The subject of the most-viewed YouTube sports clip of all-time, in a rather boring revelation, is the world's most-popular sport. The video is entitled Comedy Football. It's a montage of soccer bloopers set to Malcolm Arnold's The River Kwai March, and it has been watched 16.8 million times since it was posted on March 5, 2007. The most highly played sports clip that originated in the U.S. checks in at a respectable 9.1 million viewers; it's footage of an All-Star Weekend dance-off between Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
If you're looking for signs that YouTube -- which has grown into an 83.4 million-video giant in just its third year of existence -- has changed the sporting world, these are not it. Both are exactly the kind of light fodder that might have appeared on stadium scoreboards during downtime in the 1980s or '90s. Our favorite sports clips, for some reason, are the ones that make us laugh, and our next-favorite sports clips, on YouTube's most-viewed list, are highlight reels, including the ball-skills of Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho and the dunks of the NBA's Vince Carter. On a macro level, sports fans' viewing mediums may have changed, but our viewing preferences have not.
The real impact of YouTube on the sporting world lies in its ability to distribute a breadth of content to a massive audience. It's estimated that the bandwidth on YouTube in 2007 exceeded that of the whole Internet in 2000, and not only are sports fans there being wowed by highlights of international soccer stars, they're also raving over pixelated tape of a high-school freshman on a football field in Florida. Not only are they watching NBA All-Stars clown around in Las Vegas, they're also being exposed to the comedic stylings of a D-Leaguer in Bismarck, N.D. They're not only being served commentary from pundits on ESPN and Clear Channel; they're also getting opinions from a basement in Bluegrass Country. Programming is less likely to be digitally encoded by major networks than it is by dedicated bloggers. And video of a wild controversy can go viral not just when it's from the World Series, but also a prep state-title game on local-access cable in Georgia. In each of these lesser-known instances, the individuals involved are impacted by the power of Internet video. For better or worse, YouTube changed their lives.
The YouTube Recruiting Sensation (the story of Noel Devine)
For the past seven years, Derek Williams has run Sunshine Preps, an online service out of St. Leo, Fla., that offers footage of Florida's high-school prospects to an audience of college coaches. Williams has no real interest in viral video, but he is also the producer of the most-watched high-school football highlight tape of all-time: that of the boy wonder of the Internet Recruiting Era, Noel Devine.
In the spring of 2004, Williams was poring over game tapes of North Fort Myers High's '03 season when he saw a blazing-fast player -- whose number wasn't on the roster sheet Williams had -- make a series of stunning cutbacks, 360s, and breakaway runs. "I asked the coach [James Iandoli], 'Who the hell is this No. 7?
"Is he a senior?'" Williams asked.
"[Iandoli] said, 'No, that kid is a freshman.' And at that point I was really blown away."
Williams posted a compilation of the then 15-year-old Devine's freshman-year highlights, plus photos of him bench-pressing 315 pounds on SunshinePreps' site. It spread like wildfire on message boards. At one point it crashed SunshinePreps' server. Then it hit YouTube. That video, combined with subsequent montages from Devine's sophomore, junior and senior seasons, have been viewed nearly four million times. On the most popular clip, from Devine's junior year, the uploader offers the comment, "This guy is too insane, (sic) either he's playing against retards or he is the next LaDanian Tomlinson or Reggie Bush."
Williams is less crude with his assessment. "Noel Devine," he says, "set the standard for the high-school highlight tape."
Devine, who's now a sophomore at West Virginia, reached household-name status at a very early stage in the football world. His legend transcended the world of recruitniks and reached regular fans; as a result, the circumstances of his personal life -- both of his parents died of AIDS while he was young, and he has fathered two children -- were made public. That, in the end, was Williams' regret. Devine, though, never had any problem with the videos. He says sometimes he'll go onto YouTube from his computer at college, and look at those high-school clips, "just to reminisce. Sometimes I can't believe some of the stuff I did."
As a freshman in 2007, Devine was stuck behind Steve Slaton on the depth chart, and ran for 627 yards on 73 carries, for an astounding 8.3 yards per rush. Devine is considered a dark horse for the Heisman this year. "I'm just trying to keep moving forward," he says. "I want to get farther than being a legend on YouTube."
If Devine does go from second-string to Heisman in a year's time, no one will be able to say he came out of nowhere. It'll merely be the second phase of the sensation.
