Main stream: AFTV founder Robbie Lyle on taking football fan channels overground
Robbie Lyle, the avuncular face and founder of Arsenal fan media platform AFTV, was walking through New York City when he truly realised what a phenomenon he had created.
On his stroll Lyle came across activists marching on Times Square in protest at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each with their mouth taped up in a symbol of repression.
“Two people carrying placards stopped, ripped the tape off their mouths and went ‘Robbie! AFTV! Can I get a picture?” he tells City A.M. with an incredulous chuckle.
Lyle is a distinctive figure but the incident says more about the extraordinary success of AFTV, which he started on his own as Arsenal Fan TV 10 years ago and is now a burgeoning media empire that has spawned a whole industry of copycat channels.
AFTV alone has 1.45m subscribers on YouTube, where its videos of supporters discussing the Premier League team’s fortunes have racked up well over 1bn views. That has helped Lyle’s Global Fan Network to beat traditional broadcasters to brand partnerships with the likes of fashion retailer Boohooman and, he says, generate revenue of £1.4m last year.
Based at studios in north London, GFN now has more than 20 staff while the 57-year-old himself has become a bona fide media celebrity, leading to shows for Channel 4 and ITV and, to his even greater bemusement, giving talks at Oxford University and Eton College. “I thought it was a wind-up,” he says of the invitation to the latter.
Lyle knew he was onto something less than a year into the channel when AFTV broadcast the furious reactions of some Arsenal supporters to a surprise defeat by Aston Villa.
“Three or four of the videos went really viral, millions of views,” he says. “I had newspapers ringing me. That’s when I was like, ‘hey, bloody hell – this is incredible’.”
The former surveyor and one-time reggae artist was inspired to take up DIY broadcasting by the popularity of boxing-related YouTube channel iFL TV, run by a friend and fellow Arsenal fan, and was motivated by a perceived disconnect between television studios and the terraces.
“What used to annoy me is I’d hear opinions from pundits and traditional broadcasters after games and a lot of the time I’d think ‘that’s not what fans are saying’,” he says. “I wanted to set up a platform for fans to have their say.”
Lyle cites the key elements in AFTV’s success as being a steady stream of content – he starts at 7am and posts several videos a day – and authenticity. “I want it to be genuine – I hate contrived content – and always fan-focused,” he says.
Lyle on AFTV’s critics and relations with Arsenal
AFTV has had its critics, however, who accuse it of amplifying extreme views and creating a toxic discourse around football and the clubs it and similar channels profess to support.
Arsenal’s struggles seem to have been good for business: seven of the channel’s 10 most-watched videos on YouTube are of their fans bemoaning defeats.
“People say ‘I bet you hope they lose’. I get why it’s a question but I find it a bit disrespectful,” Lyle says. “If I based my business off that… Arsenal win most games.
“I’m an Arsenal fan. We hurt when we lose but our job is to let fans have their say. If a video goes viral after that, it goes viral. If it goes viral after we win that’s fantastic as well.”
Arsenal do not endorse AFTV – the channel had to drop the club from its name for legal reasons – and Lyle says their relationship is “not close”.
There is enough good will, however, for Lyle to continue being allowed to film outside Emirates Stadium on match days and for Arsenal sporting director Edu Gaspar to chat to AFTV on a pre-season trip to Germany last month.
Gunners greats Thierry Henry and Ian Wright have supported the channel, says Lyle, who adds that no active players have ever complained to him about criticism that it has aired.
AFTV has had to grow up, however, after a number of controversies involving its contributors. The most notorious came earlier this year when one was allowed to appear on the channel after being convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a former partner.
“There has never been a blueprint or a playbook. We’ve made mistakes along the way but you learn from them. I’ve had to learn the hard way,” says Lyle, who adds AFTV now has a lawyer and PR team.
Global Fan Network and seeking ‘right investor’
A straw poll of industry sources reveals admiration for Lyle’s pioneering achievements and the way he has sustained them. AFTV’s subscriber base has grown five-fold in six years while, according to its founder, revenue has multiplied by 20.
When sport stopped during the pandemic, numbers dropped by 80 per cent. But football’s return in empty stadiums led Lyle to experiment with live watchalongs, in which a handful of fans stream themselves viewing a match, and they proved wildly popular.
GFN now has a multi-sport offering, DR Sports, which broadcast Women’s Euro 2022 watchalongs, Wimbledon, Formula 1 and boxing content. It also supports a Manchester United fan channel but Lyle isn’t sure he could help a version based on Arsenal’s rivals Tottenham. Having a network allows him to negotiate better deals with sponsors, he says.
“I want to turn us into a trusted broadcaster, an alternative to Sky and BT. Our content goes global. We don’t have the rights [to show live sport] but we don’t need them,” he says. “I truly believe this can be absolutely huge. If we supersize this with bigger investment in the right areas it could do way more.”
To that end, and having turned down “loads” of offers for the business, Lyle is now open to a minority investor. “It’s not just about money – I’ve done all this without money. If I can find an investor that can open doors that I can’t open, that’s the type I’m looking for.”
It might just allow Lyle to take the odd holiday as he prepares to cover another season of Arsenal games, starting on Friday night. “I haven’t had a day off for ages,” he concedes. “I’ve promised my kids we’re going to go on holiday in August – in between the games.”