'The World Cup is a starting point': Copa90’s Rebecca Smith on women's football in the media

25 June 2019 | Broadcasting & New Media
'The World Cup is a starting point': Copa90’s Rebecca Smith on women's football in the media
Rebecca Smith, Copa90’s first global executive director of the women’s game and a former FIFA World Player of the Year nominee, talks about the changing face of women’s football coverage, and discusses what Copa90 is up to at the ongoing Women’s World Cup in France.

The life story of Nadia Nadim is one which would not look out of place in a Hollywood movie script.

Aged just ten, Nadim and her family were forced to flee their native Afghanistan after her father was kidnapped and executed by the Taliban. It was then, as a refugee in Denmark, that she started to pursue her dream of having a career as a professional soccer player, liberated from the glare of a merciless regime that did not entertain the idea of women and girls participating in sport.

Now, at 31, Nadim is a symbol of hope and inspiration for young girls everywhere. Once of Manchester City, she plies her trade as a striker for Paris Saint-Germain, one of the biggest clubs in France, and the Danish national team. When she hangs up her soccer boots, she plans on becoming a reconstructive surgeon, driven by the suffering she saw growing up in her home country.

Nadim’s story – one of tragedy and strife being overcome by spirit and triumph – is one of many in the women’s game that are only now starting to be unearthed as a result of the increased media attention being focused on women’s soccer.

Nadim, whose Denmark side failed to qualify for the ongoing FIFA Women’s World Cup, might not be getting an opportunity to shine on the pitch in France this summer, but has already been enlisted by countless broadcasters and brands that have identified the tournament as an opportunity to give women’s soccer the much-needed exposure it needs to grow.

From a media perspective, every effort has been made promote the fact that a record 206 broadcasters are showing the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and that FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, is looking to rack up a television audience of one billion during the tournament.

Beyond traditional media, though, there is a window for publishers such as Copa90 to provide a platform for women’s soccer players that has not previously existed. Rebecca Smith, the media firm’s first global executive director of the women’s game, reveals that – in an off-season that also includes a Conmebol Copa America and Concacaf Gold Cup – around 80 per cent of the company’s coverage this summer will be around the Women’s World Cup, with much of that shining a light on the players and personalities that have not yet made it into the mainstream.

“The football that we normally see is very one-dimensional and doesn’t show what’s actually happening in the reality of football globally, and it excludes in most parts of the world the women’s game,” says Smith, who joined Copa90 at the start of the year.

“I think because the women’s game has never been shown traditionally on major channels where everyone has the opportunity to see it, a lot of people have either never seen the game itself and most likely don’t know who the players are. If we think about the men’s game, one of the reasons why you watch is because you know the players, you know their stories and you feel personally invested in them, so you go on that journey with them when they’re playing.

“I think in the women’s game people don’t know these players, so one of the first handles that we wanted to give fans to come into the game was who these players are.”

Changing the face of women’s soccer coverage

Women’s soccer has often struggled to make its voice heard. For too long the merits of the women’s game have been determined by those who shout loudest, and whose perceptions have often been based on what little coverage they have been exposed to. As a result, negative stereotypes have been attached to women’s soccer which it has struggled to shed.

Last year, during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Copa90 set out to dispel some of the pre-tournament fears about the host nation. The aim might be a little different this time around, but in a similar way Smith says the platform’s coverage will play a role in doing away with some of the misconceptions about women’s soccer and helping to “normalise” it as part of the sport.

“I think it’s less about fighting against something and it’s more about painting a picture of how we see the women’s game,” Smith begins. “In Russia it was a lot about, well everybody wants to go to the World Cup, but 99 per cent of people can’t go. Whereas this summer probably 99 per cent of people don’t even know it exists, so it’s a lot more about raising awareness, and then doing it in a way that we think paints it in the way that we see it.

“The stories in and around it are phenomenal. These players are incredible – when you sit and you talk to them it’s incredible how much they do off the pitch as well.”

What’s more, adds Smith, a former New Zealand international and FIFA World Player of the Year nominee, is that the rise of digital platforms such as Copa90 has given women’s soccer and its stars a new avenue to communicate a more balanced message to the next generation of young female players.  

“We’re a platform that – for lack of a better word – is maybe a little bit more relaxed,” Smith says. “Because we’re not on traditional broadcast platforms and we’re online, we’re allowed to be a little bit more chilled. If players want to come on our platforms and talk, we want to give them the opportunity to talk how they want to talk, rather than give them a format that has to fit into our schedule.

“So that I think is one of the massive opportunities we have: to formulate and develop something that’s never been done before, that is 100 per cent disruptive from traditional media, but that also really wants to work with those platforms, because our main goal for the women’s game is to drive it forward and to give a voice to the right people with the right message.”

