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Is it too late for brands to be involved in women’s sports?

Whilst the opportunities are plentiful, brands must look to engage authentically

Rachel Clarke, Strat House

Founding Partner

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Women’s sport is here to stay, there are far more opportunities than men’s sport, so why aren’t more brands there already? 

To quote Alex Scott after the Women’s Euros 2022: "I’m not standing up at corporate events in front of sponsors anymore begging for them to get involved in the women’s game because you know what? If you’re not involved, you’ve missed the boat, you’ve missed the train, because look at this… it has finally left the station and it is gathering speed.”

To put it bluntly, the (mostly) men who control the budgets and coverage and opportunities can’t ignore women’s sports anymore

Rachel Clarke, Founding Partner of Strat House

In one sense, she’s completely right, it is too late. If you jump on the sponsorship bandwagon now and simply slap your logo on something, then your target audiences are likely to see through you, especially if you’re a brand that is chasing the younger market. Gen Z and millennials will look for authenticity and commitment from brands.

They like to see them making a difference to society and the world around them, as well as understanding their wants - with 68% of Gen Zs saying they want every brand to contribute to society. It’ll therefore be too easy for brands to get it wrong, have their involvement backfire and not produce the results expected.

But in reality, it’s never going to be that cut and dried. Sports are always after sponsorship money and women’s sport more than ever before. Between 2011-2013 women’s sport only got 0.4% of sports sponsorship and 7% of TV coverage (Women In Sport 2014). Since then, every metric has increased as the interest in women’s sport grows. There’s more media coverage, there’s more money coming into the sport, and the cycle repeats. The first quarter of 2022 saw the highest viewing figures for women’s sport – 17.9m watching vs 6.7m for the same period in 2021; viewing time has doubled and more people are watching more types of sports. (Women’s Sports Trust). The Euros final was the most watched programme on UK TV this year, and the EBU estimated a global audience of 280m across the tournament.

The reasons behind this will be complex. Some are commercial decisions – if the male version of the sport is locked behind paywalls, the free-to-air channels need to look elsewhere for their sports – and free-to-air have wider possible audiences who are interested in sports. Slowly changing societal attitudes means women’s sports is not dismissed – around the Euros, for every hateful post there were 125 positive statements (Hatelab research). Finally, more women are entering sports, so the depth of talent improves; more women who have been involved in sports are getting into positions to make a difference. To put it bluntly, the (mostly) men who control the budgets and coverage and opportunities can’t ignore women’s sports anymore. The virtual cycle continues to grow audiences and for a brand, that means there are greater opportunities to be involved in a way that both delivers on your objectives and brings benefits to women’s sport. 

So, as a brand, why would you sponsor women’s sport?

· 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sport; 20% are more positive towards sponsors of women’s sport (Nielsen)

· For brands with purpose, 50% of women’s sports fans believe brands should make the world a better place (The Space Between)

· Almost 33 million (32.9m) people watched domestic women’s sport in 2021, beating all previous years, with the value of women’s sport set to treble by 2030 (Women’s Sport Trust)

· 32% of people said they had learned more about women’s sport and its stars through advertising and social media (a report by Sky Sports and Leaders in Sport 2021)

And how can brands still be involved?

If you’re looking to make a big splash, you may be too late – exclusive sponsorships for the international platforms are already locked in, e.g., Mastercard for Rugby, Visa for Football, but the space to play across a wider variety of sports and at multiple levels is huge. These are far more accessible and likely to produce a superior return on investment than trying to chase more traditional platforms. So, if you can’t get the big deals for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, you can get involved in the build up at different levels. Exposure may not be as huge, but there are more opportunities for engagement, building equity and consideration

· Understand your audiences – what are they interested in, what do they like. Most importantly, understand that the younger audiences especially expect you to bring something to behave in a way that is authentic and true to their values.

· Develop a programme that has a three-way benefit. For the sport, for you as a brand and for the audience – regardless of wider societal benefits, 37% of Gen Z want brands to make them feel valued (GWI)

· Consider longevity in the programme - can you build in something that works for more than one programme. Yes, audiences understand one-offs, but they have more time for brands that want to make a longer-term difference.

· Ensure, as a brand, you live up to the values too -when brands “celebrate” International Women’s Day, they get challenged about their gender pay gap. In this connected world, a combination of sportswashing and genderwashing is unlikely to deliver what you want.

There’s no secret recipe to make this a success, but you should no longer dismiss women’s sports as a platform for your investment; if you’re not there already, there is still time to be. 

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Sport Inclusion Women