We hear that adage ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ pop up everywhere. But what does that actually mean on a practical level? The growth of women’s football is, fundamentally so positive. We have more young girls and women playing the sport worldwide than ever before; we have more professional, full-time female footballers than ever before; we have record-breaking audiences for World Cup games. The World Cup semi-final between England and the USA attracted an average audience of 10.3 million viewers on the BBC. With all this focus on the women’s game, why is it that it still makes up just 4% of worldwide coverage of football?
The US-based Ata Football are looking to change that. Set up by ex-player Esmeralda Negron and Hannah Brown, who has worked at both Sky Sports and Fubo, Ata Football seeks to “put women’s football centre stage”, by providing a platform for free access to live and on-demand matches, highlights and premier content for the women’s game, worldwide. A relatively novel concept, especially in the world of women’s sport.
I spoke to Ata Football to see exactly what they are doing to combat that seemingly perennial issue of the gender gap in professional football.
What problem are Ata Football looking to solve?
Until recently, in the US, we have never had access to women’s games outside of the US, yet the Premier League, La Liga and many more are everywhere. In the US, our National Team is so good, which means they’ve been getting a lot of attention. Whilst this is great, we realised we still couldn’t watch these players play outside of the big tournaments and outside of the US. Lyon is one of the biggest women’s teams in the world and we couldn’t watch our players play there. Now we have the likes of Alex Morgan going to Spurs, and hopefully our followers can now watch her play in a new place. This is great for followers of football, but we also need people who don’t know women’s or don’t know that football is for women, to stumble across it.
Is Ata Football global?
We are trying to be a global platform. We want to be a hub and community for anyone, whether its young fans or just general fans of women’s football. We want people to be able to come to our platform and get info, whether that be player highlights, replays of matches, or just a place to get access because there isn’t currently any access to women’s football. We’re based in Miami, but our key markets are currently in the US, UK, Germany and Italy, and we have the rights to broadcast and stream in those territories.
Do you think it’s enough just to say, ‘every third game on TV should be a women’s game?’/ ‘every third article should be about the women’s game?’
No, I don’t think it’s enough. I think the women’s game, along with any other sport no matter what gender, needs regular coverage in order for it to build an audience and fans. Without fans and an engaged audience, it’s very difficult to drive investment and build value for any sports property. So, yes, this needs to change, and we are trying to accelerate that process with the launch of Ata Football.
Do you think it’s enough just to increase the investment in the top level? How do we make sure that trickles down to grassroots?
It’s important to invest in the grassroots for so many reasons! Sport, in general, gives kids confidence, keeps them healthy, builds camaraderie amongst their teammates and teaches them invaluable lessons. Additionally, in order to generate the best product at the elite level, investment has to be made in player development at the grassroots level. Without those resources, elite female players won’t reach their true potential.
What do you think is the main reason for women’s football playing second fiddle? Is it ability, is it funding, is it sexist preconceptions?
It’s a mixture. Organisations have always put their resources into the men’s team, so that has naturally become the norm. When you see the likes of Megan Rapinoe out there talking about how great women’s football is and how it can be for every woman, people are like “oh yeah you’re right.” But it shouldn’t take ‘pioneers of the game’ to bring people in. Accessibility is main issue here because you fundamentally can’t get the visibility without having access. Being able to watch a simple league game is so important. This in turn creates a fanbase, which creates funding. But this is all done through accessibility.
We do want to make it accessible for all, in terms of attracting male fans to the platform because obviously, the worldwide, male, football fanbase is huge. We want to present the female game as completely different to the men’s game, because it is. We can’t compare female athletes by pitting them against male players, but they are still elite athletes.
Women’s professional football is still so new relative to more established male professional sports leagues and franchises. Looking back, being a professional female athlete wasn’t normalized until recently. So, of course, it will go through its own growing pains just like any male sport did in its early years. It wasn’t socially acceptable to be a female professional athlete for a long time, and thankfully that has changed as we as a society have changed. If you look back at any sport (male or female), this was all part of the growth process. I think we need to figure how we can accelerate growth and support this change in the best way possible. I know Ata Football is certainly committed to doing that.
Where do you think they are most forward-thinking about women’s football?
When you look at the French league, Lyon is one of the best women’s team in the world. Lyon does a great job of putting their women’s and men’s team on the same platform. The audience is there, so why not use it to promote the women’s team at the same time?
In the US, we can only compare what women’s football was growing up as censorship. We’re now learning about players who we didn’t know existed growing up. What we’re doing should already have happened, by making the women’s game accessible on TV, but we’re glad that it’s happening now.
What do you see for the future of the game?
A lot of positivity, because it is definitely heading in the right direction. Everyone has the same goal, so it’s a big time for women’s sport and women in general around the world. Everyone seems to be coming together around the cause. For example, the NWSL just made a new team called ‘We are Angel City’ in LA. It was great because celebrities and fans came together to make the team, which is a positive and exciting sign for the future.