Susan Lingeswaran

2 April 2020

Dugout, the digital media platform co-owned by top European soccer clubs, is working with its members to create innovative new content for fans amid the suspension of live sport around the world, co-founder and senior vice-president Seb Gray has told Sportcal.

Dugout signed up its 100th club member last month, four years after launching with the 10 of the world’s biggest clubs, including Manchester City, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and AC Milan, to create exclusive content for fans beyond the match in return for a share of advertising revenue. 

However, with sport shut down worldwide because of the coronavirus pandemic and soccer clubs unable to access their training grounds, the ability for production companies to create new content has become limited. 

Speaking to Sportcal today, Gray said with Dugout’s business model geared around archived content, its biggest hurdle has been producing engaging content without the backdrop of weekly live games. 

He said: “I think the biggest thing that we’ve been working on is how do we pull out strong editorial stories to support our publishers and really fill the time for fans because the narrative has changed for the football fan and consumers where they aren’t going to games in the week and they’ve got these holes in their behaviour that we are trying to simulate and support.

“Luckily for us, we still have full access to all the historical content that have been produced and we are working with our clubs to come up with ways we can innovate and maybe bring in new content strands. A good example of that has been [English four-tier club] Leyton Orient and their Ultimate QuaranTeam where they went out and pulled together a number of clubs which we work with to do an online esports tournament and I suppose esports has been the real content strand that has had visibility and some airtime with fans at the moment.”

Following the suspension of the English Football League midway through March, Leyton Orient announced it would stage a 128-team FIFA 20 esports tournament in a bid to raise money from the competition for clubs whose finances will be hit by suspension. 

Gray said the current situation has also forced Dugout and other member clubs to collaborate and think outside the box to produce content away from the traditional season.

He continued: “This time normally we’re talking about who’s winning, teams going up and down in different leagues and we’d start looking at transfers – content around all these things but these topics are not really getting the air time that they would normally. 

“All the clubs we work with are in the same situation where they are locked down and not able to access their facilities. They are innovating themselves, they’re working with their players, they are looking at other content strands they can pull together and they’re looking at bringing out game content from their archive, like ‘this time two years ago and we played this game’ and things like that.”

Dugout has a dedicated in-house production team that works directly with all club members to produce a regular stream of original content, which it posts on its website.

It has also signed partnerships with numerous publishers, including news agency Press Association, US sports broadcaster ESPN and UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph to distribute its content.

After four years, Dugout now has a global presence across 238 countries and territories and posted more than 1.84 billion views across its website and networks last year.

Speaking on the content that has proved popular with consumers since the suspension of the leagues around the world, Gray said the situation had opened the door for fans to engage with all sport in unconventional ways.

He said: “There’s two main content themes that are resonating with people at the moment – the nostalgic content, whether it’s time relevant or talking to soccer fans about a moment in the past that have captured the club’s success, and the other is esport in a big way. It has really been interesting to see how the lack of live content has given esports prime placement not just across soccer but I think other sports too, like Formula 1. 

“That would have never had the air time without something like this happening and it would have taken a lot longer for that to become prominent like it has been. I would argue that it has been a huge success and I think if you think of esports as a content genre that seems to be getting a lot of pick up across out clubs and the fans consuming it.”

Since the outbreak of coronavirus and social distancing measures as a result, many leagues and competition series’ have turned to esports versions of their sport to fill the void left by the suspension of live sports. It has also led rights-holders to take the opportunity to introduce their esports operations to major broadcasting networks. 

Fox Sports’ primary FS1 channel has so-far aired its first Madden esports tournament and Nascar’s iRacing events, while global broadcasters have snapped up motorcycling’s MotoGP esports offering. 

Motor racing’s Formula 1 has also launched its F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, which is running in place of the postponed races, and involves current drivers. 

Asked whether the popularity of esport would compel Dugout to diversify its portfolio away from predominantly soccer, Gray said he believes soccer will still be its main focus but would also be looking at other areas, including esport, in the future.

He said: “It’s [soccer] a huge sport, it’s a huge industry and there’s a lot we need to do to support our clubs and get it right. I think if you were to look more, not necessarily outside of soccer but how we might go about supporting the growth of content genres like esport and women’s soccer, that’s really going to be our focus when we come out of this and we start to get back to some normality. 

“We’ve had conversations with our clubs and we are really looking at the idea of content diversity because we’ve become very reliant on the game and I think this has shown the opportunity to diversify their content strategy and talk to a new fan base and bring them in the primary product, which is the live game.”

On future plans for Dugout during the suspension, Gray is optimistic the situation will not affect the industry in the long-term and will open doors for new opportunities, noting: “I think what this has demonstrated is that the innovation and resilience of clubs and fans. Long-term clubs are going to come out of this really strong and they are going to come with a more diverse portfolio of content and a more diverse group of fan-vases to talk to and I think the way I’ve seen clubs reacting to this situation is incredibly positive.

“It shows their ability to adapt to situations like that and bring to the forefront pieces that may not have had that air time before but will bring long-term residual value to their businesses and the fan bases they create. 

“For our business, we are on archive, we were built on these huge rich oil fields of video content and we will continue to innovate and try and repackage and create stories that will drive a nourishing experience for the fan and we’ve never had access to in-season content to be able to use so for us as a business, it’s probably something that we’re not too concerned with at this point.