On the Cultural Relevance of YouTube

(Or, Did you see that crazy/awesome/uplifting sports video?)

Next February, YouTube will be 10 years old.

According to YouTube’s own statistics, more than 6 billion hours of video are watched each month on the social media portal — about an hour for every person on Earth. And, not to get too scientific here, but a whole bunch of that viewing is dedicated to watching cat videos. And sports.

YouTube is all a generation of sports fans knows, so it behooves us to think about what that means. How has this social media behemoth changed the way we experience sports? I’m glad you asked.

YouTube has given us agency. It empowers viewers, who can make stars out of role players, or the person next door, simply by watching, liking and sharing. And then watching again.Like we did with these clips that (try) to sum up the YouTube sports experience.

We’re not alone in the YouTube highlights love. Athletes also seek them out. “Something like a ‘Greatest Goals’ compilation can really build up that sense of excitement,” said USMNT and Sporting KC star Graham Zusi, who had a highlight-worthy moment of his own against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup.

Highlights are not the sole province of YouTube. Local sportscasters have been stringing together bite-sized thrills for decades. The advent of SportsCenter transformed highlight-gazing into a national pastime, taking the practice to a new level with multiple morning and evening repeats of the same hour’s worth of clips. YouTube, however, freed us from the grasp of segment producers, news cycles, and clock-watching anchors. If you want to relive the NBA Finals at 3 am on a Sunday morning in October, you can. And it will be glorious.

A handful of sports rake in the majority of U.S. viewers: football, basketball, baseball and hockey, with soccer showing up on more American screens every year. Most other sports fit into small niches which can easily be overlooked, even as small, narrowcasting cable TV networks proliferate.

Until you stumble across a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism on YouTube. The Bulgarian gymnast in the clip above performed a rhythmic gymnastics routine that turned out to be a must-see, and we were able to, well, see it. Sometimes, it’s not even competition that catches our fickle eyes. We’ll tune in to watch prospects jump over moving cars just because we can.

Remember when your dad or grandpa would wax rhapsodic about some amazing athlete of yesteryear? Maybe it was Jim Brown crushing would-be tacklers. Or Wayne Gretzky’s beautiful puck work. And as well as he told the story, you could just never quite picture it. No more.

When I want to show my child something indescribable like a Barry Sanders run play or Michael Jordan’s Flu Game, may the words “back in my day” never cross my lips. I’m just going to email him a YouTube clip. That way, if he rolls his eyes, I won’t have to see it.

When we say that sports are inspirational, it can sound trite. Isn’t it just entertainment?

Not always.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, sports reveals character and often in a way that is accessible to everyone. Brian Piccolo’s heart-wrenching fight against cancer became part of our sporting lexicon in large part because it was dramatized so well by James Caan and Billy Dee Williams on television. We see an injured runner complete an Olympic event hobbling on his father’s arm, or be moved to tears — and action — by Jim Valvano’s courageous ESPY speech. And we can reach for those reminders of human strength and fellowship whenever and wherever we need them.

For a sporting event to mean anything at all, it has to end. Two teams putting on a masterful show is entertaining in its own right, but each moment of late-game action is fraught with meaning. When your team is on its last out, or the clock ticks down to that penultimate red digit on the scoreboard, it’s hero time. Recharge those goose-bumps at will.

Let’s be honest here. Sometimes it’s an awkward moment (or two) that makes our day. We’re not above indulging in a little schadenfreude, right? Watch Carl Lewis “sing” the national anthem. Then watch it again. Try not to laugh during that hilariously fractured “rockets red glare.” Maybe a classic coach meltdown will give you that much-needed smile at the end of a rough day. If it happened in front of a camera, YouTube probably has it.

We get more TV channels every day. Name a sport with a decent following, and someone is sending a professional camera crew to cover it.

But one thing YouTube, in concert with the ubiquity of the cell phone, has brought us, is the ability to lay eyes on fleeting moments of greatness accomplished by unknowns in hometown venues. It makes each of us feel like our triumphs can and will be noticed; that the promised fifteen minutes of fame is within our grasp if we work for it.

There are some moments that become iconic because they’re just so unlikely. The Kick Six in the Iron Bowl is a perfect example.

The 57-yard kick could have sailed through the uprights as time expired. It could have been wide right and into the stands. Auburn’s Chris Davis could have failed to field the miss. Any one of the eleven opposing Alabama players could have made a game-saving tackle. Those were the likely outcomes. Instead, it was 109 yards of highly improbable college football magic. And if you missed it the first time, no biggie.

Supercuts and Mixtapes are perhaps the most notable, and most fan-driven, aspect of YouTube sports culture. Film fans can watch Nicholas Cage lose his mind on a seemingly endless loop, which is, you know, fun once. Sports fans have the better end of that deal. We can get highlights packages of our favorite individual players, with multiple seasons worth of action condensed into a melee of incredible moments. Never heard of this kid your alma mater is recruiting? Check the internet. Everyone who’s anyone has a personal highlight reel of their best moments, spiced up with a hip-hop soundtrack.

UCLA coach Steve Alford admitted during a recent phone conversation that coaches enjoy watching prospect mixtapes, but chuckled as he offered this caveat: “I have yet to see a YouTube video where a kid misses a shot or guards anybody.”

We all have dreams, and we tend to cast ourselves as heroes in our sports fantasies; scoring the crucial points in the final seconds. Dig a little deeper, and you start to realize that you’ll never get to that final do-or-die moment without hours and hours of hard work. When it comes time to start training your body for greatness, odds are, you’ll find video of one of your idols, showing you how to do it right.

This drone camera footage of Laird Hamilton surfing under the Santa Monica pier on a hurricane swell was recommended by Amber Jones (@berstreet), who added her enthusiastic endorsement to the visually amazing action: “Tow in surfing is so insane. Think about it. These waves are so massive, you have to be transported out to where you can surf them, or else they’ll eat you alive.”

(Pro tip: you can watch this video on your phone if you only want a tiny piece of your mind to explode out of your eyeholes, but I highly recommend going full-screen on the largest device you can find.)

Most of us, if asked to do something wildly dangerous and possibly deadly, would ask “Why?” Fortunately, the world has a small cadre of elite athletes who instead ask “Why not?” and proceed to blow our minds. You may not tune in to watch an entire X Games event, but odds are, you’ll check out a 60-second clip of some amazing aerials, and maybe you’ll start to think “Why not?” a little more often.

At its core, sports is just entertainment. But its power to ignite shared passion in people who share little else can be nothing short of profound. YouTube’s role in enabling us to build cross-cultural bridges may sound overstated in this context, but consider the positive feeling that comes out of shared global sporting events. Our most distant neighbors seem closer than ever, which builds a community based on shared interests. It’s a small step, but a very real one.

Or, YouTube gets personal. It can aggregate a planet’s worth of human athletic achievement — both contemporary and historical — and deliver it to each interested individual. It’s a social media platform as a delivery system, as well as something to figuratively stand on as you survey the world around you. YouTube has been a sports fan’s best friend for the better part of a decade. We can’t wait to see what comes next.