COPA90: Giving the Beautiful Game a media makeover
Since its inception in 2012 COPA90 has put itself at the heart of football, creating a new way for fans to interact with teams and players, and championing inclusivity over animosity. David Knight examines the company's impact on the sport's coverage and why brands are so keen to be on their team.
Planet Football never stops. The regular European season finished in May, but the summer is all about international tournaments, and this summer there have been more than ever:
The new Nations League, Under 21s Euros, Copa America, African Cup Of Nations. Biggest of all, this summer has been about the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
It’s continuing the mission that COPA90 has had from the start, showing the diversity of football and its role as a unification tool.
At COPA90 it has been a very busy summer indeed. In June, the London-based operation, described as “the world’s largest independent football media business”, decamped to France to cover the biggest ever FIFA Women's World Cup, and do what they do best. Through videos, social media posts, podcasts, YouTube shows and more, its industrious team have provided an alternative take on the Beautiful Game, distinctly different from mainstream media. And it has happened with the support of a range of major brands.
Above: England footballer Jordan Nobbs on COPA90's podcast FIFA & CHILL.
Planet football's star attractions
There was a daily podcast, Football Inside Out – sponsored by Visa – which had Heath Pearce, DJ Monki [below] and guests discussing the previous day’s events. There were also episodes of the Domino’s-supported strand FIFA & CHILL which took place at the COPA90 Clubhouse in Paris, where presenters Vuj and Timbsy welcomed guests like England player and pundit Jordan Nobbs [above] to chat, play the FIFA19 video game and eat pizza.
We believe that for football to be truly the global game, then football needs to embrace the women's game.
They have partnered with the English FA and PayPal to tell stories of girls inspired to be involved in football by the England Women’s football team; and the Puma Trailblazers series features relaxed interviews with top international women players, including USA’s Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, and France’s Eugenie Le Sommer.
And, above all, there is the constant feed of Instagram posts and tweets, which reflected on the latest games at the WWC – and everything else that happens on Planet Football.
Above: Ballon d'Or winner Ada Hegerberg in a COPA90 interview video.
COPA90’s approach is not to broadcast the matches themselves – leave that to the media giants, willing and able to shell out the big bucks – but instead cover the stories before and after the games. From high-end programme-making that could easily translate to TV, to disposable social media-based content, it all stems from COPA90’s distinctive proposition; to create a positive, youthful message about football fan culture.
COPA90’s target audience is what they regard as the Modern Football Fan: young, passionate, savvy, tuned into social chat and social vernacular about football, probably turned off my pundits on TV, more familiar and connected with football stars’ presence in video games and their social media feeds, than anywhere else. And not exclusively interested in football, either. The information they have about that crucial 18-30 demographic makes them very attractive to advertisers.
Above: COPA90’s Chief Executive, Tom Thirlwall.
And COPA90’s Chief Executive, Tom Thirlwall, says that the Women’s World Cup of 2019 has been a defining moment for this leading independent media business. Not only have COPA90 performed extremely well at previous major summer tournaments – their output from the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018 had three quarters of a billion views – this offers an opportunity to champion their philosophy.
We’re putting our money where our mouth is.
“We believe that for football to be truly the global game, then football needs to embrace the women's game, and champion it just as much as the male side of the game,” he says. “We doubled down on what we did in France [for the Women's World Cup] compared to what we spent and what we did in Russia last year. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
Above: Heath Pearce and DJ Monki presenting COPA90's Football Inside Out at the Women's World Cup.
Women's football is football
Earlier this year COPA90 appointed Rebecca ‘Bex’ Smith, former New Zealand football captain, double Olympian, and FIFA official, as its first Global Executive Director of the Women’s Game. Smith spearheads the initiative to ramp up and normalise the coverage of women’s football under the banner Women’s Football Is Football.
These players, and their stories – which are often remarkable - are finally being seen.