Being on the ground

This summer’s World Cup has provided a timely litmus test for the media’s commitment to women’s soccer – especially when stood up against the breadth of coverage afforded to last year’s men’s equivalent. The likes of British public service broadcaster the BBC, for example, is showing every game from the tournament across its platforms, while in Brazil the event is being covered by two free-to-air broadcasters – Bandeirantes and Globo – for the first time.

Copa90, meanwhile, which covers soccer through the eyes of players and fans rather than through live action, has transferred much of what it did in Russia to France. In the fashionable Le Marais district of Paris, the company has opened a temporary clubhouse for fans to watch games, attend exhibitions and meet like-minded followers of the women’s game.

From a content perspective, Copa90 has launched its first ever podcast series in conjunction with the World Cup, which Smith says will feature a number of players and “unsung heroes” from the women’s game, as well as “a lot of cross pollination with other broadcasters”. In addition, the company is rolling out Continental Breakfast, a daily video segment discussing the latest headlines to emerge from the tournament.

“It’s not ‘bandwagoning’ or that we want to get on board just when it’s hot,” Smith asserts. “It’s basically because women’s football is football, and the biggest event that’s happening right now in football this summer is the World Cup in France, and that’s why we should be giving it the same gravitas as what we would do for any other major event.

“It’s the amount of coverage that we’re doing and how we’re telling the stories as well. It’s not like when we used to get media coverage and it would always be about the struggles. Actually the women’s game has massive potential, commercial value and social value for this sport as a whole, so that’s the message that we’re continually looking to show.”

Addressing the issue

Copa90’s decision to ramp up it’s women’s soccer coverage has not happened by accident. The second edition of the company’s Modern Football Fan report, released earlier this year, found that 44 per cent of supporters feel like the women’s game does not pop up on their radars frequently enough, while a further 26 per cent do not know where to access game coverage.

“There’s a lot of things that we do to look at audiences, the female football audiences, to bring them in, but also looking to expose the women’s game to football fans in general and show that we think it should be normal that the women’s game is shown next to the men’s game,” Smith explains.

“We’re also doing a lot with our data insights team and our strategy team to look at different types of audiences, so where do the women’s football fans already sit, where do football fans sit, what are the different tastes they all have? So the modern fan report is just one of the elements that helped give us insight into how to tell the right stories in the right ways to the right people.”

On top of that, the study also found that 67 per cent of fans want players and clubs to be more outspoken about political and social issues, and Smith adds that supporters of the men’s game in particular want soccer to take a more leading role in tackling issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia.

With that in mind, and at a time when instances of abusive and aggressive behaviour have become more prevalent in the men’s game, Smith believes shining a light on women’s soccer can help the sport promote values of inclusivity and acceptance.  

“I think what we’ve learned from looking at the women’s game is that those issues don’t exist as much anymore, or ever really have,” Smith says. “That isn’t to say that they don’t exist anywhere at all anywhere in the world, of course they do, but it’s not something that is prevalent in the women’s game.

“I think the women’s game has quite a mature way of being a little bit more inclusive, whether that means players or fans or people that are in the game, they’re more accepting to allow everyone into that space. I think the men’s game still struggles with some of those issues, and that is what came out from fans who were saying that they wanted football to tackle those issues more specifically.”

Keeping the conversation moving

Women’s soccer might be enjoying unprecedented coverage during this summer’s World Cup, but there remains uncertainty about whether it will continue to be afforded the same level of exposure once the tournament is over.

As Smith points out, the women’s game has been the victim of false dawns in the past, when media companies and brands have attempted to leverage the spotlight of a major tournament, only to pull their support without making a long-term commitment.

“One of the things I’ve always seen in the women’s game is [companies saying]: ‘Oh there’s a big tournament, there’s a massive commercial opportunity’,” Smith begins. “Then everyone drops the players, drops the coverage, drops everything and it’s in the dark again.

“It’s sad for the sport and it’s a wasted opportunity for both those who have gotten in and pulled out and for the players in the sport as well.”

However, there is genuine hope that this time might be different. For its part, Copa90 is producing World Cup content that will deliberately draw attention to the leagues the players compete in and the clubs they are contracted to so that fans can continue to follow them domestically after the tournament.

Beyond that, Smith is adamant that this summer will merely be a taste of what’s to come.

“Our commitment to the women’s game is not going to change,” Smith asserts. “I think the World Cup will be a really nice springboard and a starting point, but if we’re continuing to cover football, that means we’re continuing to cover women’s football.

“Our definition of football is that women’s football is football as well, just as transgender football in Mexico is part of football, and the kids way up in the most northern part of Canada are part of football.

“That’s how it remains in the spotlight - it’s just by having the right mentality.” 

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