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Is a YouTube Channel Turned Club the Future of Football?


2022 marks the yr of the UEFA Women’s Euro and the FIFA Men’s World Cup. All this week, VICE and GOAL will probably be collaborating to publish insightful, attention-grabbing tales from the world of soccer and fan tradition, introducing VICE followers to GOAL and GOAL followers to VICE. 

For higher or worse, the title instinctively stands out. Down within the Isthmian League North Division, the eighth tier of English soccer, Hashtag United rub shoulders with longstanding, conventional golf equipment like Grays Athletic and Bury Town.

Co-founder Seb Carmichael-Brown is pleased with the membership’s distinctive identification however admits that many dislike it: “It’s one of the best and the worst things about us. A lot of people can never get past the name. They hear the name Hashtag United and they think, ‘What’s that nonsense?’ That’s fine, but it stands for where we’re from,” he says.

“Thankfully, almost everyone who’s taken the time to watch more of us, come to a game, or interact with us in any way, has understood that that’s just a name. We’re just like any other football club that’s been founded. We take it very seriously, but we have a lot of fun with it along the way.”

Winning over the doubters is a continuing battle for a membership born out of a YouTube channel. Started by Seb’s brother, YouTuber Spencer Carmichael-Brown (AKA Spencer FC), Hashtag began life as a staff of associates taking part in exhibition matches in a FIFA-style league format and posting the footage on-line. Their ambitions grew as they amassed an enormous viewers of predominantly younger, internet-savvy supporters.

“I think a modern-day football fan’s experience, and attachment to the sport, is very different to even when I was much younger,” Seb explains. “I think now it’s a lot about gaming. It’s a lot about social, online, digital. We’re a club that’s come from that world, from the very beginnings of Spencer’s own initial channel and his following.”

The numbers communicate for themselves. Hashtag have 225,000 Twitter followers and 594,000 YouTube subscribers – greater than the vast majority of Premier League groups, together with Everton, West Ham United and Aston Villa, with 40 % of that viewers primarily based outdoors the UK. Their match highlights persistently get greater than 150,000 views. Their most-watched video – a penalty problem – has been seen 2.3 million occasions.

After the unique collection got here to an finish with victory in entrance of 34,000 followers on the Wembley Cup, Spencer introduced that Hashtag could be transferring in a brand new, and really totally different, route. Following lengthy discussions with the FA, they joined the soccer pyramid in 2018, changing into a authentic staff. 

“Hashtag just got under our skin and became part of our lives. It was a complete passion project. It’s had to evolve into a business to grow,” Seb says. “We’ve made our own football club, which now has all these people care about it, and we get all these amazing opportunities. Why not continue that? Why not take it as far as we can?”

Amid all the joy and curiosity, there was scepticism too. The wider soccer neighborhood didn’t know learn how to react to the information that Hashtag United had been now a part of the Eastern Counties League and planning to rise increased. Some considered them with suspicion; as outsiders and interlopers. Many needed to see them fail.

“Some people were very pleased because they saw what that would mean. We were bringing record attendance numbers to our away games – more money at the bar, more money into their club. People watching online, increasing awareness of non-League [football] and celebrating what it is.

“Others didn’t want us anywhere near it. They didn’t understand it, so they didn’t like it by default. One by one, we think people started to warm to us as we came to play them, and they met us. They saw that we weren’t just a load of weirdos with a crazy name.”

Hashtag had been decided to fight what they noticed as widespread misconceptions – that they didn’t perceive non-League soccer and weren’t dedicated to it. Many assumed that they’d throw cash on the staff to bulldoze their manner by way of the divisions. Instead, the homeowners have at all times preached the significance of sustainability.

Hopefuls in the Hashtag Academy talent-seeking series listen to instructions from Spencer Owen (left) and his brother Seb Carmichael-Brown (right) at the old West Ham United indoor training pitch in London

Hopefuls within the Hashtag Academy talent-seeking collection take heed to directions from Spencer Owen (left) and his brother Seb Carmichael-Brown (proper) on the previous West Ham United indoor coaching pitch in London. Photo: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

“We just want to keep going. Yes, we’d like to win promotion after promotion, but is that realistic? No, probably not,” Seb says. “At some point we’ll find a level but until then we’re going to keep going and try to grow, but we’re going to do it in the right way.”

Hashtag are totally different to most non-League golf equipment, which rely virtually solely on gate receipts. They’ve loved the backing of high-profile sponsors like Adidas, Football Manager and Lucozade over the previous few years. Supporters may also pay £5 a month for entry to livestreamed video games.

But after getting into the pyramid, all the pieces all of the sudden needed to be scaled up. Better gamers had been recruited, an skilled teaching staff got here in and a ground-sharing settlement was reached with Haringey Borough. They’ve since moved to Chadfields, and now the Len Salmon Stadium in Pitsea, whereas looking for a everlasting residence of their very own.

Laying down roots and creating a bodily fanbase has been one in every of Hashtag’s largest challenges. Despite boasting followers from all around the world, their uncommon origins – rising out of an internet neighborhood reasonably than a real-life one – made them really feel curiously placeless at first.

They determined to arrange in Essex, the place Spencer and Seb each dwell, however resisted the FA’s encouragement to incorporate a geographical reference within the staff’s title. “We’re never going to get people in America coming to the game every week,” says Seb, who doubles up because the membership’s industrial director. “But we do also want to start growing the bricks and mortar side of it, which is why we want to find our own stadium, invest in the matchday experience and increase the number of people who come to our games. We would love to be a club that can get thousands every week.”

