Gymnast, vlogger and athlete-preneur Nile Wilson, who this year saw his YouTube channel reach a milestone one million subscribers, believes he is building a brand that can take gymnastics mainstream in the next ten years.
He said: “My vision is to take the sport to the next level, with a model that looks a bit like where boxing is today.
“The main barrier at the moment is that no-one understands the scoring. That’s what I’m working to change. I want people to see and understand what’s going on – to make it a sport that the 12 year-old girl loves, but equally the 55 year-old man can go to the bookies and put a bet on. My vlog is the road to all that."
Olympic medallist Wilson was speaking at the Sport Industry Private Dining Club hosted by Integro Sport & Entertainment, which met at The Mercer restaurant in the City for its fourth event in 2018.
The intimate Q&A came at the end of a year in which the 22 year-old swept the Commonwealth Games, winning four gold medals including the coveted all-around title, and also achieved worldwide viral success with a memorable video that saw him flipping into a pair of pants.
Wilson joked of the stunt: “It’s so annoying. I’ve worked 15 years at this, and that stunt took about 15 minutes. When it hit the internet, it just exploded.
“I’m known as a vlogger, not a gymnast. But for me, my Olympic medal is a platform. It’s what makes my brand and vlog platform unique.”
Asked about the evolution of his YouTube channel and million-plus global army of “Wilsonators,” the influencer explained he was driven by an entrepreneurial vision: “I started a year before the Olympics. I was 18 years old and didn’t know if I was going to be selected. I thought it’d be a cool story, just to document the journey.
“In the back of my mind I was thinking: there’s not much money in gymnastics. If I can get 10,000 people looking at these videos, I’m in a stronger position to be able to get a brand to come to me. That’s all I was thinking.
“The lads were taking the mickey out of me with my camera in the gym, but now they’re all doing it. I just saw something before anyone else did – at the right time – and I’ve been persistent and consistent with it.
“People are always asking for advice, and the questions tend to be about the kit and the camera. But I’ve always been about the content and the story.
“What I learned quite quickly was that people don’t understand gymnastics. That’s why it’s not mainstream.
“Not everybody likes gymnastics but everybody likes to be entertained and be made to laugh. So I realised that’s what I need to do."
Wilson said he believed authenticty was the key to the success of his offering: “I’ve done some brand stuff and it’s so overanalysed, overedited and overexpensed in terms of marketing.
“I did one [sponsor] shoot that took six hours with a film crew of seven to create a video that I could’ve done on my phone in 25 minutes.
“It’s powerful to be able to offer a more authentic kind of content to brands.”
Asked whether he saw a trend of sponsors requiring digital reach from sports stars, Wilson said: “The traditional sponsorship model has always been about attention –how many eyes are on what you’ve got to sell.
“Before, it’s always been traditional media, events and football clubs, but now smartphones and social media have taken over the world.
“I’ve seen that [transformation] early and I definitely think there’s a huge shift in where the attention is at."
The entrepreneurial Wilson was quick to promote his book and new “merch drop” for the Christmas market, as well as plans for a Black Friday sale.
But the gymnast said his real motivation ran deeper than deals and dollars: "I’m always turning [commercial opportunities] away. I’ve had dating apps trying to do deals for 60 seconds on the vlog.
"For me it’s more about authenticity and organic growth. I’m trying to do business but I’ll always try to give more than I take. It started with trying to help gymnasts but now it’s about trying to inspire the world to get active and do sport and have fun.
“It’s always been about the audience and I want to stick to that. A big part of my success is that I’ve always been me – a normal 22-year-old lad from Leeds.
“I do feel the pressure of being a role model. It’s amazing to be in that position to influence and inspire but at the same time, as an Olympian, you have to sign a contract without really asking for it: your job is to be a role model.
“It’s not always easy but I always try to do my best to inspire the next generation."