Dedicated football media brands are converging on Russia for the World Cup, keen to get under the skin of the nation and explore its unique – and somewhat controversial – fan culture. The Drum spoke to Goal, Ball Street Media, Copa90 and 90min to learn why they are embedding with fans to tell the on-the-ground story of the tournament.
These outlets have been presented with logistical and societal difficulties which have upped the challenge of bringing the atmosphere of the Russian World Cup to football fanatics across the world. In the UK, the Salisbury nerve agent attack in March and the subsequent expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats led to the Foreign Office issuing a warning to traveling England supporters.
It told them: "Due to heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia, you should be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time.” Furthermore, it said: “You’re advised to remain vigilant, avoid any protests or demonstrations and avoid commenting publicly on political developments.”
Headlines have also abounded about the threat posed by hooligans in Russia and the possibility of racist abuse towards players. It will be the mission of football's emerging new media brands to get behind-the-scenes and tell the real story – from the euphoric joy of on-pitch glory to the realities of life on the terraces – from fans in and around the action.
Here's how they've been preparing for Russia.
Goal is sending 30 journalists and multimedia staff to Russia to cover the tournament, overseen from a central hub in Moscow. Staff will be spread far and wide across the world's largest nation to be present in host cities.
James Dickens, global editor-in-chief for Goal, told The Drum: "We will have correspondents staying in every host city. As we know from other tournaments, the biggest stories can happen anywhere."
They will generate content to fill a total of 38 global editions, supplemented by global staff who will be reporting on the action from home. He said coverage will span "fan parks and celebrations on the streets," and more importantly, that it will be across 19 languages.
He reflected on the media output at the last tournament, noting that while four years is a long time in football, it is an even longer time in media. He said: "If Brazil 2014 was the social media World Cup, Russia will be the video World Cup. For many people, Russia is still a strange place, so we want to capture as much of it as possible and present it in interesting ways."
Topically, the publisher is betting on "growth market" Instagram where it has 2.3 million followers. Here it will show the highs and lows of the tournament, sometimes live through the social network. He noted: "It’s hard to predict what will be the biggest stories. Looking back at Euro 2016, some of our social media highlights included reporting on Facebook Live in the centre of the clashes in Marseille, and a fan scaling a Paris apartment to retrieve ball and steal a kiss from the apartment’s occupant."
Dickens underlined the importance of having trained journalists on the ground, throwing some shade at his fan-centric and citizen journalism rivals that appear later in the piece. "While there’s a demand for shoulder content, such as the lifestyle and colour of Russia, they also want the news fast and from experienced journalists."
On the logistical challenges of shooting in Russia, he highlighted that the web and mobile connectivity outside the media centres is an issue – but not for Goal, which has full accreditation to access these sites.
On monetising the Goal presence at the tournament, Chris Ricketts, sales director UK and Ireland at owner Perform Media, said it was valuable that the competition is in a European timezone. "This is the significant commercial factor of this World Cup. Being in the same time zone allows marketers to take advantage of the consumption peaks across multiple content types and platforms that resonate with their communication – this has allowed us to build an array of solutions for our brand partners."
Copa90 is sending 30 people to Russia, and like Goal, has its production base in the capital. Here it will develop editorial, longer-form documentaries and daily shows for YouTube and Snapchat Discover.
James Kirkham, head of Copa90, said: "Although the larger percentage of our creation and work is our own Copa90 editorial, we’re also doing bespoke World Cup activations for brands including Telemundo, Adidas and a World Cup series on Snapchat all of which are monetised opportunities."
He attracted these brands on the basis that there is a hunger from younger audiences for a new type of football coverage. "Young fans want to escape the algorithm... and the echo chamber.
"This is no longer about fish and chip paper platforms seeking a single vanity metric about content which disappears from memories the following day. Instead these young fans want real content with real worth which lives long in the memory and which becomes something important and vital in their lives.”
