Back in 2014, during the last Fifa World Cup in Brazil, Copa90 was the new kid on the block.
As Lawrence Tallis, the soccer-focused digital media company’s creative director, recalls, he was walking along Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach when he looked up and saw the shiny glass studios of major broadcasters like the BBC, literally – and perhaps figuratively, too – above all the fans.
Meanwhile, on the beach below, Tallis says it was “going off”; soccer supporters from every corner of the globe were coming together in “all manner of life, fun, excitement and joy”. Here, he says, on the beach below, is where Copa90 is meant to be.
Since that summer in Brazil, and indeed since being launched by Bigballs Media in 2013 purely as a YouTube channel, Copa90 has set out to serve people like those on the beach with a fan-centric approach to soccer coverage. Now also present extensively across Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the platform has put social media at the heart of its strategy, moving alongside its audience with open ears rather than shutting down the conversation with its viewers.
Without the rights to film a single game, it is a revolutionary approach to reporting which involves turning the camera away from the pitch to capture the fan culture which is sometimes lost amidst the corporate nature and financial excesses of the modern game.
And as Copa90 head James Kirkham points out, the company’s rise is very much symbolic of the evolving trends in content consumption behaviour, and is indicative of just how differently fans will be watching this year’s World Cup in Russia.
“The preceding four years have been monumental in terms of the shift in football media consumption and the way we view the game and the way we consider the game and the way we talk about the game,” explains Kirkham. “So much of that we continue to be at the vanguard of which is really exciting, but it’s only because we respond and act alongside our fans, who tell us what they really want.
“If it’s bad, they tell you, but if they say it’s brilliant we try and make more. They are so brilliantly empowered that we’ve always been out to serve them in that way rather than just assume what people might want or what people might like and then just do things the same way for 50 years as was previous.
“I personally am so excited that a few more people know us now, and there might be a nice level of expectation for the World Cup to prove what a modern sports media business can do.”
Evolving trends in content consumption behaviour suggests fans will be watching this year's World Cup very differently to how they were in 2014
Four years ago, viewers would have got most of their fix of World Cup content when linear television channels dictated, with the ‘stories’ feature on Snapchat and Instagram still relatively untapped, and independent soccer platforms like Copa90 still in their infancy. Now, as a recent study by Copa90 shows, the modern soccer fan is shifting from traditional media formats in search of content that is available when they want it, wherever they want it.
According to Copa90’s study, which takes into account fans’ behaviours, values and motivations, this craving has been fuelled by the increasing availability of bite-size chunks of content delivered on social feeds, creating a ‘new normal’ of constant coverage. Fans, therefore, are no longer satisfied by intermittent highlights shows or linear broadcasts, but demand a continuous stream of clips, gifs, memes and comments to keep up with soccer’s fast-moving narratives.
“Our creative team continually has to have an eye on what people are saying – basically the data – and an understanding of the insight and the nuance of the modern fan,” says Kirkham.
“Young fans have an appreciation of the global game, and you might think that’s obvious, but it just never was quite as such. Everyone under the age of 30 now has an education in football predicated on gaming, which means they all carry encyclopaedic knowledge, they follow individuals as much as they might follow teams, and they don’t just have second teams, they might all have a third or a fourth.
The preceding four years have been monumental in terms of the shift in football media consumption and the way we view the game and the way we consider the game and the way we talk about the game.
“Then, of course, they have an insatiable appetite around the game, which is mostly devouring online through social. So a huge amount of our output exists for them in those places they spend their time – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat – to make sure that they’re getting that fix and that fill.”
It is all this, then, that makes the World Cup an irresistible opportunity for Copa90 to cement itself as a go-to platform for fans wanting to keep up to date with the international tournament, which is densely packed into four weeks of absorbing, all-encompassing action.
With as many as three games taking place each day, students at school and others at work won’t be able to watch every fixture, but with platforms like Copa90, will have a never-ending library of short-form content to bring them up to speed on their lunch break or commute home.