“It’s continuing the mission that COPA90 has had from the start, showing the diversity of football and its role as a unification tool, rather than the ‘blues vs reds’ take of traditional media,” says Smith, on the phone from Lyon, where the COPA90 Clubhouse became a hub for players and fans at the latter stages of the WWC – a physical manifestation of the COPA90’s meeting-place philosophy.
We won because we effectively stood against all of the kind of norms of sports media.
“It’s also about applying everything that COPA90 has done around the men’s game – the data and insight stuff, the research and strategy – and giving the same credibility to the women’s game,” continues Smith, who says that the Women’s World Cup, with its remarkable viewing figures on TV, has decisively trashed the argument that there is no market for watching women’s football. “What we’re seeing now is that these players, and their stories – which are often remarkable - are finally being seen.”
Above: The COPA90 Clubhouse in France.
The antidote to the norm
COPA90 was founded in 2012 when YouTube, then looking for more professionally-produced channels for the platform, asked Thirlwall, Ross Whittow-Williams and Gav Rowe at We R Interactive and Bigballs Media, if they were interested in launching a football channel. They had worked with Red Bull, adidas and won a Cannes Gold Lion for their work with Nike. But YouTube had them bidding against some big beasts of sports broadcasting for funding.
The traditional media outlets were in glass boxes, and we were on deck chairs, in the street parties, soaking up and projecting this fan culture. It made the broadcast product look even more out of date.
“We won because we effectively stood against all of the kind of norms of sports media,” says Thirlwall. “We weren’t going for any rights – we knew that the audience we were going after could already find a way to see matches: illegal streams, vine videos, as they were then. But what was massively lacking was original content, and new [presenting] talent that represented this audience. To be the antidote to what they considered to be their parent's media.”
A couple of years later they were delivering content at the 2014 (Men’s) World Cup in Brazil, where Thirlwall says “the penny dropped” about the potential of COPA90. While ‘official’ media was based in the International Broadcast Centre in Rio de Janiero, his team were broadcasting outside on Copacabana Beach, and the favelas, with their talent being recognised at the airport and in the city.
Above: COPA90's partnership with Puma for their Trailblazers series.
“The traditional media outlets were in glass boxes, and we were on deck chairs, in the street parties, soaking up and projecting this fan culture,” continues Thirlwall. “It made the broadcast product look even more out of date. At that point we looked at each other and said, actually, this is more than just a YouTube channel. There’s a chance of building a very exciting youth media business.”
COPA90 had already set up a global ‘creator network’ of filmmaking contributors to the YouTube channel, and had begun to broadcast documentaries, enhancing its commitment to the message of how football is a unifying, and even healing force, and reinforcing its completely international viewpoint.
We can scale up content operations very quickly to produce eye-watering amounts of content.
These longer format films are still the backbone of the channel’s serious content: organising a football tournament for asylum seekers in the so-called 'Jungle' migrant camp in Dunkirk in 2016; football in the North Pole, and its role in helping mental health and drug abuse; female football fans in Iran; fans in Syria, escaping the horrors of war for a few hours.
There was also a fascinating series which examined extreme fan culture around the world in the Derby Days series, presented by Eli Mengem, which recently culminated in the gripping The Biggest Game Of All Time, about fierce Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors reaching the final of the Copa Libertadore, the biggest club competition in South America, and it’s controversial outcome.
Visa’s commitment is so admirable, it enables us to really have scope for long term thinking which is always beneficial.
Thirlwall says that their creator network has been crucial when it comes to big tournaments. “We can scale up content operations very quickly to produce eye-watering amounts of content,” he says. He recalls how an Icelandic creator recorded 100,000 people in Reykjavik doing a Viking ‘thunderclap’ as they watched the national team advance at the Euros in 2016. “We were there in the middle of all that. And we just couldn't do that if we hadn't committed to building out this creator network in 2013. It’s become a real backbone of our social output.”
Above: One of COPA90's Creator Commission films.
COPA90 has also been very adept at attracting the support of major brands for its fan-centric take on football, and those relationships have multiplied and diversified, as the company has matured. It is now about more than sponsoring content on the COPA90 channels. Their expertise in football fan culture means their work with brands can extend into other areas.