Nick Lewis, brand strategy director of Copa90, weighed in on what the brand will look to achieve on the ground at the tournament. "Plenty of publishers are looking to break down misconceptions around Russia throughout the tournament but we're literally bringing people together at our Moscow Club House to break down barriers and exchange ideas around football – giving Russian fans a global platform to express themselves and showcase their creativity during the tournament.
"As we continue to explore the attitude and ethos of our brand in real-world settings, we've partnered with Two Tribes Brewery on an exclusive Match Day IPA beer, which is being sold in pubs and bottle shops across the UK. Coupling with football fans' love of beer, it's a fun way for us to put Copa90 in the hands of football fans, in a new and dynamic way."
On the challenges of bringing the tournament to a wider audience, Lewis noted the language barrier – solved by hiring up local Russian talent.
Furthermore, the sheer scale of the nation has made logistics a nightmare. "The distance we will have to cover throughout the tournament is unique to this tournament but with good coverage in key cities, we will be able to mitigate the challenge of distance as we follow the key stories as they unfold."
Ball Street Media
Ball Street Media is a network of football fan channels and previously boasted to The Drum that it gets "fan media engagement at scale". It is sending some of its influencers on a 2,230-mile round trip to the World Cup and back in back of a van, a trip fully funded by Vanarama.
Christian Hurley, head of strategy at Ball Street Network, said that its creators are tasked with unearthing the nuances of Russian football. He said: "They’ll be immersing themselves in everything Russia 2018 has to offer. We’ve stripped it right back to basics.
"Our World Cup partnership with Vanarama – which includes the bespoke show 'Fan in a Van' – has enabled us to really tap into what it means to be a fan at a tournament. It’s about friends travelling to the World Cup for that once-in-a-lifetime experience in a van.
"Historically, football fans have been short-changed by the industry giants. Our content provides an inclusive, honest and entertaining antidote to dry and inaccessible football content."
On the challenges found on the ground Russia, Hurley pointed out that there is "protocol, cultural nuance and a language barrier" that needs to be handled. But fans being advised to avoid the tournament only strengthens the brand's resolve to be there. "That’s why we’ve decided to get closer."
He also shrugged off the need to own match rights to properly cover a World Cup. "Obviously, there are clear advantages to owning the rights. However, these restrictions inspire us to find solutions both editorially and commercially for brands who aren’t official sponsors of a tournament or league. Some publishers claim to own everything around the 90 minutes, but that would be doing our content a disservice.
"The way in which fans are consuming content has changed dramatically in the last few years. Second screen consumption means that our content plays a role before, after and during the 90 minutes."
90min is a football platform that leans on 'fan-generated media' as a vital cornerstone or 'key ingredient' of its coverage. It boasts over 250m page views a month.
Andres Cardenes, 90min’s global head of soccer, told The Drum that it had a crew on the ground composed of its 90min FanVoice Captains who lead its social influencing efforts, fan reporters and video producers. They are tasked with "street reporting and capturing the tournament's combustion moments and euphoria always from the fans' point of view".
90 Min has a slightly different philosophy from its rivals on the ground: "We don't cover football fans, we are football fans telling our stories."
As for the content, Cardenes wants his team to be "proactively reactive" to capture the "raw combustion and euphoric moments that can be almost instantly posted on social". It will also work on longer features for the website in the background.
He said: "We are not a traditional media owner, we don't wear suit and ties, cover games from a broadcast studio or produce long-form game analysis. The goal is to weave brands into the fabric of 90min by keeping a consistent and authentic tone and voice while bringing these brands to life organically."
The appeal, he said, is that the modern football fan is interesting in what other fans think. For the comings and goings of games and the transfer market, "anybody can go to BBC Sport, ESPN, SkySports".
"But if you want fan opinion, short-form, lifestyle-infused football content, we are one of the few that produce it. And this is what millennial football fans crave."
This ties into the rising price of match rights too. "The pressure that puts on the media owner for a return on investment is immense. We pride ourselves on having one of the lowest content creation costs in the industry"
On working in Russia, he concluded: "Our limitations are the same as any other international media owner. The unknown. We don't really know what to expect and there is some skepticism and fear with regard to Russian football fans based on some of the events at the Euros."