Why we started Gol Labs
Football is humanity’s most universal interest but access to content is a privilege
Human beings love football (aka soccer). As the United States welcomes the Copa America Centenario this summer, the rest of the world continuously follows the sport more fanatically than Americans follow anything. According to a study by Repucom, 44% of the world’s population is a football fan; to put this number in perspective, that’s roughly 2X more football fans than Facebook users and 16X more than Snapchat — and these are by no means casual fans.
In Nigeria, which is projected to surpass the United States as the third most populated country in the world by 2050, over 80% of the population self-identify as football fans and over 60% of adults play once every 7 days. Similar numbers can be seen across the entire Sub-Saharan African region.
In Southeast Asia, countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (combined pop. of ~350M), 70% of the population self-identify as football fans which is particularly astonishing due to the timezone difference which often forces fans to watch marquee matches in the middle of the night.
The oil-rich Gulf states have invested billions of dollars buying European clubs, sponsorships, top talent for their domestic leagues, and the 2022 World Cup.
The Americas, south of the United States of course, have some of the world’s richest football traditions and serve as a player factory, developing young talent in their local leagues, and selling them to Europe’s top clubs. The balance of power is shifting with China leading the world in paying about $200M in fees for the rights to foreign players during the first 2016 transfer window. And oh yeah, football seems to have caught on in Europe as well.
So how does all this global interest in football impact internet usage? My co-founder, Cameron, and I both served in roles at Google that allowed us to get a close look. Cameron was responsible for trend analysis of real-time search data during the 2014 World Cup. I led Google’s sports partnerships and was responsible for creating content programming for Google+. Both of us saw that football drives traffic in ways disproportionate to anything else on the web other than perhaps…porn. To get an idea, look at how Google search traffic for the World Cup compares to the Super Bowl, Academy Awards or other global sporting events, and this isn’t isolated to Google. Facebook estimates it has over 500M football fans on its platform who create significantly more engagement than an average user. We launched a Facebook page and within 30 days we reached over 1M people with a 14.5% engagement rate.
With this in mind, it’s hard to believe we live in a world where Snapchat (4+ years old with 200M+ monthly active users) is estimated to have a higher valuation than the top 5 most valuable football clubs COMBINED. How? Technologists take digital audiences, engagement and intent and convert it into dollars, lots of dollars. Football clubs have been traditionally focused on their core business competencies like selling tickets, merchandise, sponsorships and TV rights, and they have mostly surrendered their digital audiences, and their 10X monetization potential, to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and publishers.
At Gol Labs, our mission is to develop a set of world-class products and services that will aggregate the global football audience, enable football to effectively unbundle from general platforms, and give the sport the opportunity to monetize as efficiently as a technology company. With the amount of digital engagement football drives, FC Barcelona with its 350M+ fans should be valued as much as Twitter and its 310M monthly active users.
Football is well-positioned to compete for the next billion internet users
In many communities around the world, passion for football is much stronger and more influential than a connection to the internet. It’s estimated that over half of the world’s population still isn’t online, and most of the people who are connected, are priced out of using data intensive products including music/video streaming, YouTube and many publisher sites. Even if data costs dropped significantly, 90% of mobile internet users are NOT on a 4G connection. As a result, rich media experiences and gimmicky features that consumer apps/sites typically rely on to attract users aren’t relevant to most of the world. One of our big opportunities, and privileges, is to build products that can alleviate the infrastructure challenges of getting online, enable more consistent relationships with the internet, and digitally spigot the world’s insatiable desire for football.
In order to begin tackling this challenge, our team spent last fall in Sub-Saharan Africa in challenging technology conditions researching the habits of internet users. In this mobile only environment, almost everyone we talked to was extremely savvy about their ‘data strategy’, meaning there might be a free WiFi pole somewhere in the neighborhood that someone could stop by on their way to work to download a couple videos or songs in order to save their pre-paid data bundle. Bluetooth file sharing is important for viral distribution of content. People have multiple SIM cards to ensure that they can take full advantage of all carrier data deals and have access in all service areas.
In addition to the powerful user insights we gained from our experience, we clearly saw there are two internets operating on the planet — one that is fast and unlimited and one that is slow and restricted. Because it’s difficult to design products that operate well in both ecosystems, the slow and restricted internet is still pretty much up for grabs. Facebook and Google recognize their grip is still loose on emerging markets so they’re aggressively trying to introduce their products and brands to new internet users. While many criticize Facebook’s tactics as intrusive, better access to professional football is a universally welcomed proposition around the world.
Football can bridge mass media and global communication
The last big challenge we are excited to be a part of is the future of mass media. In today’s world where connectivity is moving much faster than US high-school level literacy, global media companies will be faced with the choice of changing their communication styles or becoming irrelevant to an increasing percentage of internet users. Start a WhatsApp conversation with one of the 100s of millions of English speakers in Africa and it will likely look different than the English you read on BBC Sport. This growing gap between traditional mass media and the realities of global communication is a great opportunity to reinvent how we deliver the news. In addition focusing on language styles culturally relatable to the broader football audience, our team is developing universally understood iconography and symbols that will help bridge communication gaps amongst global football fans. We couldn’t be more excited to be working with Matter, and some of the world’s top media institutions, to take an earnest look at what a fully connected world means for media, language and communication.
Look, no one will ever claim we aren’t ambitious enough. This is going to take a lot of hard work, a strong team, willing partners and luck. Fortunately, we’ve gotten off to a great start and our first product, GolChat, is currently in beta. The last thing I’ll say is that nothing about what we’re doing exists outside the realm of common sense. If there is one thing we hope to inspire, it’s more US based start-ups leading on big challenges affecting the entire world, not just few million millennials in NYC, LA and SF. At Gol Labs, we believe the best companies are built around absolute certainties, not the latest trends, and as long as there are people walking the earth, there will be a football match happening and an internet enabled mobile device used to follow it.