No matter what hour of the day, day of the week, week of the month, or month of the year, there is someone in the world talking about soccer. It's not just talking, though. It's arguing, shouting, singing, writing, and every other form of human expression, all surrounding the game, even if the actual game is long over or yet to begin.
That's the opportunity Copa90 and its parent company Big Balls Media saw when it launched a Youtube channel back in 2012, with content that focused on the conversations and stories happening around the sport, beyond the official game broadcasts. Now, as two major soccer tournaments take place on two continents—the Copa America in the U.S. and the Euro 2016 in France—Copa90 is using the occasion to show the potential of its multi-platform, fan-centric approach far beyond official broadcast rights and the 90 minutes on the pitch.
"Three years ago, this was a YouTube channel," says head of Copa90 James Kirkham, who joined the company last year after serving six years as global head of mobile and social at Leo Burnett. "The evolution up to now is quite stark. We're still storytelling, we're still dealing with everything outside the 90 minutes (of a soccer game), which makes the 90 minutes that much more important, and still finding stories and bringing them to life in an exciting way. But this is now a very multimedia approach, and we have to suit where our audience actually [is]."
While plenty of its audience is still on YouTube, Kirkham says Copa90's coverage of the Euro 2016 will be unprecedented in its scope across social platforms. Whether it's Snapchat reports on fan reactions from around Europe, recreating every single goal as Instagram animations, sharing content through messaging apps like WhatsApp, or hosting events on Facebook Live.
"During, say, the Premier League season on, say, Snapchat, around a major event like Leicester City winning the title, we asked ourselves what that should look like from our POV," says Kirkham. "And it was fans celebrating, finding people living that moment wherever they are and bringing them together through platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and others. It came together in such an exciting way, the way we were building these very quick narratives over the course of a day or even an hour—we saw that as a great blueprint for the Euros."
Some have called Copa90 the Vice Media of soccer, given its foundation in videos hosted by footie-centric hipsters in a high-energy, entertaining, and engaging style. But there are other parallels. Like Vice News in 2014, last year the company benefited from a U.K. ad campaign by YouTube, and parent Bigballs Media also attracted Series A funding that gave Liberty Global and VC fund E.ventures a combined 14% stake, which valued the company at about $77 million. Copa90 is also working closely with brands such as Nissan, Turkish Airlines, Adidas, and others on content to reach its young, soccer-obsessed audience, in much the same way Vice's in-house agency Virtue helps major brands speak to its audience. The company also acquired American online soccer upstart KickTV (now just called Kick) to produce content with a more North American angle.
Kirkham sees Euro 2016 as both a showcase for everything Copa90 has learned and built so far, as well as a roadmap to where it's going.
"Undoubtedly this is going to be us at our peak so far," says Kirkham. "It's definitely a culmination, but my big brief to everyone is that we keep trying things that are new in every part and facet of our plan. Is there risk? Not really. There's not an awful lot that can go wrong in that sense, so I'm trying to encourage people to take the hand brake off a bit. There are platforms here, things like messaging, even Snapchat, where there is an element of dark arts. It's not like you can present numbers to investors or partners in the same way you can with YouTube, but you still have to play there. So basically, our goal is to just go for it."
While coverage will be across a plethora of social, mobile, and video platforms, Kirkham sees one in particular as the canary in the coal mine of what Copa90—and other major media brands—will be pursuing in the coming year.
"We want to nail messaging—WhatsApp, Kik in the States, WeChat—because I think that's a big part of the future," says Kirkham. "If I was a betting man, I think most audiences and fans will progress generally to exchanging everything—from content to whatever else—in a messaging environment.
"If you look at the Far East, they're on WeChat in a way that is so interesting. You're ordering content, you're donating to charity, you're ordering pizza with an emoji. And no one is leaving the messaging environment. It's now emerging in the U.K. and the States, and so much of it makes sense, that you can confine it all in that environment. That's why Facebook is making such a big play there."
Another element of Copa90's Euro 2016 coverage includes a partnership with major U.K. broadcaster ITV. Again, much like Vice has done with networks like CNN and HBO, a traditional media company is looking to Copa90 for its expertise in attracting young, mobile-first audiences. The two have partnered on a short, daily show called The Fan Daily, which will highlight different fan perspectives from Copa90's network of fan contributors around the world to that day's games and news.
"Broadcasters respect the fact we have a constant, ongoing conversation with fans," says Kirkham. "I don't believe old media alone can satisfy the appetite of the modern football fan. It is certainly part of the mix. I go home, turn on the TV, and watch the game. But then I'll continue talking about what happened long after, and that's the void Copa90 is aiming to fill."
Ed Ross, ITV's head of marketing and media, says the network is delighted to be breaking new ground with the collaboration, and that this type of partnership should become the template for major sporting events. "Copa90 [is] leading the way in engaging with football fan culture across the world, so our partnership with them presents a new opportunity to enrich our coverage of the action on the pitch with an insight into how the Euros impact supporters on the ground across the continent, as the tournament progresses," says Ross. "Quite simply we feel this offers fans our most complete coverage of a major sporting tournament to date, and for us that is what this is all about."
Copa90 has also partnered with Turkish Airlines on a Euro 2016 preview series called "Europe's Best" that sent correspondent and producer Eli Mengem to 10 countries in 10 days to find out what the tournament means to fans around the continent. The company has also partnered with brands such as Coca-Cola and Hyundai for unique Euro 2016 parties and viewing events.
Kirkham says brands are now seeing the advantage to aligning themselves with fans, particularly in an environment in which an "official" attachment to the sport can come with certain negative connotations.
"Everyone is now understanding the fan-centric perspective that we've adopted from the start," says Kirkham. "Before it maybe needed a bit more hand-holding, explaining why we thought that approach was worthwhile. Now everyone and their dog is coming to us asking for it, and there are a number of potential reasons for that. We're at a time where there are significant problems in and around the game. As we lead up to the next World Cup in Russia, you've got a country that isn't exactly feted and celebrated at the moment, and you've got a problematic association with FIFA thanks to the corruption scandals. So for a brand, what's left? If you get on the side of the fans, well, then you're on a winning side."