Five years on from launching as a YouTube football channel with no rights to show matches, Copa90 has told The Drum it is about to start broadcasting live games.
But having reached 80m views a month across a breadth of digital platforms by focusing on fan culture and covering all the action that takes place off the pitch rather than on it, the youth media brand is pledging to bring a radically different approach to coverage of the sport.
“Everything we do is the antithesis of the suits sat in a studio ethos, that slowly, slowly build-up and prosaic conversation,” said Copa90 head James Kirkham. “We’re in the crowd, among the pyros and the flares, in a very visceral way. Why would we stop doing that?”
Copa90 has at least three live matches planned between now and the end of the year. They will be shown on Copa90’s own platform, which will be styled ‘Copa90 LIVE’, and there will be a tandem presence on a major social network. Kirkham was coy about the rights it has acquired, but confirmed the first game will be shown within six weeks and will involve a “top 10” Premier League club, presumably in a pre-season friendly.
Don’t expect Copa90 to be broadcasting regular season Premier League fixtures any time soon, however. “We’re not going in with tonnes of money competing," said Kirkham. "This isn’t us going, 'let’s get the war chest out and start outbidding people'.”
Instead, rights holders are approaching Copa90 with offers to show games, according to Kirkham. “We’ve got a couple of big European clubs – and I’m talking elite, A-list European clubs. The rights at the moment are coming from a whole assortment of different angles. It started off as a trickle and it’s become a bit of a flood.”
This movement towards online platforms comes against a backdrop of declining viewing figures for live football on television. Viewing of live Premier League matches on Sky fell 14% in the 2016/17 season, while BT saw a 2% decline in average viewing for its coverage of the competition. Sky is responding by dropping its numbered sports channels and introducing cheaper sports subscription packages.
Kirkham’s contention is that broadcasters can no longer expect an audience to give them their undivided attention for 90 minutes: “The notion of multiple windows, of switching from one platform to another, what we all do on any given day… we have to be hugely respectful of that, not just assume they’re simply going to stay in one place.
“People want their tiny, digestible snack viewing. They want goals as gifs because they’re given to them immediately, they want smartly put together highlights in an instant in places where they can find them. It is just less about the full 90-minute viewing experience as it has been.”
Fuelled by this belief, Copa90 will push out what it calls ‘alert obits’, notifications on partner sites, bots and social platforms intended to drive drifting viewers back into the live broadcast at crucial moments – such as when there's a goal, red card or penalty.
And the coverage itself will eschew many of the tropes of modern football broadcasting – not least the besuited pundits in a hermetically sealed studio poring over the minutiae of the action – in favour of increased fan interaction.
“There’s a little bit too much at the moment that’s stage-managed, a little bit at arm's length, and our audience just expect [something] different,” said Kirkham. “We want to be how football feels, and I’m not sure that’s how football feels. So the whole thing feels [needs to be] more visceral, much more like you’re actually there.”
Building on the way Copa90 presenters embed themselves with supporters, such as Eli Mengem in his popular Derby Days series on footballing rivalries, expect to see cameras in among supporters before kick-off, giving a sense of the atmosphere from the terraces. Viewers will also be able to interact with the commentators and even vote for the half-time entertainment they want to see.
“We’re going to have various levels of half-time experience available to effectively be unlocked by the watching audience,” said Kirkham.
This will be determined by what Kirkham called a “concurrent stream of communication” – basically fans posting messages, memes and reaction as the action unfolds – which will be visible on screen. Some football purists of an older vintage may consider these pop-ups an unwanted distraction, but as Kirkham pointed out, they’re second nature to younger viewers who have been weaned on gaming site Twitch or “illegal streaming, which many of our audience will admit to having done in the last few years”.
On-pitch footage will be fed from traditional sports production companies, but they will be given a non-traditional brief. “It will always be taking a feed but it will be newly briefed on our terms so they’re not just recreating something they’ve always done,” said Kirkham.
Eventually, Kirkham and his team hope that they can monetise these broadcasts by introducing sponsorship to the bitesize highlights, for instance, but that's "phase two". For now, the objective is to experiment with how far they can push the norms of live sports broadcasting and simply prove an edgier format is viable.
“More than anything I want people to think, 'I don’t care what game they’re showing, if Copa90 is showing it I need to see it',” said Kirkham. “That could be some kind of far-flung European derby for example. I like the idea that we could be bringing games that people have barely even thought of but because Copa90 is doing it they’re going to tune in.”