A Plague on the Sport, or Genuine Innovation? – EXCLUSIVE interview with AFTV’s Robbie Lyle

In December 2019, ex-Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan labelled Robbie Lyle a ‘purported‘ Arsenal fan, and levelled accusations of toxicity and negativity at the AFTV channel.

Comments like this are part of a wider media narrative on AFTV particularly, but also on fan channels as a whole. Is the perception of this up and coming form of media reasonable? Or rather an attempt by mainstream media to stunt the growth and success of a rising phenomenon that breaks the mould of their industry?

I spoke to Robbie Lyle, the founder of AFTV, in an exclusive interview to discuss the matter.

During their lifetime, AFTV have had more than their fair share of criticisms levelled at them, from major incidents and skirmishes with rival fans to the overly attacked dialect of one of their most featured members of the show, Troopz.

Perhaps the most commonly posed criticism of not just the AFTV channel, but the culture of fan channels as a whole, is that the channel benefits from negativity surrounding the club. Simon Jordan commented on this during a TalkSport show hosted by Jim White featuring Robbie Lyle in December 2019.

Jordan noted that the rise of the channel began to majorly accelerate from 2017, at which point the AFTV Youtube channel had around 350,000 subscribers compared to the 1.2 million it currently holds. Jordan argued that around the time that the significant growth of the channel began was when the decline of Arsenal Football Club, and the struggles they have faced in recent years began.

This was something that Lyle wholeheartedly disagreed with.

“The decline of the club began long before we even started this channel. It’s been declining ever since we moved to the Emirates in 2006.”

It was clear to see that Robbie disagreed with Simon Jordan’s statement, he seemed offended that Jordan had attempted to dwindle the success off the channel down to that specific reason, rather than the hard work and sacrifice put in by Robbie and his team over a number of years.

“He was chatting a load of rubbish that day to be honest.” Robbie said. “If we were running the channel based on capitalising from losses, there’d be no point, we win most of our games!”

Robbie has a point. Since AFTV’s inception in the 2012-2013 season, Arsenal have played 304 Premier League games, losing 70 in that time. 70 losses sounds like a lot, but put in to context that means Arsenal have either drawn or won over 75% of their league games since the channel was created.

Obviously more attention is drawn onto the channel following defeats, but it is unfair to suggest that the channel is built on negativity following defeats, as the club has avoided defeat over 75% of the time during AFTV’s life.

The other main criticism levelled at the AFTV channel is more intrinsically linked to Robbie Lyle, and the money that the channel makes. Mainstays on the channel, such as Troopz and DT, have always claimed they do not make money from the channel. This leads many to believe that Robbie Lyle pockets all of the profit from the channel, and that the channel is simply a commercial venture.

However, this simply could not be further from the truth. Although it is true that the business will have a steady and tidy profit, not just from Youtube revenue, but also brand deals, sponsorship, and merchandise, it’s not all pure profit.

AFTV employ staff, hire an office, pay taxes, and travel to every Arsenal game whether that be domestically or on the European front. All of this incurs costs.

“I’ve never had a free ticket, I pay for all my tickets. I pay for travel. Even when I did a review of the new Arsenal kit, I went and bought it, I didn’t have it sent to me” Robbie explained.

In addition, they tend to embark on pre-season trips wherever in the world Arsenal go for their tours. Ahead of a recent pre-season tour of America, Robbie suggested to his business partner that they go over and meet fans over there, record videos, and give insight into the build-up to the pre-season fixtures all funded out of the channel’s pocket.

“I wanted to go to the pre-season, I said to my business partner. He said ‘what’s the point? The videos won’t make back the cost of our flights, let alone the hotel, food, and all that'”. Robbie mentioned.

“I’m all about providing good content. We’ll get to meet fans from over there and show people what it’s like in pre-season friendlies”

“My whole thing is about giving people value” he went on to explain, “that’s why they love it. For free, they’re getting great content and that’s why they come back”

In the beginning Robbie also funded AFTV entirely by himself, something he admits was very difficult to navigate.

“Believe me, for the first four years or so of running it, it was really tough”.

