How Showmanship, Memes, & A WhatsApp Fan Community Helped Sports Team Crash The UK Album Charts
Chromatica was a smash. Lady Gaga’s sixth album, an homage to club music set in an intergalactic social justice utopia, debuted at #1 in the US and had the biggest opening week of 2020 to date in the United Kingdom. However, something strange happened during the album’s second week on shelves: Gaga was nearly knocked from her perch atop the UK charts by the debut album from a London indie rock band called Sports Team, who trailed her by only 571 copies.
I’d started listening to Sports Team a few months before this all went down in June, and thought the headline “Sports Team, All Time Low and Lady Gaga Lock Horns For U.K. Albums Chart Title” was an Onion article. In the reality where I live, unless they sound like Imagine Dragons or Twenty One Pilots, rock bands don’t chart, let alone keep pace with a giant pop star’s biggest album in years.
Sports Team don’t sound like Imagine Dragons. This is one of the few statements I feel confident making about their music. The six-piece band was formed in 2017 by guitarist Rob Knaggs, frontman Alex Rice, guitarist Henry Young, drummer Al Greenwood, bassist Oli Dewdney, and keyboardist Ben Mack when they were seniors at Cambridge University. Over the last few years, they’ve become one of the most discussed bands in the UK, despite only a passing resemblance to the country’s trending flavor of rock, a strain of stark, barked post-punk embodied by bands like Shame, IDLES, and Fontaines DC. Although neither genre-bending or experimental, Sports Team’s sound is difficult to describe. They make structurally basic rock music with guitar, drums, bass, and keys. But each time you try to pin down a quality about them, the opposite starts to feel true as well, leaving you only with words like “eccentric,” and “weird,” which litter write-ups about the band.
Sports Team songs are nearly always anthemically upbeat despite the band’s evident despair about their prospects and the state of the world. Thematically, their chart-crashing debut Deep Down Happy — released in April on Island Records — could only have been made by post-Brexit British millennials, yet they sound like a ‘90s Britpop band, with their rambunctious choruses, zippy upbeat melodies, and constant references to British culture. They’re political, though their subtlety when referring to the lived realities of capitalism and political dysfunction contrasts sharply with the 1975 stating outright that “modernity has failed us.” They can come off as insincere, thanks to Rice’s froggy Jarvis Cocker baritone and fanciful pastiche of swaggering frontmen like Iggy Pop and Bon Scott — in his own words, “people where it’s always teetering on collapse, one step away from being completely absurd”— but moments of their songs feel viscerally truthful. They’ve managed to sound fresh while evoking some of the most copied bands of the past two decades, most notably Blur, Pavement, and the Strokes.
The sum of these contradictory parts adds up to something greater than the whole, but also something simple, immediate, and irresistible. Take “Fishing,” a glorious slacker anthem off Deep Down Happy: Rice works himself into hysterics, bemoaning the absorption of young people into the dead-eyed loneliness of modern professional life over a frenetic volley of chords. His litany (“‘Cause we don’t smoke anymore/ And we don’t laugh anymore/ Buy a coat and a car/ Buy a boat and a chain/ Buy a house with a moat/ By a beautiful stream/ Buy a phone with a plan/ Buy a villa abroad”) sounds vaguely like Ewan McGregor’s final monologue from Trainspotting. If every Sports Team song is a wink crafted from the perspective of someone being mocked, behind the wink, Rice sounds genuine. “Is there something I’m missing?” he shrieks, before toasting the redemptive power of fucking around with your friends: “We go out with our friends/ And we sit by the Thames/ Going fishing!”
Deep Down Happy is one of 12 releases up for the Mercury Prize, to be handed out this Thursday on the UK TV series The One Show. The award spotlights the year’s best British album, but Deep Down Happy could just as easily be honored as the year’s most British album. Sports Team have become known for their references to mundane parts of English and ‘00s culture, like on their song “M5,” a satirical ode to the UK’s highway system, or the nods to pub chain Slug & Lettuce and Aldershot Community Gardens in Hampshire. Their in-your-face Britishness and rambunctious sound could be mistaken as an homage to Britpop’s Cool Britannia nationalism and rejection of grunge dourness. But Sports Team clarify that Stephen Malkmus’ driving guitars and fixation with Stockton, California were the prototype for both those elements of their music.
