Some institutions are so well established, it’s difficult to believe that they could operate in any other way. Take football coverage, for example. We all know the drill: a group of ex-footballers – all male – sit in a brightly lit television studio while clips from the most dynamic or high profile games of the day are shown. Judgment is passed.
You might be forgiven for thinking that what is discussed in these forums is all there is to football – the premier league and the major tournaments, the star players and managers, the drama and the controversy. But, of course, there is a whole other world to the beautiful game, rarely acknowledged in the mainstream (beyond the odd, usually schmaltzy, tribute in advertising): the fans. For coverage of this world – and, some might say, real coverage of the game of football itself – you need to go online, to blogs and fan sites, and to the YouTube channel Copa90.
Copa90 was set up in 2012 by production company Bigballs Media, a successful producer of films and online branded content. While creating films for the likes of Nike and adidas, the team at Bigballs spotted a gap in the market where they could use their skills to create their own brand, an online channel that aimed to connect young fans to football.
The first challenge was how to tackle rights, seen as the cornerstone to any sports media business, and the way to ‘own’ an audience in a competitive market. From the start, Copa90 decided it would bypass the rights question, and would instead concentrate on the stories around the game, using this point of difference as a strength, not a weakness.
“What we noticed was that for the generation we were aiming Copa90 at, rights aren’t the scarce bit,” says Tom Thirlwall, Bigballs Media CEO. “They’re not scarce because they’ll be watching an illegal stream, a Vine video, they’ll be sharing content off any platform that they’re able to see and share. Actually the scarcity was how do you create conversation, how do you create ownable IP and develop talent and create programming that speaks to the brand of Copa90?
“We decided that the shows that we create were going to be shows that shone a light on stories, championed fan culture or delivered opinion that you couldn’t see anywhere else – those were the founding principles,” Thirwall continues. “We were going to tell the stories outside of the 90 minutes that made the 90 minutes matter more. That was a nice line and also a justification of why we weren’t touching rights.”
Three years on and Copa90 is the largest football network on YouTube with over one million subscribers across 200 countries. It recently received £7 million in funding from Liberty Global and global venture capital firm e.ventures, and has commercial partnerships in place with sponsors including Hyundai, Adidas, Nissan, New Balance and HTC.
It has achieved this success with a mix of entertaining, Buzzfeed-y video articles with titles such as ’10 Reasons Why We Love Zlatan Ibrahimović’ and heartfelt, authentic and immerse filmmaking, which takes viewers into a world of fan culture which is diverse, intense and always deeply, deeply passionate. By championing stories that other media outlets would ignore, Copa90 has achieved loyalty and affection from both teams and fans alike.
Some of the tales Thirlwall tells around Copa90’s success have almost a magical ring to them. After the channel made a film titled The Real Oviedo Story, for example, which followed the story of a struggling Spanish club kept alive due to the global football community raising $2 million to save it, the club president wrote to thank the channel for its support and gave it the rights to tell its story as it plays out going forward. As Real Oviedo is now mounting a comeback, and has reached the Spanish second division, this could one day be a lucrative pledge, but also demonstrates the respect that Copa90 is held in by some aspects of the footballing community.
It is the wider fraternity of fans that Thirlwall thinks the ‘industry’ of football is foolish to ignore. “The industry, by and large, is pretty dismissive of fan culture, period,” he says. “When certain premiership clubs are getting over 80% of their revenue through TV, and then its merchandising and commercial deals, with then 5 or 6% from fans coming through the turnstiles, you’ve actually got what some clubs feel is a minority stream from fans.”
Thirlwall notices that unlike his generation – he is in his early 40s – younger football fans are not necessarily wedded just to local teams but instead think globally. “Our audience will have an opinion on the Belgrade Derby,” he says. “Our audience will have an opinion on whether Gerrard should have gone to LA Galaxy or New York City FC. Our audience will have an opinion on the Bundesliga. I think they have five or six team interests, whether that’s league driven or personality driven. We can see it in the comments.”
This changing approach to football will impact on how viewers and fans consume the game going forward, which could in turn effect the established order of the industry. “The thing that the industry needs to realise is there is choice,” says Thirlwall. “There’s lower league football they could go and watch, or there’s overseas football they could go and watch…. It might be little grass roots of choice at the moment, but we certainly notice it with our audience.”
Copa90 has successfully brokered significant commercial partnerships for the channel, by offering the attractive mix of a committed, youthful audience with established skill in filmmaking and advertising: “Our conviction was that if we make programming with a purpose that connects to a young audience then brands will want to come to us,” says Thirlwall. This has led to brands being unusually hands off in their sponsorship, with the Hyundai #FilmFanFund – a series of documentaries made by fan filmmakers, which has already achieved over 1 million views across five films – an example of how successful this can be.
“It’s a fairly enlightened approach, but our belief is that’s the way the world is going,” continues Thirlwall. “The price of not letting go is that you end up creating a film or a content series that doesn’t resonate and feels clunky.”
Copa90 is also offering brands such as Hyundai the chance to demonstrate a longer-term commitment to the sport. “Brands are notoriously bad at becoming a World Cup sponsor, realising that’s great in a World Cup year, then turning it off and going to music the next year, or cycling,” says Thirlwall. “I think people just go ‘pfft, this isn’t credible, you’re just badging yourself to an event every four years’. So what we’re helping Hyundai do is create a dialogue with football fans outside of tournament years that it all about credible storytelling.”
For the future, Copa90 has big ambitions, and is actively widening its reach and contributor base via both an international talent search and by growing the ‘Copa Collective’, a ‘curated community of the most influential football bloggers, artists and fanzines worldwide’.
While he doesn’t rule out traditional media – “I think for us TV is without doubt an option, but it’s got to drive value for our business” – Thirlwall is clearly excited by the possibilities available in digital media to create a channel that sits in stark contrast to the traditional broadcasting approach and is more reflective of the real world of young football fans.
“A big ambition of ours is that by the time the 2018 World Cup kicks off, we’ll have more correspondents, filmmakers, storytellers in and around Russia than the BBC and ESPN,” he says. “What we want to deliver, and it starts with the Euros next summer, is this rich patchwork of coverage that comes from fan culture and stories that are important to the different teams that are participating – to be a complete antidote to the three ex-footballers in a studio.
“In Rio we were on the beaches, we were at street parties, we were at the underground gigs that were part of this celebration of global football culture that is the World Cup,” Thirlwall says. “And we want to do exactly the same for the Euros and tell surprising, interesting, different stories from around the world.”