the most compelling development for anyone working in sports media, however, is the behaviour of the youngest generations of fans. Evidence suggests that many young people are eschewing live broadcasts and traditional platforms entirely, preferring to seek out community-led content in creator-led digital forums. Founded in 2013, Whistle Sports aims to help broadcasters and rights holders to find those audiences, bringing creatives together with athletes, teams, competitions like the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), and networks like NBC Sports and Sky Sports. 

At the Sportel media convention in Monaco in late October, SportsPro met with co-founder and chief executive John West (below right) and managing director of international Jeff Nathenson to discuss the company’s plans, the importance of creating content that appeals to young fans on their own terms, and their vision of how the digital viewing ecosystem will evolve.


SP: What was the opportunity that you saw with Whistle Sports?

John West: The initial idea happened about nine years ago - we publicly launched four and a half years ago - when we felt like youth was being underserved by traditional sports media. The last real sort of change in the formats happened in the late 70s or early 80s, when cable and satellite came along and we went from five broadcasts to 500 channels, but the formats haven’t changed a lot since then.

It’s still live sports, news, highlights and commentary from older adults that is not really authentic to today’s generation. We felt like there was a way to help give them sports-related lifestyle behind-the-scenes content that was more authentic to them.

What kind of programming is it that you do?

JW: It’s all video-centric, and we’re primarily across 2,000 channels on the five major social media networks. It’s everything from 30-second to 20-minute videos that have a common theme of sports, but not the live game and not the news and highlights - it’s everything else.

We have new formats behind the scenes and we have a good series right now that’s doing quite well across social media called Bad Joke Telling, where we get pro athletes to tell really bad jokes to each other until one of them cracks up. So it’s behind-the-scenes, it’s funny, it’s inspirational, it’s educational but in a fun way and it’s everything around the world of sports and sports lifestyle, before and after the live event.

You have a number of official partnerships with major sports rights holders. Do you approach athletes first, or do you approach creators first and then generate something that you can take to a sporting body? Or do you go to the partner first and then work up ideas together?

JW: I think with us, it really starts with the creators. The younger half of our audience is 13 to 25 and they are very influenced by their YouTubers and their social video creators that have built and amassed organic audiences in the tens of millions. So we really started figuring out how to form partnerships with them – and we have about 500 of them in our network now – because they’re authentic to the young generation.

I think secondarily, one of our co-founders [Jeff Urban] used to head sports marketing at Gatorade, and has relationships in the US with the NFL, MLB, Nascar, PGA Tour etc, so step two for us was to develop partnerships with them to add the authenticity of the pro sports ecosystem in the US. Then Jeff Nathenson joined us three years ago, with his relationships across the IOC [International Olympic Committee], Fifa, all the federations and the teams here, really gave us that European authenticity.

But it all starts with the creator.

Looking at your partnerships in the US, where are you able to point to growth in their audience with a younger fanbase? What are the things you’re trying to demonstrate?

JW: We do two things across the board, whether it’s in the US or Europe. We create content that’s engaging for young audiences, and then increasingly we help the traditional sports ecosystem market into our audience. We now reach about 405 million young fans across five social media networks, and that grows by three million each week, so we’re able to reach them very effectively either on the Whistle Sports channels that we have or on our creator channels on social media in a way that’s more engaging than any other way to reach this young generation.

I think with the leagues that we partner with in the US and the federations over here, what we really try and do is make their sport more interesting and relevant to younger generations who are not really TV viewers anymore.

Every generation wants their own version of whatever they want, so our belief was that this young generation wants their own version of sports media that’s not their parents’.

What kind of formats of content are you finding are performing well at this point in time?

Jeff Nathenson: Humour is one of the key elements within this. It’s very challenging to find a way of telling humorous stories, but the organic creators that we have became popular because they have a fun and humorous approach towards covering everything from football freestyle and tricks to fan engagement to all kinds of other things.

The big thing is the breadth of content which would not have been considered sports content in the past but is now actually something that works in terms of reaching sports audiences. People have invested a lot in sport and want to know the personalities behind sport, and this allows you to see the personality side. We think about how tedious post-match interviews are or television commentary right now - anything that’s not that is going to work well and resonate with a younger audience, because that’s an old format geared towards older folks.

JW: Every generation wants their own version of whatever they want, so our belief was that this young generation wants their own version of sports media that’s not their parents’. What that means is a couple of things. Firstly, we’ve gone from – when I grew up – a one-to-many video broadcast world to now a many-to-many, because now you have 20-year-old kids taking videos on their iPhone, editing them, uploading them to their social media channels and sharing them with friends. That’s part of what Whistle Sports does, by having an ecosystem where we encourage, foster and empower that.

We provide sophisticated production support when needed and we provide access to the pro sports ecosystem.

Jeff Nathenson is the managing director of international at Whistle Sports, forging the company's connections to Europe-based federations from its London office

JN: One of the things I really find strange in the world of football is that one of the seminal events that is ignored by the traditional sports media is the release of Fifa 18, which is massive for the Fifa 18 community. We have a large number of people who have made big names for themselves on social by being vloggers about Fifa 18, and when Fifa 18 comes out you have all the new player rating numbers that come out with the game, and this is a massive thing for both our community and equally the footballers themselves.

One of the great things you’ll see along the way is when you notify players what their Fifa 18 rating is and they’re like “I’m not that slow!” But this is a seminal event where traditional football media will not pay attention, but is massive to both the players and the social community. This is where you find a real rich vein of new kinds of storytelling that would not exist in the traditional broadcast space.