“There’s huge depth now to the kind of work that you do on any given day,” says James Kirkham, COPA90’s Chief Business Officer. “From big club gigs for sports apparel brands, to helping clubs like Manchester City do research pieces around women's football.”
The brands who are currently engaged in working with COPA90 include some of the biggest, including Nike, Pepsi, Puma, Budweiser, Visa, and Uber. “I’m immensely proud of our client list,” says Kirkham. “Visa’s commitment is so admirable, it enables us to really have scope for long term thinking which is always beneficial. Pepsi too are leaning in and following on fabulous work which has gone unnoticed for years in the space in the US. They’re particularly exciting to follow.”
Above: COPA90's Chief Business Officer, James Kirkham.
PepsiCo renewed its partnership with COPA90 last year to create behind the scenes and interview content as part of their global Love It. Live It. Football. campaign. It resulted in exclusive behind the scenes content of superstar players Lionel Messi and Mo Salah, who both endorse the brand, that went out virally. “They did trick shots with Pepsi bottles and everyone said: ‘Did they really do that’,” says Kirkham. “It got on stuff like BBC Breaking News without us even pushing it.”
Kirkham says that their work for Pepsi is a prime example of their content creation for a brand that already has a big presence in football. “They have sponsorship of the UEFA Champions League, and we help bring that to life in whichever way we deem fit.” By contrast, he says the objective of COPA90’s work with Uber has been to alter the whole perception of the brand. Their work has been part of Uber’s first season of sponsorship of Manchester United.
There’s barely a brand right now who aren’t looking into this space with renewed vigour.
“If you’re Uber, you use football to help engender passion in a brand who might be better known for utility,” says Kirkham. “For us, that is an end-to-end job working out strategically, creatively and delivering on how to bring to life a sponsorship far beyond just billboards and perimeter boards around a pitch.”
Above: COPA90's partnership with PayPal.
One of their solutions was to find “the most-deserving Man United fan in the world” – who happened to be in India – and bring [club stadium] Old Trafford to them. “His father used to host parties in the 80s and 90s, where members of his village crowded around a TV to watch their games. We turned up on his doorstep, surprised him, and then created a three-day pop-up event with 360 surround sound, surround screen... so they actually felt like they were in Old Trafford.”
He adds that “there’s barely a brand right now who aren’t looking into this space with renewed vigour,” and one of the reasons is that COPA90’s take on football is ultimately more than just about football. Their audience are also interested in music, fashion and video games, and all these other things crossover with football in the new lifestyle culture.
Kirkham points to the biggest viral video from this year’s Glastonbury Festival, when the UK rapper Dave brought a teenage boy wearing a Paris Saint Germain shirt from the crowd to duet with him on the song, Thiago Silva (who is a PSG player), as proof of what he is talking about. “Football is at the heart of pop culture, and we’ll see this kind of coming together more and more. This fusion of music, gaming, fashion, with football at the heart of all that, gives you such a rich playground to play in. And brands latch onto that.”
Kirkham adds that with the Women’s World Cup finished but the new football season approaching, some exciting brand-related ideas are on the table for 2019-20. How does he see the relationship between football and brands evolving?
It’s always been about changing the face of football. That’s part of the definition of COPA90.
“I hope it continues to go beyond just ATL [Above The Line], beyond just using sport in a TV spot as an excuse or a shortcut,” he says. “The more brands get to grips with what a fan truly is, how they act, and feel, then the brands will benefit and the creative product will too. Fans demand this depth of expertise now – anything less looks paper thin.”
And with the FIFA Women’s World Cup of 2019 proving to be the most popular ever – the semi-final between England and the USA notched the biggest TV viewing audience of any programme this year – what now?
“We’ve always had a strategy beyond the World Cup,” says Bex Smith. “It’s always been about changing the face of football. That’s part of the definition of COPA90. We’re working on big initiatives with large brands that will be very exciting. We’re working with top clubs, and at the heart of it, we’re working with players. They are amazing people. We want to tell their remarkable stories.”