Welcome back to Industry Insider by Behind Sport. Our latest guest is Hashtag United’s Media and Operations Director, Neil Smythe!
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously?
I’m Neil Smythe and I’m currently Media and Operations Director at Hashtag United, but by trade I’m a tv producer-turned-digital/social media producer/exec, I guess. I’ve worn so many hats in the past I sometimes forget what I am, but for over 20 years I’ve worked in content production, mostly on football projects, and for the last 10 or so have been managing content teams. I’ve been lucky to have worked on some ground-breaking and exciting projects including 8 years at Soccer AM, launching Copa 90, building a network of football fan channels at Fremantle and now this. I’ve also worked with sports rights holders/owners and brands, including two World Cups with the FA and a great year with Formula E.
What do you do in your current role?
(Almost) anything and everything! If you watch the first episode of our new documentary there’s a section where you’ll see me multi-tasking, but on one level, I am responsible for everything the club outputs, whether that’s YouTube videos, social content, brand activations, match programmes or community management. I’m the line manager of a small team, so the job is as much about mucking in as about supervising, so on a match day especially you’ll find me shooting, tweeting, clipping live streams, whatever it takes. That’s on top of the operations side of things, where ultimately, I’m there to ensure that the club runs smoothly, whether that’s ensuring the players have the right kit, booking mascots, writing Covid-19 protocol, liaising with our home landlords or any number of small tasks that anyone in my position has to do to keep a non-league club operating.
What does a normal week look like for you?
There’s rarely a normal week, certainly at the present time, but I like that. Obviously right now we’re locked down and the season has been suspended so things are slower but I’m still managing the output of our documentary and currently planning our kit order for next season. When the season is up and running, our content output and therefore deadlines revolve around match days, and we can have 3 in a week so it can get very busy! Aside from match days, I’ll be supervising production, planning ahead where possible and trying to keep the audience engaged throughout the week. We are in a unique position at this club, in that there’s a huge juxtaposition between the scale of our audience (and their perception of us) and the scale of the club. As an example, on a good month, our social numbers equate with some Premier League clubs, but I’m still the guy who sometimes washes the first team kit!
I think my biggest challenge working in a small but busy team is knowing what to prioritise and when; I know that we’re better at some things than others, or we’ll be neglecting some platforms at the expense of others, but the key is knowing where the return is.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
Primarily I’m at Hashtag because I believe in the project, and that’s how I’ve decided on most of my jobs in the past. But there’s also a moral to the story: what goes around, comes around. I’m here because Spencer asked me to join him. 10 years ago he was on my team at Copa 90, so I must have done something right back then.
I can’t pretend I always wanted to work in sport; I fell into it because I managed to blag a job on my favourite tv show (Soccer AM). Sport has always been a huge part of my life, but like many I probably dreamt more of playing than anything else!
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
We can all get carried away by the amazing opportunities, the latest platforms and sexiest gadgets or tech. Personally, I’m excited by the future offered by AR and data to enhance viewer engagement, whether in-event or at home. I’m fascinated by – and equally as the father of a pre-teen girl equally terrified of – TikTok and its creative tools. I’m also really into drones. But it’s so easy to get side-tracked by the new toys, and what’s important is keeping an eye on the bigger picture. What has happened over the past 10 years in terms of the democratisation of content production has been incredible. Anyone is now a potential creator, and that has revolutionised production for ever, and generally for the better. It should make any of us in the industry want to and need to be better, because if we’re not, someone else will be there to take the attention away from our product or brand.
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
Where I am right now, probably maximising what is a very limited budget and delivering what we think will work for our audience, for our brand, our partners, and the platforms we’re on. There’s a lot of content we could make, or have seen others make, but it’s important to ask what purpose it will serve. Content fatigue is a real issue with a younger sports audience.
In your area of work, what is something you feel most people don’t talk about or focus on enough?
I mentioned the democratisation of content and how it has empowered the world to create. But every piece of public content comes with associated risks and responsibilities, and I don’t think this is considered as widely as it should be. With my background in tv and having spent most of my time in larger companies, I am well aware of the duty of care to contributors and audience. It’s too easy now to put both at risk when content can go viral in a matter of seconds, and I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with high profile cases of celebrities suffering at the hands of social media. Anonymity on social platforms is a ticking time bomb.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
Be agile. The way things are going, you can almost guarantee you won’t end up where you thought you might. But be in it for the journey, enjoy the ride, and never stop learning or you’ll get left behind.
Any social links you want to plug?
I always put project before private, so please do take a look at what we’re doing at Hashtag United. Check out our documentary series we’ve just launched on YouTube; an incredible feat in my opinion given it’s almost the work of one man (not me!): http://bit.ly/HTUDOC1
Thanks for reading our Industry Insider with Neil Smythe! If you want to read more from the series, you can do so by clicking here.