Esmeralda Negron has experienced firsthand what can happen to a female soccer player’s career due to a lack of opportunity.
Once in the same under-21 national team camp as the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, Negron graduated from Princeton University in 2005 with 47 goals and 112 career points to her name – and seemingly a bright future playing the sport in front of her. At the time, though, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the professional women’s league in the US, had folded, and no successor appeared to be forthcoming.
So Negron travelled abroad to play a season each in France and Germany, but with the professional women’s game in those countries still in its infancy, she soon found herself back in the US coaching at Seton Hall University. The idea initially was to return to playing when the second iteration of WUSA was formed. However, when Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) came to be, Negron chose a different path.
“I didn’t ultimately go back to playing [because] it was hard to give up a full-time salary and benefits,” she tells SportsPro. “That was a very difficult thing for me, because that was all I wanted to do. You have this strong desire to play the game, just not the opportunities.”
Now, Negron wants to make sure that other women aren’t faced with the same dilemma that she was. Last week ushered in the launch of Atalanta Media, a self-described ‘women’s football company’ backed by Miami-based investment firm 777 Partners and co-founded by Negron and Hannah Brown, Formula E’s chief strategy and business development officer. The pair met while working at entertainment company Relevent Sports Group, where Negron helped launch and directed the Women’s International Champions Cup exhibition tournament, and they soon brainstormed an idea.
“After working with the big clubs I established these relationships with club personnel and you start to get to know the players,” Negron explains. “I wanted to follow them throughout the year and it was just really hard to do that. If I wanted to watch Lyon I could never find them on TV, even on the internet. That was a frustration.
“I was like, ‘what can we do to change this, how can we push this along?’ One day we kept thinking about it and thinking about it, came up with this idea and started to develop it.”
Negron says people were immediately supportive of the concept, which she defines as “a very non-traditional way of securing and distributing media rights”. The “turning point”, though, was a breakfast in January with Jon Miller, the president of programming at NBC Sports, and his colleague Wendy Bass, who is the US broadcaster’s senior vice president of rights integration.
Fast forward just over half a year and Atalanta Media had landed its first deal with the FA Women’s Super League (WSL). To coincide with its launch the company announced that it had helped England’s top women’s division secure coverage in the US for the first time, with NBC Sports set to show 50 games this season across a mixture of its linear and digital platforms. In addition, Atalanta Media brokered a distribution agreement with sports streaming subscription service DAZN, which picked up a package of 44 WSL matches for its German and Italian services.
In her role as general manager, Negron (right) will now be working to secure new rights and distribution deals for the business, with Brown, who was formerly chief strategy officer for US over-the-top (OTT) provider Fubo TV, serving as advisor. It is understood that Atalanta Media is already in talks with other leagues and broadcasters, and hopes to announce additional partnerships in various territories in the US and Europe in the coming weeks. Negron also confirmed to SportsPro that the company will look to secure global distribution rights where possible.
But Atalanta Media sees itself as much more than simply a media rights agency. The company will also be bringing content from its distribution partners, as well as players and influencers, to a new women’s soccer digital platform under the Ata Football brand. The service will feature full matches, highlights and other content, all of which Negron hopes can build “a digital community for fans and young girls around the world”.
“I think [among] young girls the sport is super popular,” Negron adds, “but I don’t think they have this ability to easily access the highest level of the women’s game, so that was our inspiration.
A traditional agency that’s going to start selling rights, they’re not going to go above and beyond and do all this marketing.
“It’s a bit of an underserved, niche community, so we wanted to provide them a one-stop shop where there are player development opportunities, they can easily access the best plays and goals of the week. Depending on our agreements with our broadcasters, whether it’s simulcast matches on our platform so they have another outlet to watch it as well, or if that’s on-demand if they want to watch delayed.
“We want to provide this platform also for the pro players to start to market themselves, whether that’s through branded content or individual online skill sessions with notable players. Can we put that in one place, make it super easy and create this community where it provides a lot of value for fans, but also aspiring players or just players of the game?
“Obviously soccer is the world’s game, and in various countries and territories they’re investing more and more on the women’s side at the grassroots level, but I think this could be a great opportunity for these young girls to be part of a community, find a place where they can access a lot of value and get closer to the game.”
Negron came up with the idea for Atalanta Media while at Relevent Sports Group, where she directed the Women's International Champions Cup
Atalanta Media is considering a mix of freemium and subscription models to monetise the Ata Football platform, according to Negron, who also reveals that the company will eventually house some exclusive content on the service that it will be developing in the next two to three months.
In order to grow awareness of the Ata Football brand, Atalanta Media is hoping to build connections with influencers and agencies that represent some of the world’s top players, so that they too can come on board as part of the platform. Perhaps most importantly, though, Negron plans on tapping into her relationships with big youth organisations in the US and around the world in order to spread the word at the grassroots level of the sport.
That willingness to grow the women’s game is also something that Negron believes will appeal to the leagues Atalanta Media hopes to partner with.
“It’s hard, because we’re kind of dealing with a lot of the unknown,” she admits. “Obviously we are investing in the rights but acknowledge that nothing is proven at all.
It’s like the chicken and the egg. It can’t really have value unless you know that there’s actually fans, and you can’t grow the fandom unless it’s out there.
“What we are speaking to them about is not only what we can provide from a visibility standpoint on premium broadcast, but what we’re trying to do with the Ata Football platform, engage the grassroots and try to grow their brand at the grassroots level, and try to help grow the fanbase in these various territories and hopefully globally if we can do that.
“A traditional agency that’s going to start selling rights, they’re not going to go above and beyond and do all this marketing. We are working on some partnerships with digital publishers as well so that we can share the clips that we have rights to, so on a weekly basis they can start to distribute and highlight the women’s game, which is something that doesn’t happen at the moment.
“So I think the whole package of what we can provide is very attractive to the leagues that we’ve been in discussions with. It provides more than just moving rights around or getting broad distribution – it’s a lot more than that.”
Atalanta Media hopes its Ata Football platform can build a digital community for fans and young girls around the world
All of this seems like a significant undertaking for a company that Negron readily admits doesn’t have a lot of full-time staff. However, being part of the 777 Partners portfolio gives Atalanta Media access to a suite of services, including those of OTT specialists Nunchee, which will provide the tech backbone and platform for Ata Football. The company is also collaborating with UK-based Gravity Media on broadcast production and is working with others to secure sponsors.
It is at this point that Atalanta Media’s vision becomes clear: to give women’s soccer the year-round exposure that will see much-needed investment flow into every level of the sport.
Recent Fifa Women’s World Cups have shown that interest in the female game is growing, but for too long it has struggled for visibility outside of the marquee events. Negron believes that her company is well positioned to change that – and to create the opportunities that she didn’t necessarily have coming out of college.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg,” she says. “It can’t really have value unless you know that there’s actually fans, and you can’t grow the fandom unless it’s out there.
“Going about it this way, our hope is that it accelerates that growth and drives this virtuous cycle of reinvestment in the game. It’s good for the brands that are going to get behind it because they’re going to get extra visibility, it’s good for the leagues, it’s good for the clubs, it’s good for the players, and you hope that this ultimately drives value.
“I think this is the fundamental change and shift that has to happen to drive that investment in the sport.”