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How brands are benefiting from a transformational summer of women’s sport

This year will go down as a watershed for women’s sports and brands are paying attention.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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Vibrant, diverse, multi-faceted and commercially valuable; this summer has proved the cultural and commercial firepower of women’s sport. The Women’s Six Nations, Wimbledon, the Cricket World Cup, the Netball World Cup and of course the FA Women’s World Cup. So many tournaments, so many stories, so many brand opportunities.

Yet, while the broader cultural narrative has shifted, the investment gap in marketing between men and women’s sport remains. A disconnect consumers are increasingly aware of. A survey by MediaCom and talkSPORT revealed that people feel not enough is being done by advertising and brands to support women’s sport, with fans wanting to hear more about women’s sport (64%) and three quarters (73%) believing it should be broadcast more frequently (73%).

This summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup was a landmark tournament. It has been embraced by audiences around the world; 11.7 million people watched England’s semi-final game against the US, taking the equivalent of a 50.8% share of viewers. By the end of June, the BBC said their coverage of the Women’s World Cup had reached a total of 22.2 million viewers compared with 12.4 million in 2015.

In this space, as in many, brands can have a pivotal role to play when it comes to creating meaningful connections between audience and players. These connections come through the stories being told, stories that help to unpick and dismantle long entrenched stereotypes and develop empathy and understanding in the audience.

Sponsorship investment helps to raise the profile of the game and ultimately the way the players are recognised and rewarded financially. It's sponsorship deals, advertising and corporate partners that will drive revenue within the women’s game and ultimately help to move the needle towards equal pay. Raise the profile and you raise the amount of money brands will choose to invest in the teams. 

In research carried out by Dark Horses, 63% of respondents said they would be more interested if they knew more about female players (rising to 73% amongst 18-34-year olds). The results demonstrated that the more stories people know about the game and the players, the more they want to know and the more they want to watch. 

Stories are an essential tool in the move to shift perceptions of women’s sport and it’s these stories that brands can help to tell. This is the new age of sports marketing, and brands should be ready to get involved.

The emergence of new role models

The conversation around the Women’s World Cup has sat at the centre of culture this summer. Female players are being elevated and endorsed, creating new role models for the next generation of sporting superheroes. Crucially these role models aren’t self-editing or presenting the kind of one-dimensional view of sporting success and achievement we’ve seen in years gone by.

Players are taking to their own social media channels to amplify messages that matter to them, to play sport at the highest level but also not forget what they’re passionate about. This includes US football’s Co-Captain Megan Rapinoe amplifying the message around LGBTQ rights and England football’s Nikita Parris who has founded a football academy in her hometown for women from deprived areas.

Nike and Wieden +Kennedy led the pack driving a compelling new narrative this year. There was ‘Dream Crazier’ narrated by Serena Williams focusing on the power and determination of female athletes. Nike China worked with Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai on ‘Further than Ever’ starring top Asian female athletes who have overcome societal pressures that insist women put family first to pursue their sporting goals. And Uncommon created ‘Lioness Tributes’ for Nike, a series of short films about the players on the England women’s football team.

Lucozade Sport, the “official sports drinks and hydration partner” of the England men’s and women’s senior teams, released 16 million special edition bottles featuring England players Nikita Parris and Steph Houghton, the team’s captain. Lucozade has previously worked with players from the men’s team, but this is the first time that players’ faces have been printed on the bottles. The brand aims to grow the profile of the players and generate an increased awareness and excitement around the women’s game. 

Brand partnerships that stand the test of time

However, like any sports sponsorship, it is the brands and media platforms investing in long-term authentic partnerships who are seeing the best return on investment. Those brands and agencies who see women’s sport as little more than a short-term PR win are falling short. We’ve seen the likes of Barclays committing to a three-year sponsorship of the Women’s Super League set to be worth £10m; Vitality Health extending its partnership with England netball; Boots signing a three year deal to sponsor all five of the UK and Ireland’s national teams; and Avon extending its sponsorship of the Liverpool women’s football team. 

Nike has reaped the benefits of its long-standing investment in women’s football. The brand sponsored almost two thirds of the 24 teams in this year’s FIFA World Cup tournament whilst also creating bespoke kit for 14 of the teams. Nike was also one of the US women’s teams earliest corporate sponsor and the brand saw their jersey sales up by 200% this year. The US Women’s National team shirt has become the bestselling football jersey, men and women, ever sold on nike.com in a single season.

Mars support of England football has seen them renew their longstanding partnership with the FA for another four years to not only support the men’s team but also England women’s and disability teams. As part of that, they worked with AMV BBDO to create a statue of England footballer Lily Parr. It’s the first of a female footballer in the UK; there are 110 statues of male footballers. Parr was part of the team that played in the infamous game in December 1920 that drew a crowd of 53,000 fans.

Guinness recently announced their investment in women’s rugby for the next six years. Their latest ad from AMV BBDO, ‘Sisters’ celebrated the brand’s sponsorship of the Women’s Six Nations. The slot focused on Harriet and Bridget Millar-Mills who played on opposing England and Scotland teams in 2013 in a rousing display of passion, rivalry and family.

Focusing on the grassroots

Much of the shift taking place around women’s sport is happening at a grassroots level. It’s about opening up the offering, empowering people from all walks of life to feel like they can get involved. It’s about really listening to the voices on the ground, to those who play every day and those who support and create a space for others to play. These are spaces where sport becomes about more than simply the game.

