An interview with Rebecca Smith, former global executive director of the Women’s Game at Copa90, the home of global football fan culture
London, UK – December 22, 2020 – When Fifa shared some record breaking statistics, including 433 million views, 82 million video views and 2 million new followers, Imagen was inspired to interview some of the key sports professionals working in women’s sports to see what they perceived as the key drivers fuelling this growth. Since the publication of that report, it’s clear that a lot has happened to disrupt the industry. Sadly, we’re not pointing to any trailblazing innovators, but instead a trailblazing virus that abruptly halted all live sports events. In light of that we’re keen to explore what this means to sports fans and to broadcasters: from challenges to tackle, trends in the new play book and even opportunities to score in a new socially-distanced world. As part of a follow-up series to this report, we’re asking industry leaders in the world of women’s sports what their experience has been since the ban on live events, what trends they’ve seen and how they’ve been adapting their use of content and content management technology for fan engagement.
As part of a follow-up series to this report, we’re asking industry leaders in the world of women’s sports what their experience has been since the ban on live events, what trends they’ve seen and how they’ve been adapting their use of content, and content management technology, for fan engagement.
Rebecca Smith, former global executive director of the Women’s Game at Copa90, the home of global football fan culture, was interviewed in our original report. We’ve caught up with her to see how things have changed. She has since then started her own company supporting the ecosystem of women’s sport and female footballers, and still works with the Women’s Game at Copa90.
What is the key trend that you’ve seen come to the surface since the cancellation of live events?
Interestingly, the fallacy of women’s sports naturally having a smaller fan base is starting to be unveiled. The false narrative that men’s sports receive more advertising revenue because they naturally have a larger audience, is starting to unravel. Men’s sports didn’t just have a head start, it had a jump start – with more funding right out of the starting blocks, and more focus on the overall production experience. It didn’t happen organically, it was intentionally, and expensively, manufactured. The world of women’s sports is still trapped in that fallacy, its comparatively diminutive audience dissuading top decision makers from investing equal budgets. In fact, what we’re seeing is the growth rate of women’s sports superseding that of men’s. It just needs to get its seat at the table to receive equal investment in resources, both financial and human.
With audiences moving online, women’s sports can potentially thrive, as this is where they’ve lived; this is their arena. Women’s sport has always had to be more digitally innovative because of the lack of funding, typically, from traditional broadcasters. Fans of women’s sports are used to searching online for links to live or on-demand games, for content on players, commentary and more. Players are also used to building their own brands on social media and OTT platforms because they’ve had to; they haven’t been able to rely on the generous sponsorships bestowed on many ‘mainstream’ players. In a sense, the move to online streaming and OTT levels the playing field.
How do you find advertising spend is split between women and men’s sport? And has it become too politicised?
Ad spend has always been massively unequal and has always been political; advertising and sponsorship has followed suit. Ultimately, right now there are more opportunities for men built into the system. There is more visibility of men’s sports so advertisers assume it’s a safer bet for higher returns. However, Covid19 has put that falsehood into the spotlight. The growth rate of women’s sports is larger and its fans don’t face the same behaviour change necessary to carry fans of men’s sports over to online-first platforms. The majority of marketing efforts are often built on inciting certain behaviour. However, for fans of women’s sports, this isn’t the case since that behaviour is already the norm. Instead, that time and budget and resource can supercharge existing efforts to create and share the content fans want to see, on the online channels they’re already watching. In the new ‘norm’ of sports broadcasting, women’s sports logically merit more investment and could produce better returns, since it’s been following the new rule book of broadcasting since before the pandemic.
Another important thing to consider is that the ethical pound is becoming increasingly powerful. Trends in consumer spending as well as investment dollars show that consumers put their money towards brands that share their values. Covid19 has accelerated that and we’re seeing more opportunity for brands to invest where people care, on issues from gender and racial equality to sustainability.
The structures currently in place simply weren’t designed to support and grow female players or give fans of women’s sports what they want. Most of the decision makers across all areas of sport are, still, male, and homogeneous; women lack representation at the top, which has created an inequality in sports and continues to perpetuate inequality and discrimination. It’s a race issue, it’s a discrimination issue – they’re all struggling from the same flow down effect from the same decision making hierarchy. At some point, it’s not just about playing great sport and promoting it; the elephant in the room is a political one.
What opportunities, if any, have arisen from the impact of the pandemic?
There was quite a lot of rhetoric early on about the ‘death of women’s sports’ and, since most of the women’s leagues had stopped, despite the men’s leagues continuing, there’s some validity for the concern. However, women’s sport doesn’t benefit from the same structures around its players.