Encoding For A Living: The Online Sports Video King (the story of Brian Powell)
The first significant traffic surge on Brian Powell's blog was for a YouTube of a wedgie. No ordinary wedgie, mind you -- it was the wardrobe malfunction of a USC Song Girl, who did a posterior-revealing twirl during the Rose Bowl in January 2007. Deadspin linked to Powell's Awful Announcing site, and that, said Powell, "is one of the biggest things I've had on my site, even to this day." It was early proof of what would become Powell's blogging maxim: that "showing people something is better than just writing about it," regardless of whether the content is lowbrow, highbrow or anywhere in between.
Powell, a 29-year-old former marketing employee of the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge and the NBA's Washington Wizards, started Awful Announcing in 2006 as a way to vent his frustrations with broadcasters, hence its title. He still does his share of written media criticism, but frequently augments it with video -- from ESPN and elsewhere -- that he's encoded and posted on the Web. In the span of two years, Powell has become arguably the most successful video-centric sports blogger, growing from a mere linker of found clips into a high-volume generator of video content.
Learning to encode videos was "insanely easy," according to Powell: "Basically, I just walked into Best Buy and asked a kid there, 'Hey, I've got a computer and a TiVo. How do I get the the video on the computer?'" With an antenna that cost $60, and free, downloadable software, Powell was off and running. Now it takes him roughly 20 minutes between the time he sees something blog-worthy on TV -- like the latest discussion of Erin Andrews' wardrobe controversy on ESPN this week -- and gets it up on his site.
After having YouTube shut down the bulk of his accounts for posting some off-limits NBA or MLB video, Powell now uses the site Daily Motion to host most of his files. The 137 videos he's uploaded to dailymotion.com in the past two months have been collectively viewed more than 674,199 times.
Online video -- and blogging -- has changed Powell's life to the extent that he now runs Awful Announcing as a full-time job out of his home. His lifestyle, however, has remained the same. "What I do every day -- watching sports -- is nothing different that what I did before [the blog began]," Powell says. "I've had the same TiVo since 2000, and it's old and it sounds like it's running on fumes. But to pull all those videos, you need to be watching."
Avoiding Anonymity In The D-League, But At A Cost? (the story of Rod Benson)
Rod Benson's Q Rating in the basketball world has two major factors working against it: He went undrafted out of Cal in 2006, and he spent the past season and a half in the Siberian outpost of Bismarck, N.D., playing for the NBDL's Dakota Wizards. And yet Benson has his own custom shoe (from Pony) and a catch phrase ("Boom Tho!") well-known enough that it was being yelled at him during NBA Summer League games last month in Las Vegas. Behold the power of the Internet, where Benson may be both the wittiest and most tech-savvy pro hoopster. Before there was Chris Bosh groveling for All-Star votes as a faux used-car salesman on YouTube, there was Benson, producer of his own YouTube clips and blogger of life outside the basketball mainstream. Because of the following the 6-10 forward has built, he is perhaps the NBDL player fans are most rooting for to get a free-agent contract in the NBA.
The first YouTube video Benson starred in was not meant to go public. He and a friend at Cal jokingly made a Valentine's Day video for their girlfriends in 2006, but it ended up on the Web, and, said Benson, "I had to shut that operation down." Benson spreads his new videos intentionally, the first being a song he performed with friend Jason Gant before leaving for an NBDL stint with the Austin Toros in 2006. It was low-budget -- recorded with the iSight camera on Benson's Macbook -- but it launched what he calls the "Boom Tho! Movement," in honor of the catch phrase/exclamation his Web site defines as "an occurrence of an uncommonly good thing."
Benson put his blog URL (toomuchrodbenson.com) at the start of the video, "and when it came out," he said, "my site got so overtrafficked that they shut it down." He was using Apple's iWeb to host the blog, and had to pony up up $200 for a maximum-bandwidth plan that would keep the site alive. More Boom Tho! videos followed, including cameos from NBDL players such as Luke Jackson and B.J. Elder. Benson also shot a fantastic, Rock Band video-game version of a Rockumentary with teammates in Bismarck. All things seemed to flourish for Benson in North Dakota: He led the D-League in rebounding with 12.1 per game in '07-08; he advanced his video-production skills to include HD equipment and green-screening; and his writing earned him a regular blogging gig with Yahoo! Sports, where he still posts regularly.
