Who are the YouTube tricksters signing up Liverpool's Rhian Brewster to their new football agency?
Real Madrid have 3.9m subscribers on YouTube, Barcelona have 5.2m, but neither come close to Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, two men from London in their early 30s who film themselves trying difficult football skills until they get it right.
Their YouTube channel has 8.6m subscribers, putting them on another level from every other football page on there. On Instagram they are followed by 5.4m, on Facebook by 3.2m.
The F2 Freestylers are not footballers and they are not a football team. The vast majority of match-going fans in England, an increasingly old group, will never have heard of them. But they have built their own fan-base to the point where, for a generation of youngsters, they are almost as popular and as important as anyone playing the conventional 11-a-side format of the game.
This is the vanguard of how social media is changing the world of sport and celebrity, and for young people more than anyone else. Their online tastes and experiences are increasingly distinct from those who have not grown up on social media. And they have built a world that is almost impossible to build rules and expectations around.
Being this popular on social media is lucrative for F2, or any of the other biggest multimillion-subscriber YouTubers. Not just in ad revenue but in brand endorsements. Their videos on YouTube and Instagram, are littered with Adidas boots, equipment and marketing slogans.
But this summer they have decided to exploit that profile by moving into the 11-a-side game, pushing into the very different world of football agency. Even if that has not proved universally popular within an industry that is trying to come to terms, like everyone else, with the distorting effect of social media, and the lack of regulation to deal with it.
This summer, Wingrove and Lynch set up ‘F2 Talent’ and ‘F2 Revolution’, their new agencies. Neither Wingrove nor Lynch is a licensed intermediary with the Football Association. But earlier this summer licensed intermediary Leon Anderson left his old agency and joined F2 Talent, bringing his clients with him, including Liverpool’s England Under-17 international Rhian Brewster.
That raised eyebrows in the agency world, for a high-profile young player to sign with a company which had only just been established. Especially one whose reputation and expertise was in a very different world, of entertainment, digital media and shareable content, rather than in the demands of elite competitive sport.
With Brewster on board, F2 Talent has started recruiting the next generation of young players for their agency, knowing what weight their brand carries with the teenage footballers eager to be associated with their freestyle heroes.
Alongside ‘F2 Talent’ is ‘F2 Revolution’, an agency for the next generation of ‘social talent’, youngsters who F2 hopes can make an impression creating their own digital content, just as they did. They have already signed up an e-sports FIFA specialist.
This summer F2 Revolution also signed up a 10-year-old footballer who plays at a leading Premier League academy and who posts clips of his football on social media. He has not signed a formal representation contract with F2 Talent. Young footballers can only sign those in the calendar year that they turn 16, and with the permission of a parent or guardian. But there is no such age barrier to signing an agency contract of the type that a minor would sign with an acting or marketing agency.
Last weekend the F2 Talent social media accounts posted about the commercial deal they had done with the young player. Photos were posted of the boy posing with Brewster and the F2 freestylers. These posts prompted disbelief in the agency world, according to multiple sources. Clubs and the FA have a policy of not publicly promoting their players underneath the age of 15. One well-respected youth coach described the posts as “shocking”.
F2 would make clear that a child actor under similar circumstances would have an agent, because of the need to filter all the commercial opportunities that are offered to a youngster with a social media profile. Having an agency helps anyone – whatever the age – to ‘unlock opportunities’ and build their profile. Equally they would make clear that all work with a young client would be with parental collaboration, would sit alongside school, and never conflict with it.
They insist that F2 Revolution does not have an active recruitment drive for young players and that they are approached by clients, rather than the other way around.
But in 2018 social media is growing and changing quicker than anyone expected, and too quick for rules or norms to be built around it. Teenage and even pre-teen footballers are becoming more famous at younger ages than ever before. They are brands in themselves long before they are legal adults, or even professional footballers in the conventional sense. Player representation under the banner of a YouTube channel is unusual, which is why it has been met with so much scepticism. But it has not come out of nowhere, it has been swept in by the currents that are already changing the industry.