Can women’s sport prove the best buy for sponsors?

The women’s FA Cup final today (14 May) is set to be attended by more than 30,000, a record that signals the nation’s growing infatuation with women’s sports that in turn is turning it into the next potent sponsorship opportunity for brands, writes Tony Connelly and Seb Joseph.

Rewind back to London 2012 and most advertisers were looking to sponsor individuals like Jessica Ennis over teams in an attempt to capitalise on the halo-effect of the games. While there’s still a way to go, change is afoot as marketers from brands such as SSE and Kia look to mine the passions of a sports-loving populous, inspired by the efforts of professional female football and rugby teams currently putting their male counterparts to shame.

The national women’s football team held off some tough competition to win a bronze (see below) at last year’s World Cup when the year before their male counterparts didn’t even make it out of their group. On the rugby pitch it’s even better as the national women’s team rugby union team won it in 2014, a stark contrast to last year’s embarrassing performance from the men’s team. Despite these successes, women’s sport is still a relatively barren ground for sponsors. Compared to men, women’s sport made up less than half a per cent of the total sponsorship spend in the UK in 2013, according to charity Women in Sport.

That lack of investment means there are lot of opportunities up for grabs as seen by how governing bodies are starting to unbundle rights to women’s sports from the men. It’s how SSE was able to sponsor the women’s FA Cup, eschewing the buy-one-get-one-free mechanic still used by many including UEFA, the RBS 6 Nations and the ICC Cricket World Cup to chuck the men and women’s propositions together.

“Ultimately we want to encourage more sponsors to come on board and with the experience and size of our company hopefully we can achieve that,” said Colin Banks, head of sponsorship and reward at SSE. “Women’s sport is on the up and while there’s still more to be done it feels like everyone is working towards the same goal. This feels like we could all work together.”

Better collaboration between rights holders, the media and advertisers is what will convince more marketers that women’s sport can be a business driver instead of just a CSR stunt, according to experts from SSE, Sport England and Women In Sport at panel discussion hosted by Synergy Sponsorship. Previously, governing bodies pleaded with the media to cover its stars more and on the flipside sponsors insisted on better performances, while the media in the middle demanded better stories. The reality is that all three need to come together, something that is starting to happen more often.

And when that union works, the results are indisputable. A year into its sponsorship of the Women’s FA CUP, SSE is in doubt it made the right call, with Banks’ claim that it has “smashed our objectives” testament to how its working as a commercial driver. Interestingly, he said the key to managing the sponsorship to date has been to think “sport first” and not “compare it to the men’s game”. “We’re involved in something people genuinely feel passionate about, which can be a powerful vehicle when you’re a company that’s not the most exciting in the world,” he continued.

Beyond the FA Cup final, SSE will invest in a grassroots football programme called Girls United that will see it work with the FA to help encourage girls to get into football. Fostering a meaningful relationship with fans is top of mind for many sponsors now but there is a dearth of examples on the right way to do this with women. It’s why Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ (see below) caused such a stir when it launched in 2015, garnering plaudits for its sassiness and refusal to patronise women. Many praised the campaign for its use of all women of all shapes and sizes, a choice the organisation made on an insight that many women felt they were not fit enough to play sport. The next phase launches in September and in the first 11 months it inspired 2.8 million women to get active.

“it’s been a good return on investment,” said Tanya Joseph, director of business partnerships Sport England, one of the key figures behind the campaign. “It shows that you don’t need to use airbrushed models and you don’t need superstars. You can use everyday women to reflect your audience and that’s what will have an impact.”

Women want to see themselves in marketing, claimed Ruth Holdaway, chief executive of Women In Sport. And consequently they want to see themselves in those athletes they admire. Its why social media has been so pivotal for players like Carly Teford, goalkeeper for the England national team as well as Notts County, who believes young fans find it easier to connect with her and her peers than they do with global stars of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While its understandable given the media spotlight the men’s game is under, it’s another unique selling point of the women’s game for potential sponsors.

“Due to how popular the men’s sport has become you don’t get that engagement anymore because they’re shut off from the media whether that’s due to what’s happening in their personal lives so they choose not to show their true face,” said Teford. “I think that with us [female professional athletes] we’re very accessible for consumers and young children. It’s so much easier to see and hear the real stories and when you can do that it makes it so much easier for consumers to invest in the sport.”

With sponsorship models becoming more sophisticated and women’s team-based sports becoming more popular, the signs are promising for those sponsors looking for a platform they can shape and own over time. Much is said about the millennial audience but women have more financial power than ever have; by 2018, the global incomes of women will top a staggering $18tn and drive 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer purchasing, according to professional services firm EY.

“There’s no one size fits all approach [to sponsorship] anymore and you can create what you want and get great value,” said Lisa Parfitt, managing director at Synergy. “[Women’s sports] can be a rea brand differentiator but most importantly there’s a very important demographic opportunity.”

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