JW: This is the first generation of fans, these under 25-year-olds which represent a third of the global population, that are global sports fans. It’s the first generation whose fandom hasn’t been constrained by cable and satellite. So kids in the US are fans of the EPL [Premier League soccer] in Europe and kids in Europe are trying to learn about the NFL in the US. So I think on an inspirational note it’s sort of the first time the global community of sports fans is actually a global community.

JN: The difference is that they’re taking control of their media. They’re creating media, they’re participating and they’re watching what they want.

Do you ever bump up against anything on the rights holders’ side where you’re bringing the official partnership into it but they say that it isn’t an appropriate use of their sport?

JN: No, the sports industry has embraced us with both arms. This has been a discussion for a long time. John has been looking at this business and how to make it work for nine years. Before I was at Whistle, I was at YouTube and I was having the same discussions here in Monaco about the changes that were coming.

The media industry doesn’t like change, we don’t like disintermediation and we don’t like to have things upset in terms of the way business has been done. However, this is just the way the world is, and we seem to be so fearful of the opportunity that it presents that it’s kind of strange. Because a lot of people here at Sportel are the same people that made cable what it is and premium sports channels what they are, and in the same way they should find a way to embrace what is really going to be an exciting time in sport.

We want to be part of the process that takes this social type of content to the higher level of production and storytelling.

The barriers between the athlete and the fan are falling down thanks to global platforms. There’s an opportunity for you to have immediate global impact for your sports properties with very little in terms of the international costs required. There’s enormous opportunities but the industry itself is very comfortable in the way that they’ve done business up until now and it’s very much undergoing change. So there are those organisations that are forward-thinking then there are others that just kind of hope that things stay the same, but we know that digitalisation has disintermediated so much of the traditional industries of music, news, TV and film.

We know that’s happened and right now it’s sport’s turn, and with it comes a whole new raft of opportunities, but that will also upset some of the things that have been done in the past.

What’s the future for Whistle?

JW: From the beginning we felt like a global set of fans who care about global sports, so we have to build a global sports media company. We’re expanding more aggressively into Europe and Latin America, and we’re also looking at China.

We have a huge audience of over 400 million but there are 2.7 billion people between our target demographic and the world so there’s a lot of growth left, and I think we’re learning from our audience what’s relevant to them from a video content perspective and we’re trying our best to empower, accentuate and grow that library of content so we can engage more and more fans.

JN: I think what’s really exciting also is that it’s a natural progression where we’re trying to improve the quality of the storytelling and the kinds of stories that can be told on this, so in the same way that when cable came along it was considered like this backwater of quality production and storytelling in sports.

Growing up, ABC’s Wide World of Sports was what we’d watch on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to have a sample of international sports. When cable satellite came along they all looked and said it was terrible production values, awful storytelling and the presenters weren’t good enough to be on live broadcasts. But over a period of time cable and satellite came to represent the true marker of quality content.

When we look at things like Game of Thrones we sit there and say that this is much better than anything we’ve ever had on terrestrial television. We want to be part of the process that takes this social type of content to the higher level of production and storytelling, and we have these tools available to help tell the stories by providing amazing visuals and great interaction.

Houston Texans star JJ Watt meets Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero as part of Whistle Sports' 'Game Recognise Game' series for the NFL and Premier League

What’s the bottom line here? How’s this going to pay for itself? What’s the outlook for social and digital native video?

JW: I think two things are changing significantly. First, advertising is changing. The interrupting commercial is not tolerated by our demographic, so brands need to figure out a way to tell the story of their brand within engaging content, so branded content is a big part of how we monetise today.

We work with brands to help them tell the story about their new shoe launch, lunch meal or whatever it is in a way that is relevant and authentic to young generations, who don’t mind brands telling those stories if it’s fun and entertaining. What they do mind is the interrupting commercial.

Secondly, how young audiences pay for content is evolving. I think that the package subscription purchase for under 25-year-olds is really challenging. They’re used to growing up paying for TVOD [transactional video on demand]; if they like a video and they want a premium version or a longer version or a behind-the-scenes version they’ll pay a dollar or two to get that. What we see in the data that we have is changing purchasing patterns for younger audiences, but they still have chequebooks and they still want to spend money, but I think both of those things are evolving quite significantly.

What we’re finding is there are many more transaction points with individuals that were never possible before.

JN: What we see is that everyone’s really excited about the OTT offering and the ability to create these OTT platforms, but what I think has to shift for the people who are focusing on this premium rights offering via OTT is really getting your arms around your community and telling them why they should pay for stuff. Younger people need much more of an explanation and you need to bring them along to the transactional point.

What we’re finding is there are many more transaction points with individuals that were never possible before. A large number of our influencers are making money off of merchandise, mobile games, events and appearances, and there are many more different points to monetise than there have been in the past, but it requires a large amount of work. Once you get your arms around a community, there are many more things you can sell them besides just a subscription to a bundled service of sports rights.

JW: I think Jeff makes a really good point in the use of the word ‘community’. In traditional sports TV there is an audience that you broadcast to and they watch, but for us in social media the audience is a community that talks to each other, comments likes and shares video, talks back to us and talks to our creators.

It’s a multi-point interaction where we learn and they request and reflect what they want, and it’s a daily, hourly, by-the-minute, by-the-second dialogue that we track with data, which is a lot more - we think - accurate and effective and engaging than a Nielsen rating or trying to figure out what your audience may or may or may not want. Our audience tells us, they tell each other, we watch it and we adapt to it every day.    

John West will appear at SportsPro Live in London on 11th and 12th April. Click here to find out more about the event.