Sports TikTok Design by Liam McGuire, Comeback Media.

Over one billion videos are viewed each day on TikTok where sports rank as the fourth-most popular category and brands like ESPN race to dominate the platform’s young, growing audience.

As platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) back out of the news business and the creator economy grows, sports content creators are increasingly looking to TikTok as a place to grow and sometimes build their careers in media. With its Creator Fund and this year’s Creativity Program Beta for longer videos, TikTok is providing sports creators a place to be found, make money, and experiment.

Beyond the financial opportunities or pioneering advantages available to today’s TikTok creators, the versatility of the platform sets it apart as well. TikTok has translated many go-to styles of internet content into video form, allowing sports creators to effectively blog, break down film, do reporting, or aggregate news all through one platform. And because the app’s users are spread more globally than Twitter or many news websites, TikTok creators’ reach can be significant.

Awful Announcing spoke with three successful sports creators on the platform to get a sense of their approach to TikTok, how it changed their careers, and how they hope to see the platform evolve over time.

Like many who use it casually, these creators all tried TikTok out of curiosity more than professional development. But they have turned the platform into a place to talk sports in a way that suits them, make money, and develop an audience quicker than they could have dreamed. That electric, spontaneous virality attracted each creator we spoke with but also led to questions about how to build on it or iterate beyond their lane on the platform.

“I made a video about the 2014 World Cup Final and a coaching decision I didn’t agree with and that got around 200,000 views,” explained Aazam Khan, who runs Aazam’s Footy Show on TikTok, which has over 101,000 followers. “This was actually the first soccer video I made and it really encouraged me to continue.

“I think my main takeaway from that video was to not be afraid to express an opinion that may be niche or controversial. The topic of this video was not something I had personally seen online, and I was a little afraid that it would be received negatively. But people in the comments resonated with it, and I learned that as long as I have the confidence and logic to back up a take I put forward, that means there must be some inherent value to that take, whether or not it is completely spot on.”

Khan learned that while individual videos might vary, viewers would always respond to a direct opinion. And that wasn’t so different from any other platform.

For Kofie Yeboah, who already had a creatively fulfilling job at SB Nation’s Secret Base, TikTok became an outlet to express his personal opinions and try different types of content.

“I started posting on TikTok 3 years ago when I realized that a considerable number of funny videos I saw on Twitter were posted on TikTok first,” Yeboah explained. “So I decided to take a look around and make one myself. There was definitely a learning curve on how to make content for TikToks, so I just treated it like a permanent Instagram story for a while.”

Yeboah’s first few big hits came from duetting (a split-screen reaction video) food videos, similar to the popular Chef Reactions account. Yeboah’s account now has nearly 254,00 followers.

But it wasn’t just young sports fans in their bedrooms during the public health shutdowns of 2020 who were getting hip to the potential of the platform for sports content.

Jeff Pearlman, the bestselling author of books like Showtime, spoke as a guest lecturer at Arizona State University and encouraged journalism students to explore and embrace the platform. He told them to be everywhere on social media, which got young football philosopher Theo Ash thinking.

“I’d been posting on Twitter but always resisted downloading TikTok because I thought it was cringe,” Ash told Awful Announcing. “But I knew there were a lot of popular NFL accounts on there, and I figured it would be easier to get big on there, where there [were] no professional analysts to compete with for eyes, than on Twitter.”

But Ash crafted a regrettable TikTok brand originally.

“My original style was very combative, I fired off a ton of hot takes early and would get in big arguments with other big accounts on the app,” he explained. “I was very analytics-pilled at that time, my takes at the time were 100 percent driven by data, and I didn’t do film breakdowns.”

After realizing that was no way to build a following, Ash tried his hand at something more vulnerable.

He posted a breakdown of wide receiver Calvin Ridley captioned “Player Review: Calvin Ridley” and watched the views pile up.

“At that time, I was an analytics guy who didn’t play the game in high school, but I wanted to continue mixing in film stuff after the success at that video,” he continued.

“That is when the long road to knowing ball started.”

But all these stories beg a question — what does knowing ball mean on TikTok? The gatekeeping of Twitter or an internship at the New York Times evaporates when you open the black-white-red-and-blue app, but then who are you speaking to?

