Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Bigballs launches YouTube sports channel

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian Media Network

October 08, 2012

Copa90 will include eight shows, including one hosted by Radio 1 DJ Tom Deacon. Kate Bulkley explores the new, experimental world of online commissioning

Copa90: the new UK sports channel commissioned by YouTube

It's been a year when sport in the UK has reached a fever pitch and traditional TV broadcasters the BBC and Channel 4 have won plaudits for their Olympics and Paralympics coverage, while ITV hitched itself to a new cycling phenomenon by screening live coverage Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France. Meanwhile, online content producer Bigballs Films has been setting a different, and perhaps ultimately more interesting, agenda.

Bigballs, based in London's silicon roundabout tech area, is seven years old and has a portfolio of online and on-TV content But it's now launching a sports channel on YouTube that it hopes will cause a stir and help it ramp up its business both online as well as on traditional TV.

With a heavy emphasis on directly involving football fans, BigBalls will be producing Copa90, an interactive football lifestyle and original content channel via YouTube, which will include, at launch, eight different shows.

For example, Radio 1 DJ Tom Deacon will host The Eurofan in which he spends a day with home supporters in a Champions League city somewhere in Europe, looked after and given tips by the YouTubers who are following the Copa90 channel.

The show and another called Copa90 AllStars, which features showboating players and football stunts, will be previewed on Gillette's YouTube channel, Gillette Football Club (GilletteFC).

"We want to take a different perspective on football, offering fans something they haven't seen before and something beyond what traditional TV can offer," BigBalls chief executive, Tom Thirlwall, told a packed press conference at the Google London HQ a few weeks ago at the launch announcement of GilletteFC.

Speaking exclusively to the Guardian Media Network at Soho House later, Thirlwall explained that Copa90 is the beginning of a network of up to 15 sports channels that BigBalls plans to launch over the next three years. "By creating a network of sports channels we want to create the number one destination for original sports content. There is a hugely passionate and connected audience that isn't being served by traditional TV channels and that's a space we are interested in."

Not to say that BigBalls isn't interested in traditional TV. BigBalls is working on Fishing for Trouble, its second commission for Channel 4, and earlier this year it hired Andrew Conrad from independent production company Betty as director of TV.

Recently however, Conrad's title was changed to director of programmes, which is perhaps more in line with how BigBalls sees its future; Thirlwall says that several of the formats planned for Copa90 could have a second life on TV screens as well, but he clearly thinks that the opportunities online are immense. "We see YouTube as an amazing opportunity to engage audiences and experiment and find new talent both behind and in front of camera," he explains. "This is a space where you can build your own brands and formats and where you can directly connect and engage with global audiences. That's pretty exciting."

Bigballs' use of YouTube as a distribution network for its content comes at a time when the world's largest video consumption platform is starting to creep into speeches by more traditional TV executives, including big hitters like Liz Murdoch and X Factor's Simon Cowell.

In her MacTaggart lecture at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival in August, Murdoch said YouTube was "beginning to act like a market leader", referring to YouTube's decision to offer upfront funds to producers interested in creating bespoke channels on YouTube's platform(YouTube is expected to announce several dozen more commissioned channels in Cannes at the Mipcom TV conference next week).

In Edinburgh, Murdoch urged producers to create direct-to-audience channels. "The new world demands we create services that are sufficiently valued to allow a more interactive and transactional relationship with the viewer. Slapping a hashtag in the corner of the screen doesn't begin to build a community," said Murdoch. For his part Cowell recently said that YouTube could be the "channel 6" of the UK.

This is not the first time Bigballs has caught a wave on the sea of online content. BigBalls produced and directed Kate Modern, the first successful, serialised and sponsored web drama, which launched on social network Bebo in 2007 and won the Broadcasting Press Guild's innovation award and two BAFTA nominations. Vodafone was the sponsor for BigBalls' online murder mystery Who Killed Summer? in 2009, which racked up 5m views in its first five weeks and was also nominated for several prizes including best campaign in the Global Mobile Media Awards.

Over the years, BigBalls has worked with brands including Oakley, Adidas and Red Bull, particularly after Thirwall joined the company in 2010 from McCann Erickson-owned Mworks, where he had worked with BigBalls on Who Killed Summer?

Several of BigBalls' founders were also founding investors in a separate games company called We R Interactive. Launched two and a half years ago and with investment from media executives including ITV's Fru Hazlitt, Working Title co-founder Eric Fellner and Abbott Mead Vickers' Peter Mead, We R Interactive's standout hit has been the online Nike-sponsored game IAmPlayr, now with 5.2 million active users across over 200 countries.

Thirlwall says a virtuous circle is being extended between We R Interactive and BigBalls, which is already the producer of all of We R Interactive's video content. "We will create shows on Copa90 around what we are doing in IAmPlayr," says Thirlwall. "And IAmPlayr will feature Copa90 within the game."

Clearly BigBalls is not your traditional independent production company. And that is one reason why YouTube was happy to partner with them on Copa90. Stephen Nuttall, senior director of sports partnerships for YouTube EMEA says: "Bigballs are passionate about, and committed to, digital. They have a proven track record in creating really strong and entertaining video and the potential to link between IAmPlayr and Copa90 was an intriguing extra dimension."

Each channel BigBalls creates on YouTube will have a different business model that suits it, says Thirlwall. Some, he thinks, will be funded by brands and some will be self-funded from Bigballs' operating cash flow; YouTube will help with others via upfront "startup cash" that will be re-paid through advertising revenue.

"Brands are now totally turned onto the idea that they can be the story and don't have to just sponsor the story," says Thirlwall. "We have to set a very distinct tone and attitude and editorial line on each of these channels and every one has to work editorially. We won't just take money for a brand to pay for a channel."

BigBalls has about 40 staff and it recently opened an office in Berlin An LA office is also planned to open soon, says Thirlwall. With turnover expected to double in 2013 to 8m BigBalls is clearly on a roll. "We make films for a social world," says Thirlwall. "Everything we make we think about how to bring it to an audience as much as we do about how it looks and the storyboard. Many people think that in the digital age that there is still a 'build it and they will come mentality'. But we are not thinking that way. We are interested in building a hyper-engaged, long term audience."

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