*Article Originally Published 25 April, 2019Embed from Getty Images
When Hashtag United, YouTube’s most popular football team, announced they would be joining England’s 10th tier, many doubted the club’s ability to make a successful transition into the competitive scene of non-league football.
A year on, and after winning the Eastern Counties Division One South in their inaugural season, the noise emanating from the sceptics seems to have been drowned out by the Tags’ jubilant fanbase.
A 1-1 away draw against Hackney Wick was enough to secure the title, and as the final whistle sounded, few would have felt greater pride than well-known founder, Spencer Owen. The famous YouTuber and football content creator established the club in 2016, and since then, Hashtag have come a long way from the exhibition-style matches that saw them initially gain popularity.
Some football cynics, non-league traditionalists in particular, believed that Hashtag wouldn’t treat the semi-professional game with respect; a modern franchise joining the football pyramid for an unsustainable and unrealistic adventure. However, the club have continued producing the YouTube content that saw them rise to fame, while managing to win over non-league supporters through their fan-friendly and engaging approach.
As the name suggests, the team’s unique selling point has always been their large online following, generated by uploading match highlights and behind-the-scenes footage to YouTube. With almost two million subscribed to Spencer’s personal channel, Spencer FC, and a further 400,000 subscribed to Hashtag United, the club have amassed a digital fanbase to rival most professional football sides.
Neil Smythe, Hashtag’s Operations Director, understands the importance of building a sustainable club, a challenge that is easier said than done in an age that has seen many non-league clubs forced into administration. Reflecting on the campaign, he said: “Being able to celebrate a league win and promotion in our first season in non-league football is incredible.
“It shows how far we’ve come in such a short period of time and has quietened those who said we wouldn’t take it seriously. In truth, promotion wasn’t a goal for this season when we kicked off. We wanted to show we could compete week-in, week-out, and continue to build the audience and narrative on our social channels.
“The long-term goal is to create a sustainable football club to prove that there’s a different way to do it. So far, I would say we are well on track, aside from the success we’ve had on the pitch. It’s looking like we can balance the books, we are growing on all platforms, more people are talking about our story.”
He added: “I’m also happy to say that we’ve won over many of the doubters in non-league with our open attitude towards media and a fan-first mentality. The long-term roadmap is far more about building out more teams than aiming for the Football League, and for all this to happen we need to find a permanent home. That may take a while.”Embed from Getty Images
In recent years, many clubs have endured turmoil as a result of financial mismanagement. Gateshead, North Ferriby and Rushden & Diamonds are some examples of respected semi-professional sides that have suffered, and Hashtag United will be keen to avoid becoming another name on the list. Spencer Owen has had to pledge funds towards the club himself, but sponsorships from some high-profile brands have also helped with the running of the club.
Adidas, the largest sportswear manufacturer in Europe, make both the home and away strip while popular PC game, Football Manager, sponsor the kit. All profits are reinvested back into the club, and while the investments are crucial to the club’s sustainability, the Tags are also aiming to lay roots in the local community in a bid to ensure longevity.
Despite not representing a specific area, home matches this season have been played at Coles Park Stadium in Tottenham, the 2,500-capacity ground of Haringey Borough. Hashtag United midfielder Ricky Evans believes the local community is vital to a football club’s sustainability. He said: “Truthfully, I was sceptical about joining as I didn’t know if it would be ‘proper non-league football’.
“Make no mistake. This is a proper non-league club. Crowds of 500, 600 and even 800-plus at step 6 [of non-league] is incredible. All you see nowadays is non-league clubs trying to get crowds, and especially youngsters, into the non-league game. Look no further than what we do. Everyone is welcoming, making kids and fans want to come to the games.
“Along with all this and the abuse received from the majority, it’s an unreal achievement what we have done, on and off the pitch. It’s been a pleasure being a small part of it and no matter what level you play, it’s always a great feeling to be champions.”
In addition to the investments from sponsors and the local community, the club are also running the ‘Hashtag Academy’ again this year, a competition that recruits aspiring footballers into the first team. The applicants showcase themselves in a number of trials and challenges, which form the content of individual YouTube episodes, before the winner is eventually chosen by the management team.
The first series discovered Scott Pollock, a midfielder who was signed to Hashtag before eventually earning a professional contract with Northampton Town. This successful scheme allows the club to develop since a number of high-quality footballers join the ranks, while creating engaging online content throughout the recruitment process.Embed from Getty Images
The ninth tier of English football represents the club’s next challenge, and another thoroughly entertaining campaign surely beckons. Regardless of your view, Hashtag United are here to stay, with high profile sponsorships, community links, and the recruitment of young talent crucial to the sustainability of the project. The Tags have approached non-league football with respect and have been a credit to the semi-professional game so far. Long may their journey continue.