You don’t need to tell Claire McArdle how quickly sports media are changing. When she joined Otro in 2018 it was in the role of chief content officer, working at a social network with a very exclusive membership. Leo Messi, Neymar, Paulo Dybala, Dele Alli, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane; it seemed as if every big name in world football had signed up to Otro. The stars were to share exclusive insights into their lives on a regular basis and all you had to do to see it was pay $3.99 (£3.30) a month.
Two years later, however, and you can keep your wallet in your pocket. “Between the conception of the idea and coming on to market, the industry moved on at quite a considerable pace,” is how McArdle puts it. Now Otro’s managing director is responsible for what you might call a pivot in the business. The subscription model has been ditched and Otro has become a studio, working to tell stories in conjunction with broadcasters and digital platforms, albeit still with the same big names. “We were going into market with a niche service, and that market had changed,” she says. “What we had to look at quickly was … what was the best way to deliver what we intended to deliver from the start?”
Some might say that expecting people to pay for videos about Alli’s tattoos or the personal thoughts of Messi was always going to be a stretch. But McArdle is not wrong to observe that Otro came about just as media were being turned upside down. Streaming platforms such as Amazon and Netflix had become dominant, with their seemingly endless libraries meaning viewers never had to leave. Then there was Instagram Stories, a service perfect for stars who want publicity but on their own terms. “It gave sports talent the ability to have that reach and immediate contact with their fans,” McArdle says of Stories, “but there was an element of control there, because everything is gone within 24 hours.”
McArdle now has the opportunity to take a great big pool of talent and do something with it. She won’t talk about what kind of deals Otro has with its players, nor will she share specifics on upcoming projects, but that is probably sensible given that Covid-19 has thrown everything up in the air for all kind of filmmakers. “We’re in a moment when you can’t do the normal things,” she says. “We’re in production on something right now and really having to innovate; we’re essentially producing a show when no one is in the same room.”
What she can talk about, however, and engagingly, is the industry Otro is now in: sports media for when there isn’t any sport on. She’s a big fan of “follow docs”, the industry term for inside-the-dressing-room documentaries such as Sunderland Till I Die and All Or Nothing: Manchester City. She says they gratify a fan’s basic desire to know what goes on in an athlete’s life beyond the matches they play. At the same time, they only work when they’re also good TV.
“There has to be a narrative, you have to have the characters to drive it,” McArdle says. “Brandon, the kit guy in All or Nothing, is a great example, how he acts as a glue between all the players. It’s about getting that level of insight. You can’t get away with just using a big team, you have to apply creative rigour.”
It’s the requirement for a good story that means McArdle, a former producer at Channel 4, is relaxed about the sort of arrangements in which stars have to give their approval on documentaries made about them. “I think there were things in All or Nothing that, when I sat there with a producer’s hat on, I thought: ‘OK, they left that in, that’s interesting,’” she says. “The onus is on you as the producer to have the conversation as to why it’s important that a story is told in a certain way. I don’t think that changes if you’ve been told: ‘Final editorial sits here.’”
McArdle says a football reality show is eminently feasible for the same reasons. Imagine a Made in Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, if you will. “I don’t see why something like that couldn’t work,” she says. “But it would have to be the right story and the right talent. It’s a Venn diagram of something that’s entertaining and something that feels authentic enough that the protagonist themselves wants to be involved in.”
Authenticity is a quality the original Otro sought to trade in and, while the attempt didn’t work, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an appetite for it. McArdle notes that authenticity is driving another growing trend in sports broadcasting. That’s the mediated match-day experience, where you watch the game in the (remote) company of someone you trust. Examples include BT Sport’s Champions League Goals Show, or the “co-viewing” experience of Eleven Sports’ Watch Together feature, where you log on to a broadcast with friends; a cross between watching the match and doing a Zoom call.
“There’s going to be more co-viewing in the next few years, the appetite is there,” she says. “And if it isn’t done by broadcasters, people will find a way to do it on another platform. Because it is a bit rubbish when you watch football on your own.”