Are YouTubers beginning to challenge traditional coverage of sport?
The archetypal pundit for televised coverage a football or rugby fixture is easy to identify. A white male, between the ages of 45 and 70, and a former player. We can find some comfort in the fact that tentative moves have been made towards a sorely-needed diversification of this Boomer/Gen X white man’s domain, as we saw with the introduction of Eni Aluko at ITV and Alex Scott at the BBC for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However, no such progress has been made when it comes to another distinguishing feature of the industry. It would seem that the posteriors of players who have hung up their boots continue to exercise a stranglehold on TV-set sofa space.
Sports punditry is a big-money business. It’s no surprise that in the UK, the growth of the business has been most palpable in football, where the domestic television broadcast deal for the Premier League has soared to the dizzying heights of £1,665,000,000 per season. In July 2019 it was revealed that Gary Lineker was the BBC’s highest earner in the financial year 2018-19, raking in a salary of £1.75 million. Adam Bennett at the The Sun was quick to point out the remarkable rise in pay in the sector: Lineker’s wage represents a thirteenfold increase from the £130,000 (adjusted for inflation) that Jimmy Hill, who presented the show between 1973 and 1988, had been earning.
The BBC is injecting equally staggering sums of money into its coverage of Rugby Union. Jonathan Davies was reported in 2017 to be in a wage band securing him £150,000-£195,999 a year. If this is what has to be forked out to bring a legend of the game into the line-up, I can’t help but wonder if they could be getting a bigger bang for the buck. Jonathan Davies’ dulcet tones, and his outbursts of endearing bias whenever his Welsh compatriots take to the field, make for great telly. But perhaps former players like Davies could find a perfect complement in a pundit with a more holistic tactical perspective.
Thank goodness I stumbled upon the Squidge Rugby YouTube Channel during the Rugby World Cup last year. The 2019 edition of the tournament was the first that I’d followed with any real sense of purpose, but this was no coincidence. It was Squidge’s coverage that sparked a revival of my interest in the sport, which had admittedly been waning ever since my playing career, far from stellar by all accounts, was cut short by an ignominious broken finger in Year 9. I’ll never know if I would’ve been making a name for myself in the Varsity Match, but now that I’ve been enlightened by these new insights, I can at least pretend to know what’s going on in a rugby game.
What more could you want? A bright and witty young Welshman named Robbie Owen whose videos somehow reconcile the extremely technical aspects of rugby with the ridiculousness of a game where, as he notes in his YouTube channel description, “not even the ball makes sense”. His videos may be meticulously prepared, especially given the mammoth editing task his ambitious surveys on years of footage no doubt bring to the table, but the irony remains sharp and spontaneous.
In years of half-hearted Six Nations and World Cup viewership, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term ‘forward pod’ or any meaningful considerations of the formation of the forward pack. Squidge makes it his mission to highlight these nebulous tactical phenomena. His videos are never stat-driven, like the baseball analysis behind the Oakland Athletics’ ‘Moneyball’ strategies of the early-2000s (watch Bennett Miller’s 2011 film Moneyball to see what I mean). Instead, they are a series of punctiliously precise observations, which speak much louder than the territory or line breaks that punctuate BBC and ITV coverage. Squidge’s analysis achieves the same kind of victory over people who have ‘been there, done that’ as Billy Beane’s denunciation of his hubristic team of ‘experienced’ scouts as depicted in the film.
I remember the first video I watched was his post-match analysis of Wales’ narrow 29-25 victory over Australia in the World Cup. This video does exactly what punditry can and should do. It identified the method in the madness and has indelibly changed the way I look back on that game. His analysis of Dan Biggar’s 36th second drop goal epitomises this. When watching it live, I attributed this unorthodox spark of brilliance to impulsive opportunism. This was by no means the case. from the kick off, the ball was fired straight at Michael Hooper, Australia’s notoriously menacing flanker, taking him out of the game, and with him, the wind out of Australia’s sails in the breakdown. And then, Squidge shows us, Wales sent in a pack of their most effective counter-ruckers to chase the ball – Alun Wyn Jones, Aaron Wainwright and Ken Owens. Instead of following traditional wisdom and sending in their quickest players, they send in ‘some big Welsh blokes’ and win the ball back in a flash. What’s wonderful here is that there is no barrage of technical clichés, and no tedious contextualisation, just a quick, tongue-in-cheek dose of critical perspicacity.
Moreover, his engagement with the sport on his channel extends far beyond the analysis of what happens on the pitch. His 20-minute-long aside on the Israel Folau homophobia scandal earned him an unexpected feature on Australian breakfast television. To top it off, he never shies away from a niche international rugby story either. It would be hard to imagine Uruguayan, Namibian or Canadian rugby being granted more than a passing remark in game commentary given the overwhelmingly Tier One-centric perspective of the traditional broadcasting and publishing outlets. Sparing no effort, Squidge devotes his time to even the smallest of rugby markets.
The channel’s rise has hardly been easy. The Six Nations made a copyright claim against his channel in 2019, and he only survived the scare because of his community’s intervention. The strikes on YouTube were removed, but this wasn’t the end of his trouble – during the World Cup, his channel once more faced copyright claims, this time coming from World Rugby. Instead of offering us the full videos, he was forced to create videos without game footage, in a format he dubbed ‘Squidge Abridged’. Though his channel is now back to full strength as we progress through the early stages of this year’s Six Nations, what’s clear is that the legal situation is never as cut and dried as we’d like when it comes to using video material in the way he does. For ‘outsider’ pundits like him, especially those coming from YouTube, a platform which presents an existential threat to the media establishment, there are bound to be setbacks, so it’s hardly surprising that YouTube sports channels are often wary of these game footage-heavy video formats.
What’s at once promising and concerning is that Robbie is finally getting the recognition he deserves. An in-depth interview with Rugby World, and a spate of appearances on BBC Two’s Scrum V reflects not only his surge in popularity – his channel now has more than 113,000 subscribers – but also some degree of receptiveness to a new form of pundit. What’s more, though it might seem strange, at the same time he was being stifled by their copyright claims, he was working with World Rugby’s YouTube team. One can only hope that even if he ever gets welcomed into the fold of the establishment, he doesn’t descend into spouting the same truisms about ‘game management’ or ‘quick ball’ that plague prime-time punditry.
The emergence of a generation of tech-savvy fans who’ve made a name for themselves on the internet is certainly something worth getting behind. Squidge is looking to provide an alternative view on a sport where coverage is monopolised by a firmly-established set of ‘insider’ experts. But in football, I’m yet to find something that gives me the same sense of satisfaction. The only real equivalent in football for what Squidge is doing is the work done by ‘fan channels’ like Arsenal Fan TV, The Redmen TV and FullTimeDevils. These channels may offer a similar sense of grassroots authenticity, but they have a tendency to churn out ‘fan reactions’ and are overly preoccupied with clickbait and catchy soundbites to offer meaningful in-depth analysis. One thing’s for sure: MoTD and Sky Sports are hardly quaking in their boots.
I’m not asking for outbreaks of intuitive lyricism, nor am I asking for strokes of tactical genius. All I want is something that changes the way I watch the game. Not something that frames or supplements it, but a meaningful critique of the sporting spectacle, one that demystifies, but doesn’t disenchant. And perhaps a side order of superfluous terminology to add to my arsenal of sporting jargon. I think I’ve found a guy who provides me with all of that, but sadly, I don’t think a YouTube pundit in the mould of Squidge will be giving Gary Lineker a run for his money (of which he has a lot) any time soon. But thankfully that means they won’t be wearing nothing but boxers on prime-time television any time soon either.
News from Cherwell