For the Love of Soccer, a Startup Thrives

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How do you generate masses of free content for consumption by a global audience of millions via online media, mobile platforms and handheld devices? By getting people to write about the world’s most popular form of escapism: soccer.

Tel Aviv-based start-up FTBpro’s website only went online in March last year, but it already boasts 30 million page views and over 500 million Facebook and Twitter impressions per month. The site brings together soccer fans from around the world, and gives them a platform to wax lyrical about their beloved sport.

“It’s a world-wide football [soccer] platform that connects users and allows them to produce the content,” explains Matan Har, FTBpro’s head of content.

“If you’re an aspiring sports journalist and want to write articles, you can start your own blog and be lucky to get a couple of thousand hits. We bring you the reads - thousands of readers, dozens of comments, and you can start debates,” says Har.

For now, the site is limited to England’s Premier League and Championship, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and the European Champions League, and appears in four languages: English, Spanish, German and Italian.

“From the outside it looks like a simple task,” says FTBpro CEO Asaf Peled. But the interface has to be innovative and friendly, with technology adaptable to so many devices. It’s a technology-driven platform, unlike traditional blog sites, with a combination of interfaces. To bring in massive amounts of traffic, you have to master the marketing across so many channels and bring in the consumers.”

Why is the company based in Tel Aviv and not, say, in cosmopolitan London?

“I can say with confidence that we couldn’t have done this anywhere else in the world,” says Peled. “You cannot find this type of entrepreneurial spirit, such a combination of technology and multilingual editorial teams, anywhere else. We have a multi-functional team with many skills sets.”

Of course, something else unites them.

“We’re all avid football fans,” admits Peled. “It’s a social phenomenon: a mass-market game where most people don’t have an outlet to express themselves. What’s beautiful about football is that everyone believes they understand the game. There’s so much passion involved that people are willing to do it for gratification.”

A group of seasoned entrepreneurs and web executives stands behind the project. The seed money came from two venture capital funds: U.S.-based Battery Ventures and Gemini Israel Ventures.

Still in the start-up stage despite the traffic figures, FTBpro has yet to generate income.

“We’re leaving money aside for now,” says Peled. “Advertising and sponsorship will be our future sources of revenue. The present figure of 30 million monthly page views is growing by 50 percent quarter over quarter. We’re about to reach the stage where we can start monetizing.”

Word Association Football

As every soccer fan knows: Unlike true love, supporting a team is for life. It is an affinity never to be broken. That is the reasoning behind the website’s home page for each league, featuring icons leading to the teams.

“It’s highly targeted content. You chose which feeds you want, for example if a certain player tweets – we identify the most interesting feeds for the reader, such as up-to-date transfer news and rumors or real-time game coverage,” Har explains.

Within 18 months, FTBpro has outstripped its online soccer competitors. “Bleacher Report in the U.S. is the leader in this field. They do something similar but we’ve gone more toward the fans’ voices while they have more traditional content, with less focus on user-generated input.

“The fans know more than anyone else about their teams, says Har. “They write with passion, knowledge. A real fan is intimately connected to his team – he knows the ins and outs.”

The multilingual banter in FTBpro’s gleaming offices in Tel Aviv’s ultra-chic Neveh Tzedek neighborhood testifies to this. Fifteen editors, none of them native Israelis, oversee and vet the ever-increasing flow of content.

“Many of them are immigrants and others in Israel on work visas,” says Har. “There’s a healthy mix of cultures here.”

“It’s a fun company to work for – but I’m not allowed to use the word ‘soccer’ around here,” jokes Har, himself an immigrant from the United States.

“We don’t break news, and employ no journalists in the field,”Har points out. “We publish the opinions of the fans themselves – everything that we find interesting. There’s no space limitation as in traditional media.

“We are already de facto the largest fan-driven platform for football,” says Peled. “The media is moving away from traditional journalism. We have the potential to be the biggest in the field. We are not replacing traditional journalism, but complementing it. This new form of content is more authentic, more engaging, less conservative. People now want instant updates via tweets, Facebook feeds, mobile alerts etc. We know how to deal with new media.”

Has the fact that they are based in Israel caused any controversy? “Most of our users aren’t even aware that we’re based in Israel,” says Peled. For the few that do know, it’s not an issue.”

FTBpro CEO Asaf Peled.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
The FTBpro offices in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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