COPA90’s Rebecca Smith: Women’s Football IS Football

Published: February 1, 2020

Rebecca (Bex) Smith, Global Director of the Women’s Game, COPA90 (United Kingdom), has earned renown as a World Cup and Olympic footballer by representing New Zealand from 2003 to 2013, and by achieving “the Triple”—with VfL Wolfsburg as winner of the UEFA Champions League, the German League, and the German Cup. During her time as a professional footballer, she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and Spanish, a master of business administration, and a master’s degree in psychology.

Ms. Smith’s career took a large leap forward when she joined the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 2013 as Manager of Women’s Competitions and Strategic Planning. Now, at COPA90, a football media and culture company, she oversees the commercial, editorial, and marketing delivery of a business-wide initiative to normalize and promote women’s football and women in football.

At INTA’s 2020 Europe Conference—Brands, Sports, and Esports: A Brand (R)evolution, which will take place February 17–18, in Madrid, Spain, Ms. Smith will deliver a Capsule Keynote on Women in Sports. Here, she discusses her mission to increase the visibility and reach of women’s football, which in turn makes a positive impact on society.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of being a player?
As a player, what I loved about football is that it pushes you to your limits. You really find out what kind of character you have. It has a way of picking you up and making you feel like you’re on top of the world at some points, and then slamming you back down in the next instant and making you feel like the whole world’s going to end. All of it translates into business—the ups and the downs, and the discipline and vision that you have to have to be a player at the top level. At the same time, all of that is against the backdrop of feeling that you’re contributing to a positive change.

And now, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being at COPA90?
I think women’s football is clearly championing a lot of social causes now, such as equal pay and gender equality. This is the most rewarding part about working at COPA90. When I first came into the business about a year ago, it was mostly male. It had an all-male management team, but the company has been really open to changing and being more diverse and more inclusive.

We also realized how important it is to look at the stories that we’re telling. We need to look at who we’re featuring in these stories and identify the fans who have been excluded for so many years who may not be male, or who are just not into men’s football.At the recent World Cup, COPA90 had two clubhouses—one in Paris and one in Lyon—and we had a wide range of diverse fans join us. Some were incredibly passionate about women’s football, thankful to have a place to watch the games, some just came for the events in fashion, film, or music, and others for the opportunity to meet some players in our “icon” series. All were able to learn more about the players they were watching and get more involved with the game. It feels like football is a reflection of culture and society—and the power of being able to make real cultural shift really drives me forward. If we can make sport more inclusive and diverse, then we’re moving toward a better world.

How have attitudes toward women’s sports and women in sports changed over the last decade?
There’s been a lot of change, but I think the answer to that question is it really depends on which sport, which country, which region, and at what level. It also depends on whether you’re talking about grassroots or professional sports. It’s definitely shifted forward significantly in some countries driven by the United States, but it’s also gone backwards in other countries. The Women’s Super League (WSL) in England has made significant investments in women’s sports and as a result, it has become a place where players want to come. The WSL is doing a better job branding and marketing its players, and getting them on the world stage. An opportunity to build their personal brand is exactly what female players need because they don’t earn huge salaries with their clubs. They need to be visible so that they have opportunities after their football career, and those initial deals come from that exposure.

We’re now seeing a lot more investment go into women’s sports globally and I believe there have been a lot more business cases that show how, if you invest in women’s sports, you’re going to get back a huge value. But it’s not just financial. It’s also important to know you’re making the world a more inclusive place. For example, we saw a shift with the Women’s World Cup last summer. A lot of male audiences were watching women’s football, and women as well as children felt more included. The women’s game is garnering a lot more respect now because people have actually seen the product. We’re always fighting for women’s sports to seize more visibility. We can do that confidently now because the quality is so much better, and it is clearly a valuable product to be on mainstream TV, as well as on social platforms.

Female players also need the opportunity to train more professionally with the right support team around them, as men do from a younger age. This requires financial investment and will help improve the overall quality of the sport. In addition, it’s important to remember that there’s still a lot of work to be done in a lot of different countries to lift the sport and foster equality, especially where there are still serious cultural barriers for women playing sports.

What can brands do to help to achieve social change?
Brands have a huge role to play in the whole ecosystem of the women’s game. I say “ecosystem” because it really takes every single part. It’s the federations, the brands, the teams, the clubs—it’s everything. But it’s the brands that drive a lot of the narrative. For example, Nike did a huge fashion show to launch all the kits for the World Cup 2019. They put a great deal of time, money, and resources into creating bespoke jerseys. They held a launch event and invited the media, in addition to their global TV spot.Efforts like that can shift the narrative so quickly because they gain tremendous exposure among consumers. We’re all consumers. And we’re all looking at brands to tell us what we think we need—whether it’s sports or beer or how we’re going to travel—so they’re hugely influential.

At the same time, the men’s game is saturated with so many different stories—so many different things that have already been done. In the women’s game, it’s brand new and people are a little bit hesitant to make a false step. Should we look at women’s sports as a completely separate entity, or do we try to treat the players the same way as the high-earning male players? There are a lot of intricacies that brands need to take into consideration when getting into the women’s game. And that’s where COPA90 really wants to provide as much data, information, and expertise as we can so that brands confidently engage and invest, get the most out of their investment, and see how that investment can help drive the game forward.

Who are some of your mentors and role models, and why?
I know it sounds hokey, but my biggest mentors and role models are my parents. My dad is an entrepreneur, and he’s always been one to think outside the box and beat his own drum. He always gives me great advice about surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you and who are going to stretch you. He would say, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room!” Both of my parents were always very supportive of my football career. They were really supportive of me after I went to Duke University and got an economics and Spanish degree, and decided I wanted to kick a ball around. They realized you can only try to have a sports career for a short period of time, so you should give it everything you have while you can. They always pushed me to expand myself and be better than I think I can, because it’s really easy to live in your comfort zone.

Another mentor was Ceri Evans, a psychiatrist who worked with our team during the World Cup in 2011. We were so lucky to have him, even for a short time. He now works with a lot of different top sports entities and athletes. He showed us how we can train our brains to perform better. He was just incredible, and helped me to understand the power of the brain and how we can train it in a performance environment. This cuts across the board into business and any other field, for that matter.

What are some of the key messages you plan to cover in your Capsule Keynote presentation?
I want to convey why it’s so important to include women’s sports in the broader narrative of sports in general, and I’ll discuss how that translates across business into culture and society. I also want to address why visibility is so valuable and why it is so important for brands to take a role in this narrative.

If brands are not moving forward in their thinking about gender equality and inclusivity, then they’re actually falling behind. They’re going to become obsolete quite quickly. I want to explore the reasons why that is the case, and what the narrative is around brands. This is relevant whether you’re building your own brand as a player or if you’re a global brand like VISA, committing to investing over seven years in the women’s game.

Women’s football is driving a narrative of gender equality and inclusion because women’s football is football. It’s part of the sport but has traditionally been ignored. Our role is to show companies that they need to change the face of football. They need to see the reality of what’s actually going on in the world—that women hold part of the narrative. Brands need to have a more inclusive and diverse decision-making body, which will then trickle down into having a more diverse and inclusive workforce. This, in turn, will ultimately elevate and benefit women and society in general.

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