YouTube team Hashtag United can bring younger fans to non-League matches

Embed from Getty Images

There was scepticism when Spencer Owen’s new club entered the Eastern Senior League South, but they could be a force for good

3 September ~ When the major restructuring on non-League divisions was announced in May, one name stood out. Hashtag United, a team created by professional YouTuber Spencer Owen, who have spent the last two years playing and uploading friendlies to their YouTube channel, had made the leap from the internet to the English pyramid.

The team, which primarily consists of Owen, his friends and other YouTubers, some of whom have non-League experience, will kick off 2018-19 groundsharing at Haringey Borough in the newly formed Eastern Senior League South. Mostly comprised of teams from Essex and east London, this is at step six, five levels below the National League.

Hashtag’s entry into the pyramid was met with a mixture of bemusement and hostility from some within the non-League community, not least because of their initial placement in the South Midlands Spartan Division One at the expense of Broxbourne Borough. After an appeal by Hashtag, they were moved sideways to the Eastern Senior League South while Broxbourne were reinstated, a move Owen says he is relieved at after the FA’s initial decision.

“I absolutely didn’t want to take anybody’s place. I didn’t want it to be ‘we’re Hashtag United, we’ve got this many followers, so screw you’. That’s not what we’re about. There were also opportunities to take over a club, but it would have been a huge financial risk. Even though we would have been saving a team, I didn’t want to take a team’s history.”

Hashtag United have already amassed a sizeable internet following in recent years and attracted over 31,000 to watch the Wembley Cup, a Soccer Aid-style match with YouTubers and ex-professionals, at the national stadium. While this may seem a world away from step-six football, Owen is at pains to point out that he has a strong connection to grassroots football. His father was the physio at East Thurrock, and one of his first ever YouTube videos was shot at one of the club’s matches.

Owen describes Hashtag as a “content company” and acknowledges changes will need to be made to their approach. Previously results were kept from viewers until the matches were released, while plenty of games have been played behind closed doors, neither of which will be possible now the club have moved to the football pyramid. And while Hashtag have exercised a degree of control over their YouTube challenges up to now, that won’t be feasible in a professionally administered league without risking the integrity of the competition…

Even so, Hashtag’s new kit deal with Adidas and sponsorship from the likes of computer game Football Manager means that, on paper, the club will comfortably be earning more than other teams in their division. But Owen says that there are expenses in other areas, such as maintaining a full-time eSports side and production costs for their YouTube channel, including their need to film every game to a professional quality.

“My goal is to create a sustainable non-League football club,” he says. “So much as I’ve said that technically we could be in the Premier League in nine years’ time, that’s not realistic and we haven’t got the funds. Of course we want to get promoted, but we don’t want to over-reach. I’d be more proud if we get to 20 years at this level than reach League Two in five years but are gone in six.”

Owen is also hopeful some of the fans who watched the Wembley Cup will follow them to Haringey, while also giving global viewers their first taste of non-League, and although he admits their YouTube announcement was simplified for their audience, initial comments on the video suggest Hashtag need to do more to educate some viewers on the grassroots pyramid structure.

Owen himself acknowledges that his side will not be the most popular team at their level, although Hashtag’s founders have been careful to make the right noises since the announcement, tempering expectation about reaching the Football League, let alone the Premier League, while citing Dulwich Hamlet as a club to which they aspire.

For all Hashtag’s good intention, it will take a lot more to win over other non-League supporters. Plenty of online forum discussion has been sceptical, although if the team do bring a young, enthusiastic new fanbase into the grassroots game then this may offset some of the criticism. A greater achievement, though, will be if these new supporters are still watching Hashtag United 20 years on, long after Owen and his original team-mates retire. Gary Andrews

This article first appeared in WSC 378, September 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here