As successful as Benson has been with his creative endeavors, the possibility exists that they could have a negative impact -- that the stigma of being a blogger could actually keep a talented 6-10 athlete out of the NBA. Says Benson's agent, Bill Neff, "One GM told me that [the blog] was a red flag, and he wasn't the first. There's an insecurity, from NBA guys, about the blog that shouldn't exist, because Rod is just hysterical. People may end up looking at him less seriously, even though he averages more rebounds per minute than any pro other than Dwight Howard. Instead of thinking of that, [GMs] may be saying, 'Do we want this guy writing about us?'
"I've told Rod that I get comments about the blog," says Neff. "But I've told him to be himself, too. I don't want to discourage him, because for all we know, he may end up having more success as a comedy writer than a basketball player. So far be it for me to tell him to stop."
A few fellow players, too, have asked Benson why he has so much time on his hands to YouTube and blog -- a notion, Benson says, that's crazy, "because as pro athletes, we have more time on our hands than anybody." He just happens to use his more productively -- while still finding time to work hard enough on the court that he was named a D-League All-Star. But will Benson's NBA dream be realized next season?
He made an exhaustive tour of NBA free-agent camps this summer, but hit some bad luck in Las Vegas, where he suffered an MCL sprain that kept him out of all but a few minutes of Summer League action. Because of that his chance of catching on to an NBA roster may be slim. He has already decided to move on from the D-League for '08-09, and for now, he and Neff are weighing options in Europe, while holding out hope for the U.S., waiting to see where the Boom Tho! movement will spread next.
Defined By A Pitch, And Its Aftermath (the story of Matthew Hill)
Matthew Hill will begin his freshman year at Middle Georgia College later this month, as a regular student who has some interest in playing intramural softball. Baseball -- the sport he excelled at as a catcher at Stephens County (Ga.) High, and could be playing in college, if he desired -- is on hold for now. "I wouldn't want a pitcher to get bad calls because I'm the catcher," he says. "If I was behind the plate, and the ump had heard about me, I think that's what would pretty much happen. I wouldn't want to put other players in that position. I wouldn't want to give the school a bad name."
Why would a catcher whose dream it once was to play college baseball say such a thing? If you don't know the answer, then you haven't seen the pitch, a single delivery from the Georgia AAA state championship game that's now so infamous it's written in capitals, as in, The Pitch. Stephens County right-hander Cody Martin, throwing from the stretch in the bottom of the fourth, uncorks a ball veering up and in toward the grill of the home-plate ump. The context of the moment is important: Stephens County was trailing, 8-1, and its last nine batters had all been strikeout victims, the ninth being Martin's brother, Ethan, a first-round pick of the Dodgers who exchanged words with the ump after taking a called strike three in the top of the inning. The Cartersville batter, Taylor Hightower, had already hit two homers in the game.
As the ball sailed up and in, dangerously in the path of the front of Hightower's helmet and the face of ump Jeff Scott, Hill's glove was nowhere to be found. He had dropped to his knees and ducked, exaggeratedly, as if to block a curve in the dirt. The ball hit Scott square in the mask. Neither Martin nor Hill were ejected, but it did not look good. It looked intentional.
Had this occurred 10 years ago, the controversy might have never spread beyond the world of Georgia high-school sports; most likely it would have been debated locally in Toccoa, Ga., perhaps landed on a few local newscasts, and then died. Within three days after this game, however, footage of The Pitch, taken from a local-access cable feed, hit YouTube. And it went viral. The cumulative view total on different copies of it is currently around 1 million. It hit CNN, ESPN, even Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. Says Stephens County principal David Friend, "The story became much bigger than anyone here could have ever imagined."
None of the parties involved -- or their parents -- conducted interviews as coverage of the The Pitch raged, and the space that might have been filled by their explanations was used to pass down the harshest of judgments upon Hill and Martin. Some were justified, some were too harsh for high-schoolers who seemed to have made a terrible decision in the heat of the biggest baseball game of their lives. Stephens County was fined $1,000 by the Georgia High School Athletics Commission; commenters on message boards called for mass firings from the coaching staff; the players' names were run through the mud, and one columnist suggested that the umpire should file suit against Hill's parents. The ump, through a lawyer, said last week that legal action was still an option. And perhaps out of necessity, Hill remains in a state of apologetic non-admission.
