Women’s soccer company Atalanta Media launched this fall with the announcement of a partnership that brought the top English women’s league (the FA Women’s Super League) to NBC Sports and to an American audience for the first time ever. The deal Atalanta facilitated brought the U.K. stints of U.S. women’s national team stars like Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Christen Press into the living rooms of their domestic fans, but it didn’t come at a great cost to NBC. In fact, it didn’t cost the broadcast giant anything at all.
The rights were purchased by Atalanta, and may be a harbinger for how smaller leagues bring content to market. Founded by former professional player and sports marketing vet Esmeralda Negron and former Sky media rights executive Hannah Brown, the startup venture invests in women’s football rights globally in hopes of helping usher in a new era of international visibility for women’s soccer.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around not being able to find some of the best women’s pro matches [on TV]. You had 60,000 fans at the Wanda [Atlético Madrid’s stadium in Spain] against Barcelona or at [the UEFA Women’s] Champions League matches and I could not access it whatsoever. That was a really big problem,” Negron said in a phone interview. “So we set out to solve it and build a business on the back of it, pushing women’s football around the world, giving it the visibility it needed to grow and people more access to the sport.”
But bringing that vision to life required upending the distribution status quo.
Traditionally, leagues approach broadcast partners with stats about their success and existing audience to entice media’s decision-makers to buy into their broadcast worthiness. That makes it harder for smaller or newer leagues without those assets to land on big-time TV or bring in the massive rights fees seen in leagues like the NBA or NFL.
Atalanta instead acquires a league’s rights (largely U.S. distribution rights and those in other untapped international markets for now) and offers fully produced matches to broadcast partners, like NBCSN, for free. By getting the sport on television, even without an immediate financial payout, the goal is to generate an audience that could reap long-term returns. It’s an upfront gamble on the biggest chicken or the egg scenario in sports.
Exposure for a league is critical to developing an audience, but an audience is what warrants exposure from the broadcast perspective. Atalanta is trying to streamline the two schools of thought in a way that satisfies both participants—the leagues, looking for capital and cash, and potential broadcast partners, often wary of taking the risk on untested rights. Atalanta also built a community platform, Ata Football, to interest what Negron sees as a “very underserved market,” of young female fans around the world in the matches she’s working to get on television.
“Leagues want investments and money; premium broadcasters are hard to get that from when there’s no proof of audience yet. Women’s football got stuck in this middle place,” Negron explained. “What we’re doing is shifting how distribution is done for the sport to solve that. I don’t think we could build our grassroots movement without first solving the accessibility and visibility issue.”
Since the Sept. 2 FA WSL and NBC Sports announcement, Atalanta has also facilitated a streaming and broadcast deal for the top French women’s league, D1 Arkema. The agreement added distribution on ESPN+ in the U.S., BT Sport in the U.K. and Ireland, and DAZN in Italy and Germany to D1 Arkema’s media portfolio. Global clip rights for Frauen-Bundesliga (the top women’s league in Germany) have also been secured by the startup.
The operations, though admittedly more of a long play, still offer some immediate return. As part of the investment, Atalanta retains production rights and thus sponsorship opportunities during any given match, with branding and graphics of both Atalanta and secured sponsors prominently displayed on national broadcasts. In Atalanta’s deals, as is the case with NBC, the company also retains a certain number of ad slots, another asset to monetize.
Atlanta, and its investors, are betting on the momentum women’s sports, and soccer in particular, have seen in recent years. The 2019 Women’s World Cup saw record viewership. In the U.S., both the NWSL and the WNBA in the U.S. saw unprecedented viewership and broadcast support this year, with network partners picking up additional games as the pandemic aftermath unfolded. They’re hoping others will make the gamble alongside them.
“Realizing that women’s football is not today at the stage the male sport is in terms of development, you have to approach it in a different way. What they came up with establishes very broad distribution of the game in order to develop the commercial side of the business, which is where we think it makes sense for a lot of companies to become involved,” said Juan Arciniegas, principal of Miami-based investment firm 777 Partners, Atalanta’s lead investor. “We recognize that there’s value that just hasn’t been exploited in the right way. Now is the time to do it with a differentiated model that allows us to capitalize on this growth and potentialize the sport itself by making it available to everyone.”
After beginning to invest in the South American soccer market in 2019 (continuing into 2020 with the October acquisition of 1190 Sports, the commercial partner of Chile’s national team, La Roja), 777 Partners saw the same potential—and “imbalances” in the commercial and broadcast sides of the business, as Arciniegas describes it—in the women’s game.
The company provided Atalanta with seed capital and infrastructure resources in a pair of complementary partners already within its portfolio of media and sports entertainment properties: Fanatiz, an OTT sports streaming platform, and Nunchee, an OTT-as-a-service company. The two formed the tech backbone and platform for the Ata Football community’s beginnings—with Fanatiz serving as another distribution partner for Atalanta, along with its own Atafootball.com. Nunchee provides technology and streaming capabilities for both.
Atalanta is not the first to approach media rights as an investment. Earlier this month, top Italian soccer league Serie A chose a group led by private equity company CVC Capital Partners to invest in its media rights. The CVC group reportedly offered up to $1.9 billion for 10% of a new media company to manage Serie A’s rights and bring in additional outside investment to maximize the influx of capital and value of those rights, sold globally to media companies.