In the UK, many football clubs are considered to be institutions. Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal for example, are steeped in decades of history. Their past is part of their continued appeal and their successes, coupled with how social media amplifies their fan base around the world, means it’s hard to imagine how any new team could attract any similar attention.
Yet that’s exactly what has happened in 2016. Hashtag United, an amateur club formed earlier this year by YouTuber Spencer Owen, has grown rapidly, already amassing a social media following larger than some clubs in the English League.
Originally planned as a YouTube channel to share clips of training exercises, challenges and occasional games, the 27-year-old recruited friends of varying football abilities with the aim of removing the need for expensive tickets, building a league similar to that of the FIFA video game franchise.
The team’s popularity quickly exploded and in the last six months Hashtag United has played against teams from Google and Vauxhall, as well as staff from West Ham United, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers online.
While there’s still a long way to go before we start to see Hashtag United on the same stage as Man United, it’s a great example – and a proof of concept – of how social media could influence football and other sports in future.
Not only could this form of organic team inspire the next generation of stars, but it might also encourage more young players to take up the game. Here is a team without a TV channel or stadium, free from the tribal allegiances of traditional teams. They only have social media, which is accessible to almost everyone.
That’s primarily why Hashtag United has huge commercial potential, with FIFA and Football Manager just two of the brands already partnering with Owen and his teammates to promote their latest games.
It’s also why there are questions as to whether their story will be one of many to come, but it’s not the first example eSports and social media transcending into the physical game.
John Green, a best-selling author and YouTube star famous for his love of FIFA, became an official sponsor of League One’s AFC Wimbledon in 2014 after he uploaded videos of himself playing as the team in the game and decided to donate the advertising revenue generated to the club.
Through his story and videos Green gained the club thousands of new fans and his influence was so great that the team named their ground’s North Stand after him in 2015.
It’s a slightly different take on the football fairy tales we often hear about, but it could be that if football is a game of two halves, what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning. Thanks to social media, the second half could be a whole different ball game.