SPENCER OWEN’S ‘SPENCER FC’ YouTube channel boasts almost two million subscribers. That’s a lot of people. The online activities of this charismatic West Ham fan include video blogs based around the loyal following of his beloved Hammers and behind the scenes features and challenges with some of the country’s top Premier League clubs and stars.
Also available for consumption are the patently bizarre ‘Wheel of FUTune’ shows where half a million viewers regularly tune in to watch ‘Spen-doggy-dog’ battle his way through the virtual leagues of PlayStation and Xbox’s FIFA Ultimate Team mode. Strange days, indeed. Generally speaking, I’m quite happy to view the 29-year-old’s slickly packaged footie antics from afar, my attention span for uploads entitled ‘Playing FIFA vs Dele Alli’ being somewhat limited. There is, however, something intriguing about another off-shoot of his YouTube project.
Hashtag United are a football team – real-life, not virtual – started by Owen as what seems essentially like a Sunday amateur side. Owen, his brother, Seb and a ragtag cast of footballing pals banded together to form a side that would take part in the various non-affiliated leagues that feature other online football projects as well as recreational teams from across the country. I’m no expert in the structure nor the nature of these leagues, but they seem like the kind of fun that you have with your friends at the weekend.
Hashtag fans are treated to well-produced highlights packages of the team’s endeavours, complete with commentary from Spencer himself – who also captains the team from left-back – as well as access all areas footage of dressing room team talks and FIFA-esque training challenges. Over the past 18 months or so, fuelled by the goals of strike partnership, Dan Brown and ex-Chelsea Academy forward, Ryan Adams, Hashtag United have moved up through the divisional system and now appear to be approaching a point whereby they have outgrown their current manifestation. Their appearance in the Wembley Cup illustrates this point: the exhibition match attracted 34,000 fans and has over two million views on YouTube. The plot thickens.
And here’s the thing: in my view, it is not self-evident what the upper limits of this pioneering football project actually are. English football is an open pyramid system, a hierarchy of on-field meritocracy that is open to all. Theoretically there is nothing to stop a team like Hashtag registering with a regional Football League division and entering into the world of football proper. There would obviously be the logistical issues such as stadium requirements but options such as ground-sharing provide a workable solution here. Indeed, which lower tier club with even a modicum of ambition would be prepared to snub the instant publicity and inevitable financial gain that would come with an affiliation to an entity that seems to be flirting with the notion of rewriting the traditional football club playbook?
But what about recruitment? A bunch of FIFA-playing pals aren’t going to have much luck against the robust and highly charged semi-pros of the English lower leagues. They would be facing seasoned veterans and energised youngsters who would be chomping at the bit for just half a chance to eat these cyber-celeb upstarts for breakfast, chew them up and spit what’s left of them out all over the mud splattered pitch on a cold Wednesday night at Mildenhall.
There’s no hitting the ‘abort match’ option in this town called Reality. Spencer and his disciples might unite under the hashtag rather than its symbolic forefather, the cross, but the Christians being fed to the lions still seems like an appropriate metaphor.
The solution to this personnel problem may prove to be simpler than it seems. Imagine for a moment that you are an aspiring young player, you have reached a point where your dreams of playing at the very pinnacle of the elite game are fading but your desire to make a living from football and play at the highest level that you are capable of is still burning bright. What would you rather do? Toil to eke out a wage by juggling football with family and the day job, scratching around in the footballing hinterlands of the semi-pro game, or team up with a slick, modern organisation that presents a global shop window for your talents that dwarfs anything that the clunky twitter match updates of a less tech-savvy club might be able to offer?
Over half a million views have been accumulated for Hashtag’s recent match against Pitchero United. The highlights are instantly and easily accessible via the YouTube channel. The custom-made Umbro strips look the business, pre and post-match interviews offer a platform to announce yourself to the world. Make no mistake, the YouTube internet revolution is a phenomenon on par with the Gutenberg printing press, for the first time in human history, an individual – armed only with a camera, a device and the inclination – can reach a global audience at the touch of a button. Show me a player – or a coach for that matter – who wouldn’t be tempted by the lure of such readymade connectivity.
