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Nikki Doucet: ‘Even a purist is probably still a new women’s football fan’

How do you imagine something that doesn’t yet exist? That is what those working for the new company, NewCo, which will take over the running of the Women’s Super League and Championship from the Football Association this summer, have been trying to do.

The organisation’s CEO, Nikki Doucet, got it up and running last year with “Project Moonshot”, as she called it, the work that got the clubs and the FA to the next stage of the process in November. That is when the clubs formally signed up to the proposals, and the phrase was born from her time at Nike, most recently as general manager of Nike Women UK & Ireland.

“We would never talk about our competition to staying as the No 1 brand,” she explains. “We would always [say] ‘where is the consumer going next?’ and try to imagine what doesn’t exist yet. We would call those ‘moonshots’. So, that’s where the name came from.”

Imagining where the consumer will be, in this case women’s football fans, is no mean feat. “We are still learning so much about this fanbase and the players,” says Doucet. “The priority is to create a company that obsesses over that. If we do that, understand that better, we will create better partnerships and create better infrastructure for the clubs and players. Working out the reach of the two leagues and understanding it is crucial to negotiating the new broadcast deal, with the current contract with BBC and Sky expiring next year.

“It’s our job to understand the reach and the revenue question, that’s what we all still need: reach,” says Doucet. “We’re starting to get the right insights and the biggest thing I’ve learned is that fandom is really in its infancy. Even if you’re a purist you’re probably still a new women’s football fan. Even if you’ve watched Arsenal for how many years, you might only have gone to the Emirates for the first time last year or this year. It’s a new experience … When we think about the broadcast [deal], in that context, we have to make it as easy as possible to watch the league. So, that’s what we’re thinking of.”

One barrier to negotiating the best possible broadcast deal is the existence of Article 48, which also bars women’s games from being broadcast during the 3pm blackout, a decision made in 1987 to protect attendances in the men’s football pyramid. Doucet says: “We’re exploring [different options] … We’re looking at every possibility and trying to understand that we’re part of a whole football eco-system.”

What NewCo will look like as an organisation remains either cloaked in secrecy or is still undecided. Sitting in a box at Wembley surrounded by journalists eager to know the gritty details, Doucet is at the moment unable to reveal much about matters such as the makeup of the board, fan representation, player representation, club representation, what the FA’s golden share is and where the funding is coming from.

Just over four months from the end of the season and eight months before the new campaign in which NewCo will be in charge, that is slightly concerning, though some allowances can be made for how quickly things are having to move and because of the legal position.

“All of the legal documentation [needs to be sorted before it can run as an independent company],” says Doucet. “That is what we are working through at the moment. We have what we believe the structure is and then we are moving through [the process] and that just takes time.”

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There are hints of what might be to come, though. The WSL and Championship will look the same next season, with 12 teams each and promotion and relegation a core part of what the clubs signed up to in November, so a closed league is off the table. The Continental [League] Cup will remain while an expansion of the leagues is a question for the future. The safeguarding of players and the right reporting mechanisms are important and there is agreement with the recommendations made in the government review of women’s football led by Karen Carney.

There is also an emphasis on the need for a joint approach from all those involved. “The collective is stronger than any individual stakeholder or any individual club at the moment and everyone buys into that concept,” says Doucet. “You’re starting to see different partnerships, clubs willing to share certain things. Chelsea and Manchester United had cross-promotion for the first time in their marketing teams to try and promote games together, I think that is really important to explore. In some ways that’s why we’ve been able to get to this place.”

How protected that collaborative approach is as the money comes in and individual club interests come to the fore remains to be seen, but there is a real will to maintain it.

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