Copa90 lives by the mantra that ‘football is the universal language’ – those very words are plastered on the wall at the company’s London offices in Farringdon – and there will be no better place to bring that to life than in Russia, where fans from 32 nations will converge, while viewers across the globe will be keen to experience the emotion of the competition vicariously through those who are there.
“International football is really important because it’s the peak of what we believe in terms of it being a route into meeting and interacting with people from as many different places as possible and really testing our belief in football as the universal language,” says Tallis.
“From a philosophical perspective we’ll be able to prove and demonstrate a lot of those things, but also from a content perspective the opportunities and structure we have now really allows us to both make a bit more noise and be a bit more definitive about those things we believe.
“Also, in terms of the content we’re going out and making, we know so much more than we did four years ago and are able to be much more pointed with that approach. We know a lot more about the platforms we’re on so the content that we’re making on them is much more appropriate and also focused in larger direction rather than being beholden to the opportunities that were coming along.”
Copa90's fan-centric approach involves turning the camera away from the pitch and capturing the emotion of those in the stands
Copa90’s two regular shows, Fifa & Chill and Comments Below, are hosted by social media personalities Poet and Vuj in what could easily be mistaken for a converted garden shed. It may not sound like the most glamorous of settings, but the format encourages live discussion among fans and Fifa & Chill in particular regularly ropes in upwards of 200,000 views on YouTube. On top of that, the feature has landed exclusive interviews with the likes of English soccer icon David Beckham, British rapper Stormzy and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s Labour party.
Tallis confirms that the aforementioned dynamic presenting duo will be out in Russia along with other regular on-screen talent Eli Mengem, Martino Simcik and Michael ‘Timbsy’ Timbs.
These reporters are the same ones you might see in Copa90’s flagship short-form documentaries such as Derby Days and The Real International Break. Mengem is routinely filmed standing shoulder to shoulder with avid fans on the terraces during some of world soccer’s most intense rivalry fixtures, and he is the type of presenter – one who provides authentic stories from the stands – whose name is now remembered by the new generation of supporter, rather than that of the reporter who sits stone-faced in a suit reading updates off of a teleprompter on Sky Sports News or ESPN.
Outside the narrative content being filmed in Russia, a newsroom is also being set up in Copa90’s London offices to provide daily updates from the World Cup and showcase contributions from its legions of creator fans on the ground at the tournament. By putting power in the hands of the fan, Copa90 will not only be producing a greater volume of content at higher velocity, but will also be able to capture reactions to key moments as they happen in real time, showing how the big moments on the pitch reverberate across the globe from in the stands, to the fan parks, to back home.
“We’ve got this wonderful handpicked, hand-curated creator network,” begins Kirkham, “of which we’ve got about 300 around the world who we will be enlisting their assistance, help and input throughout the World Cup.
“They’re not all on the ground in Russia; they’re on the ground around the world. They will be, for example, showing a scene in a bar in Belgium when Belgium get to the semi-finals, so we encapsulate that feeling from a very Copa90 perspective.
“Having the ability to have correspondents in different places in different times is vital, and being among it at street level is vital, too. The nice thing with us is I think we do that with real legitimacy. It doesn’t just feel like when the camera’s turned around we suddenly hang out with the kids for five minutes and then go back to our studio – it’s the complete antithesis of that.”
We know a lot more about the platforms we’re on so the content that we’re making on them is much more appropriate and also focused in larger direction rather than being beholden to the opportunities that were coming along.
Beyond that, Copa90 also has an official partnership with Snapchat to produce 45 daily shows for the mobile app, which will be created by their in-house team from Moscow, and will be available in English, French, Arabic, German and Spanish.
“It’s going to provide a completely unique take on the World Cup,” explains Tallis. “It’s playing the publisher stories competition at their own game to a certain extent, but then progressing that to genuinely speak to the audience that is on that platform.
“So it’s totally manic, aesthetically chaotic and beautiful, but a really funny, humorous take on what’s going on, and with enough information in there to keep up to date with the day’s stories.”