Over Zoom from a London studio, where they’re recording their next album, Knaggs suggests the hints of Blur or Oasis in their songs “come from that we love big choruses and singalong bits and stupid chants, which Britpop did very well.” He reminds me, “No one in the UK… No one ever tries to sound like Oasis or Blur or Britpop. It’s like trying to sound like the Eagles. Like, it’s a bit sad.” Rather, the future bandmates met on their corridor at Cambridge because, according to Rice, “We were all just knocking about listening to Pavement and other music nobody else liked.” Adds Knaggs, “We couldn’t play our instruments, we’d never been in bands before. We’d probably have wanted to sound like Pavement, but we couldn’t be too choosy with how we sounded.”
So how does a three-year-old rock band — channeling ’90s underground heroes who famously never took off in the mainstream — have a fan base that can keep pace with the Little Monsters on the charts? It helped Sports Team’s cause that Gaga wasn’t promoting her album out of respect for the George Floyd protests, and lately, the UK charts are much friendlier to small bands and rock music than Billboard’s charts in America. More than 30% of #1 albums in the UK last year were made by rock bands, compared to less than 15% in the US. Those factors aside, the most important factor driving the band up the charts was a 250-person WhatsApp group called “Sportsteamrcool.”
Mostly comprising British teenagers and the band’s friends, the WhatsApp group architected what’s officially referred to within the Sports Team fan community as “The Chart Battle.” In the day before the chart was released, fans launched a Twitter campaign asking people to stream and buy Sports Team, coordinating with the band to promote bundle packages with T-shirts printed with messages from the WhatsApp, buying dozens of copies apiece themselves, and begging celebrities to post about the album. They were amazingly successful, despite infuriating Gaga stans. The Wombats, Sam Fender, Lewis Capaldi, Labour party MP Stephen Doughty and TV weatherman Jeremy Wade, among others, were all moved by the effort and made posts about Deep Down Happy. It’s already gone down in history: Redbrick, the student newspaper of the University of Birmingham, has since published a photo diary of the battle.
Sports Team started building their coalition from day one, literally. They wrote their first song, “Stanton” — a drawled, gibberish slow-burner with an epic chorus that contains the line “I wanna buy you a flip screen Motorola” — in Knaggs’ dorm room. “We had that feeling that probably all bands get the first time they do a song that doesn’t sound terrible, that has different parts,” recounts Rice. “We thought, ‘Alright, we can be the biggest band in the world.’” They played their first show later that night, convincing friends to let them take the stage at a party, where they repeated the song four times. “They didn’t have a bass player yet, but they had a smoke machine, which pretty much tells you everything,” remembers their friend Mikael, 27 who was running door. “I was giving out hand-numbered paper tickets that I’d printed out in the college library the day before. I still have a big wad of the unsold tickets in a box at home. The fact I didn’t bin them straight after goes to show that it was something special, or maybe I’m just sentimental. I think it was a bit of both.”
Rice is fond of saying that the style of chaotic, theatrical live performances that have made Sports Team famous originated because they figured it was the only way they could get people to listen to such an amateurish guitar band. “We were doing anything we could to distract attention from the competence of the playing,” he says. “We were self-conscious that guitar music wasn’t the coolest genre in the world. It took a lot of convincing to get our mates to come see our basement gigs.” In his view, this was how he developed the repertoire of prancing, confrontational frontmannery and dance moves that’s getting him called, by his fans at least, the next great UK frontman. One of his signature motifs is the white trousers he’s selected to show as much dirt as possible from his performances.
When they graduated, the band moved into a house in North West London, where they spent their nights gigging constantly or rehearsing till midnight before waking up for banal office jobs the next morning. They played on bills with the likes of Fontaines DC, Shame, and Squid, bands that Sports Team are sometimes lumped in with despite generally bucking the tropes of the UK post-punk revival. “That was just the guitar music at the time,” says Rice. “It wasn’t really a scene. Except for that all these very visceral acts were building a live scene.”
