A high school senior is profiled for her perseverance as a soccer player, musician, and volunteer; two dudes compete in an increasingly difficult dart-throwing competition; NASCAR stars admit to peeing in their race cars. These are among the most recent short-form videos posted to The Whistle Sports Network, a content hub for young people that passed 1 billion views just eight months after launching on January 1, 2014. Whistle Sports’ 9.3 million subscribers makes it the largest sports destination on YouTube, followed by the NBA’s channel at just under 6 million.
In its first year, Whistle Sports has secured content partnerships with leagues including the NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, NASCAR, the PGA Tour, the Harlem Globetrotters, Major League Lacrosse, and the U.S. Ski Team, as well as with dozens of youth- and sports-focused content creators like pro Ultimate player Brodie Smith and popular trick shot crew Dude Perfect. Basketball star Jeremy Lin recently signed a deal to distribute all of his video content through Whistle, and the network’s programming staff will help him define his approach to fans going forward. In October, Whistle Sports received a $7 million investment from British broadcaster Sky, which is the home of global sports including English Premier League football, Formula 1, International Cricket, and International Rugby.
With early investors including Derek Jeter, Payton Manning, and longtime Gatorade executive Jeff Urban, Whistle Sports was founded by John West, who, after founding and selling two previous companies, took time off to be home with his kids. He watched them getting into sports and sports media, and discovered some striking shortcomings in what sports entertainment offered.
“When my kids were going to watch sports media on TV–highlights, recaps, or even a game–there was this pervasive focus on the scandal of the day, and it was swallowed up with ads for Viagra and alcohol, and violent movie trailers,” says West. “It wasn’t what I wanted my kids to associate with sports, which can teach kids self-confidence and team work, math and science, fitness and nutrition skills–a good chunk of the things kids need to be successful in life. This generation has their own music and gaming video content, their own fashion video content, on and on through the segments until you get to sports, and then they largely have what’s been pretty much the same for the last 30 years and is designed for their parents.”
Identifying an underserved audience is one major reason for Whistle Sports’ incredible growth in its first year–another is the network’s well-defined strategy to serve this audience. Whistle Sports’ target age group is what they refer to as “young millennials,” specifically 13- to 18-year-olds, although West says they’re seeing interest from older viewers, including parents. Rather than live events or standard 30-minute shows, almost all of Whistle’s content is short-form video of a few minutes.
“There’s a survey that came out a year ago that said that on average, when youth are really engaged in digital media, they have about a seven-minute attention span,” says West. Whistle also ruled out showing live games, both because as a new company it would have difficulty securing rights, and because their own research showed that the target age group was less interested in them.
“We looked a the top five sports in the past four years in the U.S., for live sporting event viewership on TV by this generation, and it declined 16%,” says West. “So Whistle Sports is not live games. It’s everything else. It’s instructional videos, bloopers, trick shots, behind the scenes. A lot of what we’re doing with the pro leagues is what’s behind the scenes, what happens before and after a game. What are the athletes’ superstitions, what are their workout routines? What’s their pre-game meal? We’re trying to really give this generation their own relationships with pro athletes as well as YouTube’s sports stars.”
For example, says West, Dude Perfect’s trick shot videos get kids “to watch the video, call up their buddies, bring them over to their house, set up a basketball hoop, try and do the trick shot, go back, look at the video, try again, create their own videos. So we’re connecting the digital screens that kids live on, hopefully, with a real-world sports activity that they have outside.”
According to West, about 40% of Whistle Sports’ YouTube multi-channel network audience is outside of the U.S., so a big growth priority is in international content partnerships, for which the relationship with Sky is a significant first step. The company recently opened a London office as a jumping-off point for the rest of Europe, and has plans for a presence in Latin America as well.
Whistle Sports’ NFL partnership, which was just re-upped in September, gives the network full access to the entire library of NFL films. The NFL restricts its content from being shown on YouTube, so Whistle Sports is aggressively working to expand its platform partnerships to devices like Apple TV and Roku, and launched on Xbox in August.
“What we look for is content we can edit down, add some graphics, make it shorter and perhaps a little more interesting for our demographic,” says West. “Basically I think what’s driven the league in trusting partnering with us, is that they know that they’ve got a problem with this new generation. They either have to bet that a digital kid is going to grow up, turn 18, and change into a lean-back, long-form TV viewer that wants to be broadcast to, or they’re losing a chance to engage today’s generation of fans.”