The founder, commentator, full back and main public face of Hashtag United is Spencer Owen. Before starting the club, he managed social media for star Manchester City and Belgium defender Vincent Kompany and worked for football media company COPA90. Meanwhile, he developed his own YouTube channel, where he played a lot of the videogame FIFA. "My main passions growing up were playing football computer games and playing football," Owen told Engadget. "I've always wanted to have a football club."
In 2015, age 26, Owen organized on a charity football game starring YouTubers called The Wembley Cup. He followed that with a memorial match with friends on the anniversary of the death of two teammates they had played with as kids. Both matches were uploaded to his channel -- commentary, graphics and all -- and he realized he was on to something.
The Wembley Cup would continue year after year -- eventually drawing former Liverpool captain Gerrard and other ex-pros -- while Hashtag United launched in 2016. Today they employ around ten staff and put out more than highlights packages. Between Owen's channel and the official team one -- both of which cover Hashtag United -- there're also trick shots, eSports (they've signed FIFA players), catchphrases, petty rivalries and banter with the camera.
They mine the team's decision making for content. To choose who should be the designated free-kick taker, they filmed an elimination "challenge" for the teammates to compete in. When they wanted to recruit new players, they made an open call, received 20,000 applicants and turned the process into an episodic talent show called Hashtag Academy.
The way we consume pro-sports has always been about narrative -- winners and losers, comebacks, revenge. But in the digital media age, there are so many ways to follow a team beyond their 90-minute weekend matches. The story, brand and personality of a football club may even overshadow their actual performances on the pitch.
"I think people follow soccer more than they watch soccer now," said Shawn Francis, who used to run social media for Major League Soccer. "Something like Hashtag United... people might like the idea -- that is enough for them."
Francis would know. Besides working as a social media director at a creative agency, he is a co-founder of Asbury Park FC, which is more or less the ultimate postmodern club: One which has no team. The New Jersey outfit sells its own $80 Umbro jerseys to a modest fanbase but plays no matches. The club is pure optics and lifestyle brand.
"All the trappings of modern soccer without actually fielding 11 people on a field," Francis said. "As someone who works in marketing for a living, it's amazing... It's like getting people excited about a car that doesn't drive."
Most sports teams get really good at the game first. Then, with bigger budgets, they cultivate social media fame, turning their star players into TV and online personalities, while perhaps signing eSports players that wear the team shirt and preach their brand.
Teams like Hashtag United and Asbury Park FC are a complete inversion. These digital-native clubs begin with the story, the web videos. Francis says Asbury Park have no intention of fielding an actual team. But Hashtag United, who are about to join the official English football pyramid, represents the triumph of narrative in sports over achievement. Their success off the field has preceded any success on it.