Interviews

Rebecca Smith, Executive Director of Women’s Game, COPA90

COPA90 is redefining what it means to be a modern media brand and paving a trail for equality and creativity.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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This year will go down as a pivotal one in the world of women’s sport. From World Cups in rugby, netball and football, 2019 seems to mark a significant, if only slight, tipping point when it comes to the awareness of, and airtime given to, women’s sport. But it was the FIFA Women’s World Cup which captured the hearts of the nation, as our Lionesses played their way into the semi-final against the US in a game watched by 11.7 million people in the UK, the equivalent of a 50.8% share of viewers.

For Rebecca Smith, Executive Director of Women’s Game at COPA90, it was a pivotal tournament and one that they had been leading up to since her appointment back in December of last year.

We want to change the face of football because the face is so one dimensional.

Rebecca Smith

A new movement

At COPA90 Smith is spearheading a new movement in women’s football, firstly and most importantly by acknowledging that “women’s football is football.” While many in the industry have been content to write about how 2019 is the year of women’s sport, COPA 90 is genuinely changing the game, backed by a pledge to aim for equality of coverage for the women’s game.

This means the company is diversifying the stories that they are telling and the media channels that the company operates on. As Smith says, “Football is just so much broader and more diverse and deeper than what we see on traditional media.”

With Smith’s appointment, COPA90 have both declared and cemented their desire to talk about, write about and celebrate the women’s and men’s games equally. This means both showcasing the women’s game but also ensuring that there are women in decision making roles: “All the stuff that you see on TV is all male football, male dominated…It makes sense because all the decision makers in those entities are male.”

This equality of airtime comes first and foremost from removing the misconceived idea that there is no audience for women’s football or that only women watch women’s sport. The audience is there, says Smith, who believes that media platforms, and the brands they work with, just need to play in the spaces that these viewers are operating in.

What’s important for Smith, and for COPA90 is that their coverage of the game reflects the football being played, right from grassroots clubs up to international level: “We want to change the face of football because the face is so one dimensional.”

[We] wanted to make sure we made these players iconic; we wanted to do a series that was memorable…so that after the tournament ends, you’re leaving the legacy.

Rebecca Smith

Superstars in the making

Changing the face of the game for COPA90 means giving a platform to the superstars of the women’s game who historically haven’t benefitted from the profile they deserve. In research carried out by Dark Horses, 63% said they would be more interested if they knew more about female players, rising to 73% amongst 18-34-year olds. These women are brilliant football players, offering a new idea of what it means to be a role model. These are the individuals that COPA90 is both championing and celebrating.

To help bridge this gap, in the run up the World Cup COPA90 created the 52 Moments installation. They worked with illustrators around the world to depict 52 chosen moments from the Women’s World Cup, with the player at the heart of each as the hero of the image. Smith explains, “[we] wanted to make sure we made these players iconic; we wanted to do a series that was memorable…so that after the tournament ends, you’re leaving the legacy.”

Part of COPA90’s approach to the Women’s World Cup was to also go offline and put the players in front of the fans themselves. The team hosted a 50/50 event at a space in Shoreditch in May and invited top players down including Vivianna Miedema from the Netherlands, Scottish footballer Lisa Evans and England goalkeeper Carly Telford. “We knew they were fucking awesome superstars. And no one knew them. We were in a room full of all these people and no one knew who these players were,” adds Smith.

We’re always going try and be at the pulse and the heart of football. And that’s in a lot of different ways, through fashion or through music; it’s not just the scores.

Rebecca Smith

Playing in culture

Alongside connecting the audience with the game’s superstars, COPA90 believes passionately in the role that football, and sport, has across broader culture. Football’s audience are simultaneously interested in music, fashion and other cultural touchpoints.

“You have to be credible; you have to be authentic which means you have to be right at the heart of it. At COPA90 that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We’ve always been at the heart of fan culture,” says Smith. This means COPA90 is just as much about charting iconic football moments as it is exclusive music events like the one they recently hosted with rapper Ms. Banks or others that focused on fashion.

Smith explains, “We’re always going try and be at the pulse and the heart of football. And that’s in a lot of different ways, through fashion or through music; it’s not just the scores.”

We want to be a platform where players can come to us and tell their own stories and have their own voice heard.

Rebecca Smith

Growth of social platforms

When Smith speaks about the game itself, what becomes apparent is how engaged COPA90 is with their fans not only on their own platform but also across social media. She explains: “I think there’s a lot of barriers to women’s football in traditional media. Broadcast rights and broadcast money has not been allocated to the women’s game.”

But, when it comes to social channels, it’s “so much easier…You can literally go down with your phone and cover games and chuck it up on your platforms.” Social platforms are giving greater autonomy to the audience, who become content creators in their own right and also by affording players more direct access to their fans. Social media allows for more authentic storytelling on platforms where the audience actually wants to see those stories told.

This creates an interesting situation for brands wanting to operate in this space as they have to find a voice, a message and a story that will cut through. For Smith at COPA90, it’s all about the storytelling, giving people the space to talk about the game in the way that they want: “We want to be a platform where players can come to us and tell their own stories and have their own voice heard…Everything that we do, if it can be through the players’ eyes, that’s how we like to do it.”

Brands are waking up to the opportunities of the women’s game not just because it’s a CSR campaign or they should do it but because it’s a business decision and it commercially makes sense.