Rice soon became beloved and notorious for taking shots at peers. He mocked Fontaines DC being beloved by “wealthy craft-ale fans” in their mid-40s. They’ve gone at it a few times with Shame and dissed art-school glam-rockers HMLTD in their song “Camel Crew” (“This avant garde is still the same/ Go to Goldsmiths and they dye their fringes/ To know they’ve made it only/ When they sign the rights to Sony”), later referring to them as “one of the worst bands ever.”
The sniping is all in good fun — as Rice is now required to reiterate in every interview — intended to harken back to an older era of rock tribalism, when fans lived, died, and would go to war for their favorite bands. Sports Team would thrive in that era, but Rice says ultimately, he’s grateful for any band getting fans out. As he told DIY in May, “These bands like Shame, IDLES and Fontaines DC came through and proved that guitar music can be cool.”
Still, he rejects coolness as a guiding principle: “I think people did forget for a while what a band was supposed to be. That it was supposed to be epic and joyous when you have live shows. It’s supposed to feel incredible when you’re under the lights, arm in arm with your mates.” They embrace balloon drops, crowd-surfing, and the cheapest smoke machines money can buy — anything to give the crowd a rise, though typically Rice’s antics are enough. “If you keep it just on the right side of being so stupid or sad,” he says, “then that’s the perfect show, right in that liminal space.” Adds Knaggs, “No one wants to pay 30 quid for a ticket to see some douchebag posing on the stage ignoring you. You have to give something, if you want them to give it back.”
Being delusionally ambitious while not taking themselves seriously at all is Sports Team’s entire ethos. Knaggs is fond of recounting the time they booked a 600-cap venue when they had only 300 followers on Twitter (it ended up selling out). Rice declared that #1 was what Deep Down Happy deserved and has promised their next album will manage the feat. Knebworth Field, Rock In Rio, Wembley, and Coachella are their dream shows. They’re kidding, but they’re also not. “People are like, ‘You know, they seem kind of stupid and a bit ballsy and idiotic,’ but the element of putting yourself out there is hopefully what resonates with people,” says Knaggs.
Between the songs, the shows, their outsized ambitions, the turf wars, and the after-gig hangouts, Sports Team have created something that fans desperately want to be a part of. Today, pop music is the genre most associated with zealous fandom. (Knaggs is ready to blame at least part of this on rock stars being assholes, while “pop stars are a lot more attentive and engaged with their fans”). Sports Team seem poised to change this. In their first two years of playing, the band became known for inviting entire venues to come to the pub or over to their house after a show, and chartering an annual trip to Margate for a seaside gig. Sometime in year two, Instagram pages like @sportsteamoutofcontext, @sportsteamspams, @sportsteamimagines, and @alexriceholdingvariousthings started to crop up, posting elaborate, absurd edits of the band, which they delight in interacting with.
Sports Team created the WhatsApp fan group that carried out the chart battle in 2018. Originally, it was a way to promote gigs and connect with fans, but it quickly became a friend group and general music forum, functioning the way an email listserv or message board might have for prior generations. It buzzes daily, dominated by British teenagers, with a few Americans and millennials in the mix. Like all good music scenes, it has a niche culture and sense of humor that’s mostly inscrutable to an outsider. The members are music connoisseurs, especially of UK rock, old and new. They dissect news about and argue over the merits of their favorite bands Wolf Alice, Declan McKenna, Sam Fender, Sorry, all the post-punk stars that Sports Team has jabbed at, plus a seemingly endless list of still obscure new acts like Black Country, New Road and Home Counties. They exchange pictures of their latest vinyl scores — The Smiths, T-Rex, Joy Division, Stone Roses, Bowie, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees. It’s shockingly non-bro-y; the band says their fans actually skews female. “We have surpassed the need for L&R,” one member posts, when it’s revealed Post Malone, Liam Gallagher, and Catfish And The Bottlemen are among the headliners of the Reading and Leeds festivals, again. “They really said bitches know your place,” says another, seeing no women on the line-up.
The chat discusses Sports Team occasionally, like earlier this week when a member made an online tournament-style ranking game for Deep Down Happy songs. But members also greet each other in the morning, cheer each other up after a shitty day at work, complain about their parents, source for advice for a friend struggling with mental health, update each other about Tinder dates, and compare the COVID-19 policies for their high schools and universities.