It’s clear to see the dedication to providing content for fans is the driving force behind Robbie’s motivation in running AFTV successfully, not money and greed. So Robbie tends to find it very hypocritical, and sometimes even laughable, that people who make money in similar avenues to AFTV feel the need to criticise the channel for making money.

“I saw one that was funny. They’d done this big exposé on AFTV, and I looked at it on their website, they had so many ads! They’re Google ads, you’re making your money the same way in which we make ours, just not as much”, Robbie said about an unnamed website.

I’ve already mentioned the two main general criticisms of the channel, but Simon Jordan levelled another at Robbie during their discussion. He labelled the channel as ‘toxic’ in addition to being overly negative. Specifically, Jordan mentioned that AFTV had been too harsh on Unai Emery, who was in charge of the club at the time.

“The fans were patient with Unai Emery” Robbie began by saying. “At another club he would’ve been sacked long before he was. The board and the fans were patient, but they’d had enough.”

The constant merry-go-round of managerial hirings and firings in football deconstructs Jordan’s point at this juncture. After all, Emery lasted 18 months, which is a lot of time in the modern game for a manager who seemingly stumbled at every hurdle.

“It’s not the only club this has happened to, it happens a lot, Watford have had four managers this season and they still went down. If you had a camera on those fans all season they wouldn’t have been happy either” Robbie explained regarding the sacking of Emery.

During the TalkSport discussion, it was clear that Simon Jordan’s claims were not backed up by any evidence or facts. It’s true that he could’ve researched more in the build up to his discussion with Robbie, considering that light research into the topic by myself preceding the interview was enough for me to disagree with the vast majority of Jordan’s claims on the day. However, is it Jordan’s fault that his perception of AFTV has been clouded by stigmas surrounding fan channels?

As Simon Jordan has commented on, the perception of AFTV at times is that they can be toxic and negative, and can display a terrible subsection of the football fan base. But why is this?

Why is it that when someone on AFTV slates a player or coach following a defeat, pundits and fans alike jump on the bandwagon of discrediting the platform? Whereas when similar negativity is displayed on mainstream media such as Sky Sports, no one bats an eyelid? Or it is seen as a comedic part of the game rather than a toxic one?

As an example, at half time of Manchester United’s first game following Project Restart, Roy Keane launched a scathing attack on the first half performances of Harry Maguire, and in particular, David De Gea.

Roy Keane said at the time that he was “sick to death” of David De Gea, and that he would have made De Gea get a taxi back to Manchester from London following the game had he been in that dressing room. Keane also said that he would be “swinging punches” at De Gea.

Now imagine if that had been someone on AFTV commenting on an Arsenal player in such a fashion. Imagine if Troopz had said he would be swinging punches at Hector Bellerin, or if DT said that about Mezut Ozil. There would be uproar and discontent, a sentiment reflected by Robbie.

“What was eye opening for me is that Roy Keane threatened to punch De Gea, if a fan had said that everybody would be up in arms”. Robbie also mentioned the hypocrisy in how Sky used these comments, “Sky used that, they clipped it up, and it was everywhere. That was very ironic to me.”

“People in the mainstream media will criticise us and will say we allowed a fan to really lay into a player, but hold on, you guys have got Roy Keane threatening a Man United player…what’s the difference?”.

The problem with the perception of AFTV is how they are reported on. Recently, controversy struck again. In a livestream watch-along of Arsenal vs Tottenham following Project Restart, tensions boiled over towards the end of the defeat. An AFTV regular, Claude, made a racially derogatory remark about Spurs attacker Son Heung-Min.

At first, this went unnoticed by AFTV, and they released a video following the game in which Claude explained his comment, but fans weren’t buying it. Following review of the footage from the game, Claude was swiftly removed from the channel, and put through a sensitivity course.

Now, I would never defend the comment made by Claude, it was a damning indictment of what is perceived as ‘banter’ within the game, an example of when footballling banter crosses a line, a comment which should never ever be made in any circumstance. I would also not defend the initial response from AFTV, as the video in which Claude explained his comment should never have been released.

However, when Robbie realised his and AFTV’s mistake, he acted swiftly. He admitted that the initial response wasn’t good enough, but he rectified this by acting in the right way, choosing not to stand by a mainstay of his channel for several years, and immediately remove him from AFTV.

