Posted on February 21, 2019 by staff

‘We connected Manchester United star with millions’


Chris Smalling grabbed the attention of millions of people to publicise his new charity after turning to millennial publisher SPORF.

The Manchester United defender is the new patron of Football Beyond Borders, which launched in Croydon, South London, five years ago.

Smalling attended a football tournament to open a FBB Schools programme in the North West and simultaneously took over SPORF’s Instagram channel, which has 12.1m followers.

“Football Beyond Borders is changing lives,” said Smalling. “We are living in a society which pigeonholes your ‘am I good enough’ mentality to a restrictive curriculum of English, Maths and Science.

“FBB opens up a young person’s landscape to creative industries and learning, establishing new beliefs in ability to succeed. I’ve witnessed the difference it has made to the lives of young people in the South.

“Manchester has been my home for the last nine years and the patronage offers me the opportunity to give back to those that have given me so much throughout my career at Manchester United.”

The 17 ‘video tiles’ he published with the children at Salford City Academy cumulatively reached 3.4m views – which is exactly why he turned to SPORF.

“Chris Smalling came to us,” SPORF founder Nick Speakman told BusinessCloud on the morning of the ‘Instagram takeover’. “He’s taking over our Instagram channel and filming a long-form piece for YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s a charitable event, which we’re more than happy to get involved with.”

SPORF is part of Social Chain Group’s publishing arm Media Chain but began life on Twitter six years ago as BBC Sporf, an account parodying BBC Sport.

Since transitioning to become a content publisher it has amassed an impressive following of 15m people across various social media platforms – and even counts the BBC, which once tried hard to get BBC Sporf closed down, as a client.

“We were presented with a great opportunity to flip it on its head and do more original stuff,” Speakman said. “We used to do cold outreach to athletes and sports teams but now they reach out to us! We’ve built a reputation for being a great platform to showcase a different side to athletes.”

With a lean team of just eight people, its clients include tyre giant Bridgestone, Team GB and SkyBet. It created content with Chelsea star Eden Hazard for William Hill – “great guy, but definitely the alpha male in the room” – and has also filmed with Manchester City legend Sergio Aguero and United midfielder Jesse Lingard.

SPORF also highlighted the cancer battles of footballer Joe Thompson, who has twice been diagnosed with nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma. The former Rochdale midfielder went into remission for a second time in 2017 and retired from the game just a fortnight ago.

“He’s an amazing guy and they’re pieces we’re really proud of,” said Speakman. “He was so invested in the content.”

Last year Media Chain acquired The Football Republic, a network of sports social media channels including the popular Manchester United-focused Full Time Devils. That increased its overall sport network reach by a further 2.5m.

FTD joined SPORF in Salford to film Smalling. “It’s a huge YouTube channel,” explained Speakman. “TFR also has a really strong Facebook channel, while we’ve got a huge audience on Twitter and Instagram.

“It’s great to have a lot of knowledge and cross-platform sharing. Now we can go to athletes and offer them greater exposure commercially, and editorially as well.”

While curating sports news for millennials remains a fundamental part of SPORF – witness the ‘emoji bullet points’ that make up its Twitter feed today – video production is fast becoming its new focus. “We’re moving into episodic series, long-form content and documentaries,” said Speakman. “We are transitioning into using our social platforms to showcase our athlete-led, sports team-led, fan-led content.”

Reacting to the way in which video content is consumed on mobile, Social Chain Group recently opened a ‘vertical video studio’ to produce content exclusively in 9:16 format.

As someone who hosted a TEDx Talk at the age of 25, Speakman is not fazed by the changing landscape of social media and technology. “Will there be new platforms? Will people use their phones less? Use different technology?” he asked. “Looking at the really big picture, what will the website look like when we’ve got enough content and relationships with athletes? Could we one day have a Netflix series? A TV station? A magazine?

“As we mature as a brand, we want to move away from ‘Anthony Martial has just scored a goal’ to ‘Martial – what music does he listen to? What does he buy when he goes shopping? What’s he like as a father?’

“It doesn’t matter where the content sits, as long as we maintain that consistent tone of voice and core value of showing a different side to top athletes and sports teams.”