Along with social platforms, brands and broadcasters continue to look to Copa90 for its expertise in attracting young, mobile-first audiences. After partnering with UK commercial channel ITV for the 2016 Uefa European Championship, Copa90 is teaming up with American Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo during the World Cup to capture the experience of Latin American fans living in the US.
The collaboration started with a recruitment phase by which the two parties went and identified passionate fans from Latin American nations to join Copa90’s creator network, and that selection of influencers will now be featured in a number of short films to be distributed via Telemundo’s social media accounts in order to raise awareness of the broadcaster’s Spanish-language coverage of the tournament.
“It’s an interesting narrative for us to pursue given that the US aren’t at this World Cup,” explains Nick Lewis, Copa90’s brand strategy director. “A lot of US fans will very much be looking for teams to follow and teams to get behind and be passionate about, and the Latin American audience there is particularly strong and vocal so it should be a fun way to capture the experience from a US perspective.”
As well as having people on the ground in Russia, Copa90 will have reporters in fan parks and bars around the world
Tallis stresses that part of the motivation to be on the ground in Russia is to offer a more balanced picture of the host nation to that which has already been painted by mainstream media. Russian fans were widely condemned for fighting on the streets of France during the European Championships in 2016, and English supporters have already been warned against travelling to this year’s World Cup after suggestions that they might be targeted.
Copa90, however, will be trying to showcase Russian hospitality in a series of Instagram stories which will eventually be wrapped up into a longer feature called ‘World Cup for Free’, where one of the company’s presenters, Martino Simcik, is attempting to experience the entire tournament without spending a penny.
“While the rest of our media – and certainly our politicians – are all in a bit of a state of fear about Russia and are very hesitant to be there at all,” begins Tallis, “we want to make sure we’re talking to as many Russian people as possible and opening up the dialogue rather than shutting it down before the tournament’s even begun.”
So it’s totally manic, aesthetically chaotic and beautiful, but a really funny, humorous take on what’s going on, and with enough information in there to keep up to date with the day’s stories.
Kirkham adds that the public perception of Russia has also made brands wary of associating themselves with the competition when, in reality, digital media now dictates that the opportunity extends beyond in-stadium advertising and exposure.
“Much of the obstacles around what Russia is – or what it’s perceived to be – has dealt a lot of that a blow,” says Kirkham. “Even for some of the bigger sports brands, it’s just been deprioritised for them versus what Brazil was. So it’s interesting in that respect, in that some people have not turned it off completely but they’ve certainly dialled it down, so it’s not like some gold-mine rush, but there’s certainly some excitable brand activity. It’s much more opportunistic, much more reactive, and much more fleet of foot rather than real monster pieces.”
Still, though, the World Cup is providing multiple platforms through which Copa90 can continue to grow as a brand and expand its offering. The company has set up a clubhouse near Moscow’s bustling Red Square, which will be open to all fans and will stage a mixture of events, panel sessions and match screenings throughout the competition in association with Copa90’s partners. The clubhouse is being treated as an epicentre to tackle some big issues within sport and the fan experience, as well as a place to meet and learn other cultures through soccer.
On top of that, Copa90 has partnered with the Penguin publishing company to create a World Cup book, not only providing a preview of the tournament from a fan’s perspective, but also an insight into what Copa90 looks like in print.
“What’s exciting about the World Cup is that it’s very much one of the few events that is so diverse and gives people that opportunity to meet and learn and understand different cultures through sport, and that’s really at the heart of everything that we do,” says Lewis.
“We’re trying to do this more holistic approach to building our brand but also using the World Cup as a way that we can bring Copa fans together in real world settings and enable them to feel much more part of what we’re doing.
“It’s an interesting evolution for us from when we were commissioned by YouTube to help start this football platform and then now going into multi-platforms and being a multi-distributor business, to then our next iteration of that which is a much bigger brand that people can feel a part of and captures that lifestyle and attitude of football fan culture no matter where you are in the globe.”