Hashtag’s first ever aggressive match was a 3-2 defeat away to Little Oakley. Like many supporters, Alfie Howden had been watching Spencer’s YouTube movies for a number of years and was intrigued by this new enterprise. An eventful afternoon cemented the 22-year-old Londoner’s affection for the membership.

“I decided I was going to provide a live audio commentary stream of the game for them – which I did, and people listened. The story of what followed has been told many times before,” he laughs. “It was quite warm, there was cheap beer, and I basically passed out about 70 minutes into the game. I came to, surrounded by the Hashtag United medical team. 

“I ended up getting a lift back to London with the operations director Neil, which gave me an immediate connection to the club. I was able to pick his brains a bit and he got to know me. When I turned up to the first home game, I was introduced to Spencer as ‘that guy who collapsed’.”

Four years on, Alfie is now closely concerned with Hashtag as a volunteer, each as a PA announcer and steward. “I enjoy the responsibility of it and the connection it gives you to the club. I get my away days, to be a fan and the home games allow me to take that sense of responsibility and try to rebuild my reputation after whatever happened the weekend before. It’s good fun.”

Although Alfie nonetheless retains an affinity for his dad’s staff, Liverpool, he helps Hashtag and says they really feel way more relatable and accessible than the elite groups.  “The connection between the fans and the players is just that bit stronger,” he explains. “I love Mo Salah, but the chances are I’m never going to meet him. I’m not going to bump into him at the local pub. I can support him, and I can celebrate his goals, but when [Hashtag player] Ross Gleed scores a banger, I can celebrate that goal with him. 

Louis Yamfam of Hashtag United shares a joke with a fan during the FA Cup Second Qualifying Round match between Hashtag United and Braintree Town

Louis Yamfam of Hashtag United shares a joke with a fan during the FA Cup Second Qualifying Round match between Hashtag United and Braintree Town. Photo: Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

“That’s one of the main reasons why I enjoy non-League football so much. You have a direct connection not just with the fans, like you have at any other level, but also with the players. You get to know them, they get to know you, and that’s quite fun.”

Adam Martin-Lawrence has had the same expertise. He went to Crystal Palace video games rising up, however Hashtag have change into his membership. After watching a few of their video games on YouTube, he went to see them in particular person towards Hackney Wick a few months into their first season.

“I instantly fell for the idea and really enjoyed it. I got chatting to Spencer’s mum and met Spencer that evening, which was really nice. I walked into that game with an attitude of ‘We’ll see what happens. We’ll see what they’re like and what’s going on.’ 

“To go from that to having a close-knit group of friends that I chat to on a regular basis, seeing this community grow through the seasons we’ve been here, and being a part of that, is special,” says Adam, who additionally volunteers.

For a brand new technology of supporters, whose love of soccer has usually been formed by social media and gaming, Hashtag has come alongside at precisely the precise time. It’s been key to the membership’s success thus far, with well-liked collection primarily based round competitions to unearth a brand new participant or eSports star and an emphasis on behind-the-scenes content material and letting the gamers present their personalities.

“I think it’s definitely a trailblazer in the social media environment,” says Adam, who’s 28. “They’re using YouTube and Twitch to appeal to that younger audience. For clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, it’s harder to get into those spaces because it’s more about the original media that they’re used to. 

“Hashtag is quite different in that we are a relatively young club. Most of it has been born out of social media. We’ve taken the traditional form of what it’s like to be a football club and put that digital spin on it that makes it more accessible.”

And, for a membership at a comparatively low tier, Hashtag’s international attain is unprecedented. Fans have travelled from as distant as Iceland, Brazil and Australia to observe video games, and their on-line fanbase has solely served to propel the growth of the membership.

“We’ve got over 500 footballers from the age of four upwards, boys and girls,” says Seb. “We’ve got our own youth facilities. More than 40 football teams represent Hashtag United. We’ve got our men’s team, who are the most popular and well known, but our women’s team play at an even higher level, in the fourth tier.”

A level of wider consciousness and acceptance got here within the FA Cup first qualifying spherical two years in the past, when Hashtag’s tie with Soham Town Rangers was broadcast dwell by the BBC. They’ve now been featured in Football Manager and influenced established golf equipment.

“A lot of traditional clubs collaborated with us, and continue to, and wanted to learn about how they could grow their own audiences online. A lot of them have done amazing jobs of that since. It wasn’t always the case,” remembers Seb. “The traditional, old-school football fan who’s going to pay for a season ticket is normally a slightly older demographic, but clubs are now waking up to the fact that you need to communicate to the younger demographic, who are going to become those guys, in very different ways.” 

“It’s no longer just about traditional advertising. You now need to generate a relationship with them through things like FIFA. A lot of kids are picking their team based on who they like on FIFA as much as who their family support or where they live.”

Hashtag are a part of that evolution, at the same time as they attempt to construct the match-going fanbase that has traditionally come first. For now, smaller crowds, often round 200 or 300 for residence video games, assist generate shut ties between the membership and its supporters, however continued progress will inevitably have an effect on that dynamic. Whether it’s achievable, and even fascinating, stays to be seen.

“The long-term objective is to have done enough stuff that makes people care about the club so that we can keep going. If we’re still going, using the same strategy, in 30, 40, 50 years, that will be success, whether we’re playing in the Isthmian League or the Championship,” says Seb. “Who knows what the future could hold? If you’d told me six years ago that we’d be doing this, I never would have believed you, and nobody else would have, either.”

@seanccole

Head to GOAL to learn tales from VICE writers on: soccer, artwork and psychological well being issues for males, the Hollywood takeover of Wrexham, Arsenal’s retro merch increase and soccer followers and their tattoos. 

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