YouTube Bringing Creators, Off-Field Highlights and Ice Cream to NFL

The NFL kicked off another season Thursday as the country’s dominant sports league across any number of metrics. But it still has nothing on ice cream.

That’s where Dylan Lemay comes in. Lemay has turned a passion for making videos about creative frozen confections into a following of more than five million subscribers on YouTube. In one of those videos this April, he assembled a dairy-based football field and ball as an ad for the league and Sunday Ticket’s arrival on the platform. And he won’t be the only popular YouTube creator to collaborate with the league this year.

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YouTube is taking its biggest leap into sports programming this fall with the addition of the NFL’s out-of-market streaming package. But that deal represents just one piece of the two organizations’ growing partnership, as the pair of gigantic cultural forces look for new ways to grow.

“I remember when we had to convince the NFL just to come to YouTube in the first place,” YouTube’s global head of sports partnerships Jon Cruz said in an interview. The league officially joined the platform in 2015, racking up 900 million views on highlights and other short pieces of content in year one. Fast forward to 2023, and the league’s channel has accumulated 8.6 billion views to date. The NFL now has 10 separate YouTube accounts, not counting all 32 team pages.

This year, the league will also post highlights in vertical format for YouTube’s Shorts feed, which has become a priority under YouTube CEO Neal Mohan. Mohan, who reportedly played a key role in landing the Sunday Ticket deal, is planning to leverage football content to expand YouTube’s footprint in categories ranging from Shorts’ mobile-heavy, clip-based environment to the lean-back world of living room TVs. According to Nielsen, YouTube was the most-watched streaming service on televisions in July, with 9.2% of overall viewing time (cable continued to dominate, with 29.6% of time tracked).

YouTube execs have also gestured toward using NFL content to experiment with new interaction options, such as watching multiple streams at once or buying products shown on screen. The company doesn’t just want to become the place people watch football. It wants fans consuming the sport the YouTube way. “We wanted to make this feel like a YouTube experience,” YouTube VP of product management Christian Oestlien said recently.

As tech behemoths like Amazon, Apple and Google expand their sports offerings, each has also demonstrated the unique ways it plans to monetize the pricey rights. Oftentimes, that means using league relationships to grow other, pre-existing lines of business. YouTube has a subscription target for Sunday Ticket, Cruz said. But it also now has more freely available football content across various format types, which should help it in the ad market too.

“I’m excited about how deeply and closely we are tied to YouTube’s broader business objectives,” Cruz said.

For the NFL, the $14 billion Google has pledged over seven years certainly helped get the deal done. But the league is also eager to reach more—and younger—fans via YouTube. And it’s tapping personalities like Lemay to do so.

A designated “Creator of the Week” will have exclusive access at games, from the tailgate to the locker room, as they create content for YouTube Shorts. Many of the creators chosen will come from categories outside of sports, such as fashion or music (or food!), with the NFL hunting for new ways to get people excited about its core product.

While that program will be limited to a select few YouTube personalities with large followings, a “Creator Access Pass” has also been established to provide other accounts with the keys to a library of NFL-owned clips, including highlights and player walk-ins, that can be used in their own videos. Approved creators will also have direct access to a team of NFL employees from across marketing, media and business development departments to explore other ways of working together.

This year, it won’t just be NFL coaches crushing tape, but creators too. And it won’t just be SportsCenter offering a recap of the day’s top plays and bloopers; some teenager’s favorite YouTube face will be providing their own take. One day, YouTubers could even contribute their own live play-by-play. The NBA is already years into experimenting with those types of influencer broadcasts, while Amazon has brought the YouTube-famous quintet Dude Perfect on as alternate game-callers for select Thursday Night Football airings.

“[Creators] are going to have really fresh ideas that we may not have thought of,” NFL VP for digital media business development Blake Stuchin said in an interview. “We want to be as broad as possible to bring everybody into the tent.”

The NFL has had an influencer relationship program for years, building ties with roughly 1,500 online personalities. But the new setup, Stuchin said, “is much bigger and more ambitious than anything else we’ve ever taken on and will provide much more access than anything else that we do.”

The effort will also continue after the Super Bowl to include tentpoles such as the combine and draft.

“We’re going to learn a lot,” Cruz said, “and hopefully, you know, some cool videos will come out of it.”

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