“I’ve met some of my closest friends through the Sports Team world,” says Grace, an 18-year-old from Southhampton. “The sense of community is definitely what draws people to the band, but probably also curiosity? People see what’s happening and want to join in.” Ciara, a 17 year-old from Glasgow, echoes this. “The community is just as important for the music for me, purely because of how many amazing people I’ve met.” Many concur that they’ve met close friends through the chat or at gigs. “It’s like a weird sort of family,” says Willow, a 19-year-old in London. “It’s not just an object and consumer relationship. It’s as if Sports Team is the best kept secret and you’re the only one who knows about them. They feel like they’re your band.” Her favorite memory of the band was their gig at O2 Forum Kentish Town last year. “The massiveness of it all, so many young people in one room who adored the same band. They seemed to have finally found a stage that fit them.”
Although Sports Team’s fandom resembles a time when rock was more popular, they don’t have the stereotypical relationship with their fans. “That whole idea of groupies and that big celebrated ‘70s rock thing,” ponders Knaggs. “It just seems so grim. It’s no wonder people don’t want to listen to rock anymore.” For the most part, the fans see the band as older siblings, friends or mentors, not sex symbols or gods. As such, their fans mock them ruthlessly. Aarvi, a 24-year-old in Washington, DC who found the band through Spotify Discover and joined the group chat after attending several dates on their first ever US tour, runs @sportsteamoutofcontext. The theme of many of her absurdist creations is how bad and annoying the band is. “I just made it because I was bored, and it’s fun to make fun of them,” she says, calling the group chat “her family.”
It was a fan who originally started the rumor that Matty Healy actually wrote “Fishing” in a writing session for Liam Gallagher, who turned it down and it went to Sports Team. This started a small beef with the 1975 frontman, who seemed to misunderstand the joke and posted a photo of the band on his Instagram story with the caption “Why can’t I be indie and from London :(.” Finding this hilarious, Sports Team elaborated on the falsehood in detail on Twitter and made a T-shirt out of Healy’s comment.
Underneath the memes and pranks, Sports Team fans do believe the band are geniuses, ushering in a new era in the UK scene. While Jamie, a 19-year-old from Newcastle Upon Tyne, says that while at first he couldn’t stand Rice’s vocals, suddenly it just clicked. “I genuinely believe he’s one of indie’s greatest frontmen, like one of Jagger’s lost children,” he says. “The indie scene in the UK is the best it’s been in a long time. Despite the pandemic, I believe we’re going to see the best decade for independent music since the ‘80s.” A number of people in the chat have started their own bands — some of which, like Courting, Tall Stories, Shock Horror, and Happy2000, are starting to come up on their own — as well as zines, blogs, poetry, or photography projects. George, a 15-year-old in Bristol, says the band recently inspired him to start writing songs.
Ciara says the Sports Team community has gotten especially close during lockdown. “We really kept each other going with constant Zoom calls. It made it much less lonely.” Jasmine, 19, from Manchester, adds, “When we couldn’t go out and see anyone, there was always someone around for a chat.” Alice, a 17-year-old from Newcastle, who’s also a part of an Instagram DM group of Sports Team memers called The Coven, says, “At the start of lockdown, we’d do weekly Zoom quizzes, and there were some the week of the album release and during the chart battle that lasted about seven hours.” Deep Down Happy dropped two months into lockdown, and it’s easy to see how the chart battle became the perfect quarantine activity. Locked up or or not, what could be more exciting than staying up all night with your tribe tweeting at celebs, half as a joke and half genuinely, to send your scrappy underdog hero up the charts?
What Sports Team have really done is given fans an opportunity to be a part of the kind of tight-knit community that feels increasingly scarce. “There’s a history of live acts being formative places for young people,” says Rice. “If a band can give people a way to meet each other, and a shared sense of identity and a way to live, a way to dress and talk and a sense of what music is cool, that’s a lot more appealing than a band who just tries to sell records. I think if you buy into Sports Team, you buy into a whole lot more than just the music. It’s a kind of identity and a culture and a community.” If a rock band can pull that off in 2020, turns out, they can sell quite a lot of records.