Wallaroo Media estimates that 62 percent of TikTok users in the United States are 29 or younger. And while the app is the biggest in the U.S., it boasts tens of millions of daily users in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey as well.

Each creator who responded to Awful Announcing found over time that searching for the magic needle in the haystack that is TikTok’s algorithm was never going to work. The algorithm is based on user behavior, so what works on the platform is what is interesting to users. That may be confusing to some, but the masters of the platform find peace in it.

The authenticity and analysis that your favorite podcast or website may aim for is the basic ingredient of any successful video on TikTok.

“I can do numbers on that app without a lot of production value. I just point my phone at my screen and talk about what’s happening,” Ash explained. “[Early on], I had a few clips of the Chargers getting their ass kicked, I posted them with some light commentary and I got a million views and made almost $2,000 for a video that took like 10 minutes to make. It’s a pretty sweet deal.”

Still, there are tricks to the trade.

“Most of the time it doesn’t even have to do with content,” Yeboah pointed out. “Sometimes TikTok introduces a new filter, feature or something and wants to showcase that. Sometimes if you’re able to incorporate those features, the algorithm goes brr and boom, you have a viral video.”

Right now, TikTok is openly pushing longer videos. The platform is no longer the short-attention-span joke it used to be. It is chasing YouTube and other video products.

It introduced a Creativity Program Beta earlier this year designed specifically for creators who produce longer videos. Those can breathe better for sports analysts breaking down film or big stories.

Beyond length, format matters as well. Yeboah said he carefully considers the energy, music, lighting, and background to bring a peaceful energy to his videos. Ash goes more lo-fi, often pointing his phone camera at his laptop and narrating over that. Khan’s go-to is the green screen filter, which projects the creator’s camera shot over the top of an image. Sports creators can use screenshots of tweets or articles and opine atop them in what amounts to an aggregation or blog in video form.

But despite the freedom and versatility that TikTok allows, there are limits and downsides to the platform as well.

Yeboah is a generalist, which doesn’t always make for the easiest categorization from TikTok’s algorithm. Ash wants to turn the gig into something beyond social media creation but wonders if his qualifications as a TikTok creator and podcaster can lead to a traditional media job.

“I don’t like the idea of doing what I’m doing now forever,” Ash noted.

With a somewhat smaller account that has not translated to full-time income yet, Khan often struggles to cover a huge, complicated global sport like soccer to address bigger issues to a younger audience scrolling rapid-fire through their For You Page.

The demand for constant content and instant reaction is draining as well. Khan described hours passing and a topic no longer trending on TikTok. Ash said the hours of screen time and brain drain can be exhausting. Depending on a creator’s following, the unknown payoff for a given video can make it hard to dedicate the proper time.

Looking forward, each creator said they believe deeply in TikTok’s power to become even more of a player in sports media. Because of the ease of the platform and its ability to connect on a deeper, more personal level with audiences, the creators agreed brands should embrace it.

“Hire a college kid who is familiar with Cap Cut (the vertical video editing software) and you can boost engagement by 500 percent,” Ash suggested.

From the TikTok side, Yeboah and Khan suggested more filtering for creators. Yeboah suggested a setup similar to the now-shuttered Vine in which users could submit videos to multiple categories for ease of discovery.

“I think that while the Wild West of the For You Page is fun, a little streamlining can’t be that bad right?” Yeboah asked.

So will TikTok take over sports media? While we can’t know the fate of its competition, it seems unlikely. The nature of vertical video and the culture of TikTok are unique. Highly produced, long-form video will always have an audience. And there’s literally a limited scope to what you can show on a phone screen.

However, when it comes to connecting with personalities, behind-the-scenes content, and shorter clips, TikTok already rules. The likes of Ash or Frank Michael Smith or Blaiden Kirk have turned TikTok followings into real media careers.

A full overlap of the fast-paced video world of TikTok and traditional media feels far away, if not impossible. But the center of the Venn diagram is getting bigger.

Sports will continue to innovate while TikTok and its creators make incursions on sports fans and bring new audiences to athletes, teams, and leagues. And don’t be surprised if there are some formal innovations as well.

Ash sees the future:

“Within the next five years, I’d like a Subway Surfers livestream to always be split-screen with broadcasts of every NFL game.”

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.