"If I just been a person who went online and watched it, I would say that it looked pretty intentional," Hill says in his first interview since the incident. "But I couldn't know that for sure. I wouldn't know what had been happening in the game. I didn't expect [Martin] to throw the batter anything to hit, because of the homers, and thought it would either be four behind him, or in the dirt. And I was expecting a curveball in the dirt."
Viewers of the video online -- including Travis McClanahan, the coach at Gordon College, a Georgia juco where Hill had committed to play -- made their own interpretations. Hill had been planning to make another visit to Gordon, with his father and a friend who was trying out for the team, on the Wednesday following the The Pitch. The night before, at 10:30, he received a phone call from McClanahan. The message: "We don't want a kid like you in our program."
Hill's mother, a teacher at Stephens County, saw him listening into the phone, a fist in his mouth, tears welling in his eyes. That night he told his parents, who had, over the years, paid for new mitts, catching instructors and strength and agility training, that "he was sorry for wasting all of their money." Hill had once been known in Stephens County as the catcher who always prayed, at home plate, before his first inning behind the dish. He had the sinking feeling that from then on, he would be known only as the catcher behind "The Pitch." And he was devastated.
Hill said his family stayed off the Internet in the aftermath of the incident, because reading about the controversy only made things worse. He laid low, avoiding regular spots in town, and apologized to his teammates for bringing any negative light upon them. Friend voluntarily called Gordon College to vouch for Hill's character, but it was to no avail. Eventually a few offers came in from other jucos, including a few out-of-state. A catcher who could reel in 95 mile-per-hour fastballs -- like what Ethan Martin threw to Hill all season -- was still in demand.
But Hill began to feel that, for at least one year, he was not meant to play baseball. The YouTube clip will live on for eternity, but the controversy, over time, may fade enough to ease his concerns. "I still love baseball," he says. "It's not like since this happened, I hate the game. The thing that I hate is that one clip can make or break you. People out there are getting a view of me that I never wanted for myself. And it's all based off of the four seconds of that pitch."
The Face Of YouTube Sports (the story of Kige Ramsey)
If ESPN's SportsCenter studio in Bristol, Conn., represents one end of the sports-media spectrum, then the opposite is a basement in Russellville, Ky., where a man serves up succinct commentary in front of a small digital-video camera, at a card table, with a wood-paneled backdrop. This is Kige Ramsey, the one and only reporter for YouTube Sports. Ramsey thinks there's often "too much jibber-jabber" on ESPN and is here to offer the antidote. He is not actually employed by YouTube, he just signs off that way -- and then gets up to shut off his camera. But folks at YouTube are well aware of his existence.
Said Andrew Bangs, a community marketing director for the site, "[Ramsey] is one of YouTube's most beloved sports vloggers. He's like the voice of the fan. ... He's honest, he's earnest, he's direct. Compared to the more flashy, high-production-value sports shows, he's refreshing."
Ramsey, a 21-year-old commuter student at Western Kentucky who is considering taking the next semester off, has gained an unlikely cult following, much of it from having his videos embedded on Deadspin. His set -- which includes large Tennessee Titans and University of Kentucky logos taped to the wall -- has the feel of a real-life Wayne's World, although the comedy here is unintentional. He is serving up serious opinions and says "viewers can interpret them however they want to." Whatever the motivation, people are watching: Ramsey's video channel on YouTube has had 113,131 viewers (with 1,294 subscribers), he does a number of regular sports radio spots, and there was a failed attempt to auction off a charity dinner with him for $4,000 on eBay. He has also been name-dropping Web sites -- presumably as paid advertisements -- in recent videos. Asked whether he's making money out of those deals, Ramsey says, "no comment."
Ramsey got his start by commenting on the NFL in 2007, but has branched out into other avenues, including, in May of that year, the debate over celebrity Nicole Ritchie's weight. (Kige's now-famous take: "I think she does need to go back to rehab, cause it would help her get over her anorexic (sic).") He gets to the point quickly; most of his videos clock in at less than one minute. Deadspin, a fan of what it calls Ramsey's "homespun wisdom," nominated him for its 2007 Sports Human of the Year award. Ramsey, who campaigned for votes on YouTube, was the award's runner-up, behind Isiah Thomas.
Despite all of his online fame, Ramsey says his ultimate goal is not to be hired by YouTube sports, but rather to have a nationally syndicated sports-radio show out of Kentucky. He promises, though, that if the radio-show deal materializes, his contract would be drafted in a way that allows him to keep making Internet videos. One must never forget one's roots.