Thought Leadership

Women's sport ‘second mover’ advantage

Industry experts consider how to leverage the power of brand to drive growth for women's sport

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


In 2023, more consumers than ever before tuned in to watch women's sport on TV. Sports fans, marketers and brands are finally starting to take note.

Unlike men's sport which has been established for hundreds of years, women's sport is at a unique crossroads, growing rapidly it has the opportunity to forge its own path. Sport has the power to inspire and change the narrative. For young girls everywhere, the growth of women's sport is offering a new generation of role models and an opportunity to create new aspirations. For brands womens sport offers a unique opportunity to do things differently and embrace the ‘second mover advantage’.

Yet years of stereotypes and gendered expectations have created barriers meaning that women have to continually fight for adequate budgets and for change. There is a greater burden of responsibility on female talent and higher expectations for female athletes. Athletes who continue to wear many hats in order to reach the top. 

To discuss the opportunities, challenges and consider how to leverage the power of brand in driving growth for the sector, Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director, Creativebrief chaired a panel discussion with Eniola Aluko MBE, Investor, Mercury/13, Jen Vile, Marketing Director, The Hundred at England & Wales Cricket Board, Rachael Burford, Professional Rugby Player, Harlequins, Kelliesha White, Senior Brand & Activation Manager, Depop and Matt Rhodes, Chief Strategy Officer at House 337.

Carving a brand new path

Women's sport is often victim of comparison with men's sport, seen as the default particularly when it comes to the likes of football and rugby. Rhodes shared that Deloitte values women's football in its entirety at £555m, while any leading men's football team, such as Chelsea, is likely to make much more than that as a single club. For years, the men's game has been a stick with which to beat women. Yet where women were banned from football for 50 years there is no fair or direct comparison.

I grew up without women's sport. All my heroes were men, that was the world. It's difficult to change habits even with the impressive speed of growth and fanbase.

Eniola Aluko MBE, Investor, Mercury/13

“I grew up without women’s sport. All my heroes were men, that was the world. It's difficult to change habits even with the impressive speed of growth and fanbase” says Aluko. Instead of looking at the men's game as a template, she champions women carving their own unique path.

“Rugby is a contact sport and what it visually looks like played by women will never be the same as what the men's game looks like,” adds Burford. Instead of comparison, she asks audiences to look at the differences through a positive lens. For example, rather than physical strength in the game women instead may look toward strategy or skill.

Similar to building a brand, White argues that building women’s sport  is about creating a new distinct brand identity. She explains:  “Lean into distinctions like we would with brands. Embrace storytelling, characters, think about talent as brands and  inspire and engage with more stories. Even struggles and challenges. They can be distinctions, not negatives.”

Redefining experience

While comparison can drive a ‘compare and despair’ mindset,  looking at men’s sport and making changes for new audiences can allow women to carve out a new identity.

“We have the ability to see what 100 years of men's sport looks like and it largely hasn’t spoken to women. Many women don’t feel safe or accepted at men's games and don’t feel safe to take children,” says Aluko.

Rather than following the same path, she considers how experiences of women's sport can be crafted in new ways that feel inclusive and suited to new audiences. Giving the example of having a DJ before the match, creating a family-friendly atmosphere or even somewhere to take dates, the possibilities are endless.

When crafting the 100-ball cricket tournament, The Hundred, which positions men and women on an equal footing, Vile acknowledges that it took time and conscious effort to build a game inclusive of both genders. “I knew that culture had shifted to be unconscious when I had to pull my team up for creating a promo image that didn’t include any men, they had just selected the best images,” she explains. An insight which underlines the fact that while it takes effort to build a truly inclusive culture, in time it becomes second nature.

The unifying appeal of 100 is the spectacle and the intensity.

Jen Vile, Marketing Director, The Hundred at England & Wales Cricket Board

While in real life experiences are an important part of sport, it is equally important to remember the viewers watching at home and how the audience make up can differ. Rhodes explains: “The audience is different but it is also largely the same. People who like sports like sports. The TV audience is 61% men but they aren’t attending matches.”

Vile adds: “The unifying appeal of 100 is the spectacle and the intensity.” Creating an in-person experience for one audience and a broadcast experience one for another allows to keep a broad appeal.

Brands building brands

For all the opportunities within women's sports many brands are hesitant to invest looking for a quick ROI. Currently 70% of female football clubs are loss-making. The panel agreed that  in order to make money there is a need to invest and create new profitable and sustainable structures. The Women’s World Cup is a prime example of what can be achieved.

White considers how sport opens up new pathways and can make a brand more culturally relevant. She points to the example of Top Baller, a YouTube series now backed by Adidas. A content first approach that shows how tapping into partnerships can embed a brand within culture and in turn create new opportunities for grassroots talent.

Unlike with men's sports, women's sport is often held up to a higher standard with the athletes looked at as role models for the next generation. For this reason, women’s sport often has a greater responsibility to prioritize brand-safe partnerships. “When signing brand partners they have to reflect values which means we might have to avoid some categories and seek out others” says Vile.

We want pathways to be better for the next generation coming though – there’s a want, care and a shared responsibility, want to inspire.

Rachael Burford, Professional Rugby Player, Harlequins

Yet Rhodes stresses that the best brand partnerships are mutually beneficial, building value and brand for both parties. Investing in a ‘second mover advantage’ with women's sport, brands have a unique opportunity to shape a new experience while the sector has an opportunity to behave in a brand led way.

Progress over perfection

On an individual level, the athletes involved also carry both burden and responsibility. Burford says that the players meet this challenge with excitement. Yet expectations are  hard to manage as the sport grows. “Everyone has a responsibility. We want pathways to be better for the next generation coming though – there’s a want, care and a shared responsibility, want to inspire,” she adds.

To create compelling brand stories both White and Aluko champion talent as a way to inspire and engage. While salaries in women's sport mean that often athletes have a part-time job or side hustle, the personalities and individual journeys make compelling stories. “I was the footballer lawyer” says Aluko, explaining:  “Female athletes have unique experience and can speak to social issues such as women's health.”

While men's rugby is traditionally positioned as a humble game with ‘no superstars’, Burford shares that the women’s game doesn’t need to follow the same path. She explains:  “We get to celebrate individuals too and personality is welcomed. Consumers want real authenticity.” Sharing stories and celebrating talent will not only help to inspire the next generation but the unconventional and realistic challenges women face prove women have to forge their own pathways. For brands who seek to engage with authentic and compelling spokespeople, female athletes can truly inspire.

The negativity comes from a loud minority

Eniola Aluko MBE, Investor, Mercury/13

Similarly, broadcasters also have the ability to champion female talent to profile women's sport and be a part of driving success. “Often women pay the subscriptions, we need to speak to them too,” says Aluko. Within punditry, she commends broadcasters for increasingly including female talent. “The more exposure on shows, attitudes will slowly shift and it will become the norm. I’m excited about where it's going and actually, there is progress there. The negativity comes from a loud minority” she says.

Vile echoes the essential part that broadcasters have to play in the overall success of the category. “Broadcasters' partnerships are unquantifiably powerful. With Sky Sports and the BBC, we built The Hundred 100 together. We couldn’t have generated the interest without the continued and shared values.”

BBC commentator Alex Scott famously warned after the Lionesses' success at the Euros that those who had not already got involved had ‘missed the boat’. Yet as women's sport continues to accelerate at pace, brands have an opportunity to be a part of shaping a new era of excellence. Through collaboration, engagement, listening to audiences and continuing to challenge centuries-old bias, women's sport is about to get supercharged. A rising tide lifts all boats.


Related Tags

Sport Women Women's Sport

Agencies Featured