“Our initial response wasn’t good enough, I admitted that. Once we did get on top of it, we dealt with it. Claude had to go, you can’t have that because it’s unacceptable. Every step I was speaking to Kick It Out, and experts. We dealt with it in the right and proper way”.

In response to the controversy, Robbie has mentioned his desire to commit a feature on the AFTV channel to the sensitivity training employed by Kick It Out in these scenarios, to highlight the severity of the issue and shed some light on the excellent work that Kick It Out do every day. Media reported on the controversy, but there was no mention of the response from Robbie and AFTV, only that Claude had been removed from the channel.

For Robbie, this was particularly saddening, as he explains.

“For me it was a really sad thing, because since I’ve been going to football as a black fan, I’ve always had to fight racism, sometimes on a week to week basis. Even on my channel, almost weekly I get racism directed at me, the other day just putting Black Lives Matter on our social media channels, I was getting abused for that” Robbie explained. “For me it’s really hurtful when people try to and accuse us or try to imply we’re defending this”.

I can only imagine the exasperation Robbie must have felt, accusing a black man who is prevalent in a hostile and often degrading and discriminating environment such as the world of Football, of defending racist remarks made by someone on his channel must have been not only extremely disappointing in terms of the racism he has faced during his life and career, but also irritating in terms of the work he had done to rectify the issue.

Robbie also called for widespread change in the game.

“We need to clean up football when it comes to these matters. Things like what was said about Son, these racial stereotypes, they’re disgraceful and I hear them all the time at football” Robbie explained. “A racial stereotype is a racial stereotype, no matter who it’s against”.

The way this controversy was reported on, ignoring the work done by Robbie and AFTV in conjunction with Kick It Out to rectify the issue, is indicative of the way the media in general views AFTV and similar fan channels. Mainstream media seem to be anxious about the rise in the popularity of fan channels, they even seem to have taken a leaf out of their book with various watch-alongs during Project Restart, following on from similar features of the AFTV channel and other similar channels.

Despite the difficulties AFTV face with mainstream media, Robbie insists that he has nothing against traditional media.

“People often think I’m against the mainstream media. I don’t know why people think that. We’re just a different form of media”. Robbie also explained why he believes mainstream media perceive AFTV in the way they do. “Some people feel a bit threatened, and I can understand that because something new has come along. We’re just a different type of media, not against it, just different.”

Despite the difficulties they face, Robbie believes AFTV and fan channels in general will “grow and grow and grow”. He believes that the future of the medium is very strong due to the way mainstream media companies treat fans.

“The reason why our platforms are so popular and will continue to grow in popularity is that you’re hearing real fan opinions. A lot of the time you can relate to hearing it from another fan”. Robbie elaborated on this, comparing the opinions of Manchester United fans on David De Gea to the opinions of pundits.

“A Man United fan will watch David De Gea week in week out, so I will trust their opinion more than someone who watches him every now and again”.

This is what Robbie attributes the success of the channel down to, giving the fans a voice. It has always been the ethos of the channel and the driving force of AFTV. A real importance has always been placed on ensuring the fans can have their say, and although they have split opinion, AFTV have achieved this goal and has been very successful in doing so.

Is the narrative surrounding AFTV fair? Not at all. They’re pioneers of an exciting new platform, one with a lot of potential, and the potential to give a lot back to the fans. AFTV has created jobs, and so many memories for the people involved in the channel as well as it’s fans.

So what is the future going to be for AFTV and fan channels as a whole? As I’ve already mentioned, Robbie Lyle is firmly of the belief that without the fans, “the game is not even half the product”, and that “until the big companies place more of an importance on the fans, fan channels are going to grow. AFTV are growing still, Man United and Liverpool channels are all growing, and I can only see them getting bigger.”

Regardless of what the uncertain future of the platform looks like, what is definitely certain is that mainstream media corporations such as Sky and TalkSport will continue to knock the efforts of AFTV in hypocritical ways, but AFTV will continue to do their thing, and not care either way.

This is because they are “for the fans, by the fans”, and nothing will ever change that.

 

About the author

I'm a Tottenham fan based in Stoke, using this platform to write about the sport I love.

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