Rebecca Smith

Take the risk

Women’s sport has, for years, been hugely undervalued, with a lack of major brand sponsorship and media coverage. Indeed, women’s sport sponsorship accounted for only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship between 2011 and 2013, according to research done by Women in Sport while women’s sport accounted for only 7% of total sports coverage.

Smith acknowledges that, for brands, the women’s game poses a risk. It’s unknown territory but, says Smith, “brands are waking up to the opportunities of the women’s game not just because it’s a CSR campaign or they should do it but because it’s a business decision and it commercially makes sense.”

The reality is, says Smith, that “the women’s game is the number one growth opportunity in football. Period.” It’s a no brainer for brands to get involved with, but naturally, where there’s a new space to be occupied, it takes a brave brand willing to be the first. At COPA90, says Smith, their role is to make the potential involvement seem more exciting than scary, more appealing than something to walk away from: “Brands are a little bit scared to jump into that space because they don’t understand A the commercial opportunity, and B what are the stories we can tell.”

Credibility takes time to build and a lot of these brands are coming into this space for the very first time.

Rebecca Smith

Power of long-term investment

2019 was also a ground-breaking year for women’s football from a sponsorship perspective. UEFA unbundled the rights of the women’s and men’s game, leaving each group more open to specific sponsorship, with VISA making a seven-year investment in the women’s game.

Smith spoke about the deal, and COPA90’s work with the brand, suggesting that, although it wasn’t the biggest investment VISA had ever made money wise, “what they’ve gotten back in terms of good vibes and positivity in their whole business has been beyond anything that they expected and anything that they’ve experienced.” Smith also looks to Puma as an example because it’s a brand that sponsored players “when it wasn’t sexy.”

The point that Smith believes passionately in is that one off brand activations don’t work. What’s needed from brands is long term investment and real commitment to the women’s game. The ones that do will see the greatest payoff. Longevity matters because eventually we’ll get to the point where we can look back and see which brands have remained a credible supporter of the women’s game: “Credibility takes time to build and a lot of these brands are coming into this space for the very first time.”

Smith also cites Nike as a prime example of a pre-World Cup strategy that worked as well as the emotional black and white ad that concluded the tournament. The brand, she believes, lived and breathed every moment of the tournament, from the players to the fans. And that was why they were able to make a spot as powerful as the one voiced by US Co-Captain Megan Rapinoe.

Women’s football audience is so much more diverse…That should be exciting for brands because what that means is you have more diverse and more consumers.

Rebecca Smith

Recognising your audience

Nike has managed to stay relevant since it’s conception by mapping cultural and creative trends and staying on top of them. The brand’s messaging and the stories they tell across social platforms, matter to their audience. As Smith suggests, brands need to keep up otherwise they’ll be left behind: “It’s those brands that are constantly on the cutting edge of what consumers want and how people are consuming products and sports…those are the brands that are always going to be relevant.”

Part of Nike’s success comes from a recognition of their audience and a desire to speak directly to them. For COPA90, recognising their audience is vital to the content and strategy they’ve put in place around the women’s game. They released the Modern Football Fan Report earlier this year to really get under the skin of a football fan in 2019: “[we] wanted to understand, [to] really deep dive into what do fans want, where do they consume, what kind of stories do they want to tell.”

The audience for the women’s game, says Smith, are more diverse than perhaps that of the men’s game. Where once the assumption might’ve been that only women were watching women’s football, that isn’t actually true. Recent research conducted by MediaCom and talkSPORT to expose some of the misconceptions the UK public have about the sport and its supporters, revealed that although the public believe that football viewership is dominated by women, it’s actually driven far more by male viewers (64% vs. 36% female viewers).

For Smith, the “women’s football audience is so much more diverse…it is male, female, gay, bi, straight, non-binary. It is everything and it is just a much more accepting audience…That should be exciting for brands because what that means is you have more diverse and more consumers.”

You need the governing bodies, you need the federations, you need the clubs. But you also need media and brands to play their role.

Rebecca Smith

What happens next?

Smith is keen to point out that, just because the FIFA Women’s World Cup has concluded for this year, does not mean their work in women’s football is done, quite the contrary. For Smith, she wants to make sure “that investment [in the Women’s World Cup] had miles and legs and sustainability and a legacy.”

It’s that legacy that brands can have a hand in shaping, believes Smith. Because, she feels, in order for women’s football to grow, the whole ecosystem needs to be involved: “You need the governing bodies, you need the federations, you need the clubs. But you also need media and brands to play their role.”

Brands can help amplify the game, to fund the game and to further the careers of players across the board. Part of that is about pulling out the stories that have yet to be told. Smith explains, “Football, especially in the women’s game, [is] so easy to link any brand to the sport because the storytelling is so rich and it’s so deep.”

As to the brands that should be getting involved, Smith looks to the worlds of beauty and fashion as the next potential partners. She believes there’s “a massive opportunity there that they’re massively missing.” The ethos of the beauty industry aligns with what sport can offer young girls and women in the form of boosting self-esteem and confidence.

Ultimately for Smith, brands can have a hand to play in disrupting and dismantling the stereotypes that are so entrenched around the women’s game. For COPA90, and Smith, their work is never done: “It’s always thinking one step ahead of, OK and now what?”

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