Consequently, with underfunded wrap-around care for the players, continuing live events without the same amount of medical preparation and care around them is a serious safety issue. But this unfortunate circumstance is ironically fortuitous for women’s sport because its gender disparity has been thrust into the spotlight. Its absence has never been more evident to fans and the wider industry, which has ignited the discourse we need in order to level out this imbalance. There is more attention than ever before on consumer consumption, which in turn is also recognised now as being linked to value-based propositions. Therefore, Covid has accelerated social consciousness, providing an opportunity for brands to capitalise on the strong values on which women’s sports have been built, providing a much welcomed opportunity for brands to align with consumer patterns and desires.
How have women’s sports adapted, and how has technology been used?
The readiness of women’s sports for online platforms has also accelerated the growth of its fan base. They are already more innovative. For example, a joint project between Twitch and CBS saw the highest audience ever for the NWSL Challenge Cup in the US. The next generation of fans are in games and online; women’s sports recognises that Twitch’s streaming platform and mobile games is where younger fans are spending more and more of their time today, and this trend has already been accelerated by Covi-19. In April alone, Twitch saw viewers watch 1.65 billion hours of content – 1.49 billion of which was gaming specific – an overall year-over-year growth of 101%. In the first week of Q2 2020, weekly mobile game downloads broke records at over 1.2 billion.
Sports broadcasters are now relying less on live content and increasingly on wrap-around and pre-recorded content; women’s sports have always had to find other ways to grow without relying on traditional broadcasting so they’re primed to thrive, not just survive in this environment. It’s also never been easier to directly reach and engage with fans. Broadcasters can provide content ad hoc and in real time, via a credible platform. Women’s sports were built on digital platforms. In fact, one of the reasons I joined Copa90 was that I recognised the potential opportunities for women’s sports on digital; that’s where the next generation are consuming content. Younger fans are consuming content via WhatsApp Groups and social media, streaming and sharing links in social messaging apps. Avid fans create their own communities diversification of channels is key. Be where the fans are.
Copa90’s work with PepsiCo Women’s Football sponsorship launch is an example of how giving the voice and platform to the athletes, who have already built their own audiences on their relevant online platforms, and including fans of the game, is another way of telling the story of women’s sports to fans digitally. While we would usually see a brand talking about why they’re sponsoring the sport, this time we’re putting the female athletes and fans of the game front and centre. We recognised that fans want to feel part of the whole story – and that’s not something that’s easy to do on traditional broadcast channels. Additionally, female athletes have had to have a shrewder understanding of the business of sport, not just their game play, because they’re equally invested in marketing the game for the longevity of their place in sport
Any final thoughts?
Women’s sports is the single best investment today. Women’s football is the world’s most played and watched sport globally. There is no way it can be an afterthought any longer if you’re at all interested in getting the most value from your sponsorships and investments more broadly. Women’s football should be approached like a startup, with strong and strategic investment and the growth is an absolute no brainer.
However, a massive caveat is that investment in the women’s game needs to have the right expertise and cater to a different market with different opportunities and consumers. It cannot, and will not, be successful if it’s a copy-paste of what’s currently out there. It needs innovative, experienced, and credible ways of working to grow the sport across the full ecosystem of investment, sponsorship, broadcasting, working with talent, and connecting with consumers with the right team of people who might very well be different from those in that space currently.
The disparity highlighted starkly by Covid-19’s impact has shone a spotlight on the ethics of sports. Like always, it’s the fans that help sports grow, and the fans of women’s sports spend their money with brands who support the players they love to get behind too. Women’s sports have always had to be agile and look for an opportunity in a crisis so we’re primed to accelerate our growth in this sticky arena.
I’m more than confident that women’s sports, with women’s football at the helm, will be leading the way in driving forward values we strive for currently, like inclusivity, positivity, and strength of character. And for anyone interested in the biggest growth opportunity in business as well as the strongest value-based proposition, then I guess I’ll see you very soon!
In our original survey, a quarter of respondents indicated that their total women’s sport output is distributed primarily through broadcast networks. Interestingly, 37% said that they expect their output across broadcast to increase over time – even as digital platforms are driving content consumption. However, it seems that Covid19’s impact on live events is steering that course back towards online, which is where women’s sports already flourishes. 43% of respondents in our original Content is Queen survey, confirmed they were either already investing or had plans to invest in a dedicated direct-to-consumer (DTC) streaming product. While this seems like a minority overall, a sizable fifth of respondents were still undecided. Given the lack of live events, and the uncertainty of the future of events due to the ongoing pandemic, investing in an online content strategy to engage fans seems like an investment that’s suddenly a lot less risky!
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