The old-guard might not like it, but the facts don’t care about their feelings; reality is an uncompromising place. The first one now will later be last and those who choose to remain willfully blind to these changing football times risk becoming invisible, lost in a binary fog of perpetually updating incarnations of what the game is coming to represent. The smart clubs know this, they can feel the vibrations, the wheels of revolution are beginning to turn deep beneath the surface.
They must become aware of the potential pulling power of an elite-level YouTube channel and other online mediums. We now live in a technological world and, whether we like it or not (God knows I have my concerns), an acknowledgement of this seems essential unless, of course, one secretly harbours some curious fetish for obsolescence.
We need only cast our eyes westwards to witness the embodiment of the type of monolithic juggernaut that stands to be toppled by the rise of autonomous individuals into the mainstream footballing consciousness. While clubs and leagues around the world scramble to modernise their platforms, wary of a growing online footballing subculture, they are at least able to launch such maintenance projects.
In contrast, the outright foundational tyranny of Major League Soccer’s set-up does not allow for competition from its cartel-like franchise system. Its denial of promotion or relegation, the opportunity to be part of a great pyramid whose pinnacle is accessible to all is nothing short of a scandal. It is a closed shop, and as its dear leaders continue to bar entry across the board, they certainly shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the natives are getting restless.
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Football belongs to everyone, from the oligarch to the peasant, from Gianni Infantino to Spencer Owen, and it is every federation’s moral obligation to ensure that their league structure represents this simple principle. It is MLS’s failure in this regard, its failure to cater to the dreams of the everyman, that will eventually lead to its demise.
MLS is a bottom feeding bureaucracy, it doesn’t care about the nature of the game that it imprisons. It’s a despotic regime supported and enabled by the useful idiots on its vast payroll. These morally vacuous quislings design propaganda aimed at convincing the public that a closed footballing eco-system is of benefit to all. This is nonsense, doublespeak – how can an entity which bans participation with the exception of the chosen few elite franchises be of benefit to all? In MLS, Real Madrid will never come to play high up in the provincial mountains of Eibar; there can be no love stories, no Swanseas, no Bournemouths, no Davids and no Goliaths.
The pyramid system represents the true essence of football, a game that is open to all and played to be won. And to the winner, the spoils. It represents one of the last bastions of true meritocracy. To deny this equality of opportunity is to be seduced by power, money and greed. I call for the American public to stand and fight this tyranny and oppression. If MLS refuses to relinquish its stranglehold on the elite game – it is a free market and they are of course perfectly entitled to do just this – then it is down to every individual to take matters into their own hands.
Who says that one day soon an alternative structure, with its roots planted deep in the very communities that have been so ruthlessly shunned by the elites, cannot be built to rival and eventually surpass the bloated Tower of Babel that MLS represents.
Hashtag United is symbolic, the hashtag – like the pyramid – is a symbol. It is a symbol of interconnection, you can see it in its social media manifestations, people unite under whatever particular hashtag it is that they identify with. Everyone who has any type of device has access to a hashtag, it is the symbol of the common people. The intersections of its lines symbolise the immense power of online connectivity, one that is mirrored in dressing rooms, on terraces and in communities across the world. It is the encroachment of the virtual world into reality, and just how far this concept is possible to be taken is anyone’s – even Elon Musk’s – guess.
It seems to me that Spencer Owen’s project represents a model to be taken on and adapted by the next generation of football innovators. His insistence that we “don’t forget to hashtag it” by crossing the first and second fingers of each hand to create a visual, man-made representation is a call to arms to those fans, players, coaches and writers who have become frustrated and alienated by the relentless elitism and flat-white sipping sophistry of the modern game.
At the end of every broadcast, Owen delivers another of his taglines: “Don’t go changing.” And this is good advice to the likes of Major League Soccer if their aim is to end up as a decaying remnant of totalitarianism. It may take a while, decades perhaps, but the rise of YouTube has ensured that the revolution will not be televised, it will be uploaded.