These include organisations like Goal Diggers Football Club in London, a non-profit grassroots club set up to create a welcoming, encouraging environment for all women and non-binary people. Goal Click is another project, a global photography showcase to give people around the world a chance to demonstrate what football means to them. This includes international stars and those playing in parks, back streets and schools who are sent analogue cameras and invited to capture the game as they see it. 

Nike Swim teamed up with the inner-city London swim club Swim Dem Crew to host an outdoor swimming masterclass at Parliament Hill Lido. The campaign, devised by Brandnation, aimed to demonstrate the inclusiveness of sport and the beauty of a community. Swim Dem Crew were founded in 2013 with the aim of opening up swimming, making it more inclusive and less solitary. 

Nike teamed up with Gurls Talk to create a documentary, Spit Fire, Aim Higher, focusing on the power and solidarity of grassroots football. The film tells the stories of girls around the world blazing a trail in a sport that was, historically, dominated by men. To coincide with the film, Gurls Talk founder and model Adwoa Aboah teamed up with the documentary’s director Felix Cooper to publish a book that decrees; “This is a book of women’s football. Not the World Cup. Not the final. That was yesterday. This is tomorrow.”

Girls in the Game, a film created by Nemo Design for the Soccer Without Borders project, highlights the violence and discrimination many refugee, immigrant and disadvantaged young female players face. The girls race to the pitch, greeting each other as they go, bathed in soft sunlight. But they’re faced with a wall of words, “Isolation, discrimination, cultural shock, violence.” They play on regardless, safe in the knowledge that their team around them will carry them through.

Dismantling gender stereotypes

With outdated gender stereotypes top of the creative agenda, this summer has also seen brands take an active role in re-telling stories of female sports stars of the past through the current lens. This means reshaping the language used and even, in some cases, filling in the historical gaps in women’s sports coverage.

Lucozade Sport worked with Grey London to rewrite an iconic English football anthem and create ‘Three Lionesses.’ The ad tells the stories of England’s female players and the injustice and prejudice they’ve experienced over the years. The film celebrates the players’ achievements while also pointing out the challenge they faced to get onto the international scene. While many of the lyrics were rewritten, others were left purposefully the same. Lines like “years of hurt never stopped us dreaming” are just as powerful in this context as they were in the original. 

As an official partner of the England Women’s Senior team, Budweiser used Elizabeth I’s famous speech that she gave in the summer of 1588 to rally a nation behind the Lionesses. ‘Heart of a King’, created by in-house agency DraftLine, sees several of the UK’s inspirational women including Nicola Adams, Naomie Harris and Rachel Yankey among others speaking words that hold so much defiance at their very core.

Women didn’t get their first FIFA World Cup until 1991, a full 60 years after the men’s one debuted. The fight for equality in football still persists; see for example the US team taking out a gender discrimination lawsuit against their own federation. But it is the gender imbalance in the sport’s history that Google Brazil wanted to address. Working with AKQA, they built the Offside Museum, a digital museum at Google Arts & Culture that helps people discover the lost history of women’s football. Google invited contributors from around the world to send in stories and memorabilia in “the largest crowdsourced search for the undocumented history of women’s soccer.” 

Sometimes you have to point out the obvious to make your point land. Commerzbank, the German corporation that sponsors both the men’s and women’s national teams, released a spot entitled, ‘We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names.’ The ad tackles the ongoing discrimination the women’s team faces whilst demonstrating their skill and defiance.

Empowering young girls through sport

Participation in sports leads to higher self-esteem, improved body image and stronger friendships for girls, as revealed in the Girls and Sports Impact Report published by the non-profit education group Ruling Our Experiences. Many a brand has placed this message of empowerment at the heart of their ad campaigns this summer, focusing on what sport can add to a young girl’s life and how it can set them up for the future.

The financial services company Crédit Agricole worked with BETC on ‘Grace au Sport’, focusing on the transferable skills that sport can give young girls. While the girls play, their words ring out, focusing on the jobs they go onto have and the new paths they can forge with the skills they learn through sport. A basketball player runs a market leader start up; a gymnast leads an orchestra; and a judo student runs a successful international NGO.

Nike continued to raise the bar when it comes to sports marketing. In ‘Dream Further’ by Wieden + Kennedy Portland, the brand chose 10-year-old footballer Makena Cook to represent the next generation. We see Cook playing alongside her idols to encourage her generation to live their dream. The ad debuted in the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham demonstrating that this sport need not only be perceived to be for the boys. As Nike say, “Don’t change your dream, change the world.” 

Gatorade channelled the spirit of Dr Seuss in their slot ‘Every Day is Your Day’ by TBWA Chiat Day. With a voiceover recounting the piece, Oh, the Place You’ll Go, football legend Mia Hamm and US rising star Mallory Pugh demonstrate the power of sport on young athlete's lives. The ad, part of the brand’s Sisters in Sweat initiative, is all about passing the lesson onto the next generation as it ends with the words, “Every generation fuels the next”.

For the creative industries this legacy of this summer of sport will only be assured if the sponsorship gap between men and women’s sport is bridged. Far from being a niche audience, the appeal of women’ s sport is universal. A significant cultural shift is afoot, and brands need to ensure they don’t remain on the side-lines.

To read more about The New Narrative of Women's Sport, visit Shots.

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