England and Chelsea footballer Eniola Aluko says most brands don’t feel responsible for growing women's sport but that by challenging these issues "they will help themselves, as well as the sport”. The Drum caught up with the footballer to discuss why this could be a golden time for the sponsorship model to change.
Female athletes, whether individual or team-based, are growing in influence amid unprecedented successes across a myriad of sports, but England and Chelsea footballer Eniola Aluko is yet to see that turning point translate into commercial opportunities.
This past weekend, more than 30,000 people filled Wembley to see the women’s FA Cup final in what was a record attendance for the tournament and illustrated the progress which women’s sport has begun to make.
Aluko has witnessed firsthand this growth in popularity in a relatively short space of time.
“I think the Olympics in London was a real game changer for women’s football,” she explained. “When we beat Brazil at Wembley in front of 75,000 people it was amazing and I think a lot of the negative perceptions around women’s sport dropped.”
However, she added that disappointingly "most brands don’t see it as their responsibility to grow women’s sport."
The FA Cup Final was unquestionably a turning point for the sport and MediaCom’s head of sport, Misha Sher, believes that women's similar successes across other sports like cricket and rugby are beginning to make heads turn. He believes that “brands are beginning to look at it as a genuine opportunity to tell a new story”.
SSE is one such brand that has embraced the opportunies on offer after becoming the title sponsors for the tournament after seeing the surge in popularity of women's football.
Colin Banks, head of sponsorship at SSE, said the company recognised that women's sports was "a largely untapped market" and wanted to take the opportunity to apply the diversity and equality drive which it was focusing on within the business to its sponsorship portfolio.
As well as allowing kids under the age of 16 to attend the final for free, SSE put on meet and greet opportunities after the match and gave 500 of its customers tickets for the game. On top of this, the company is using its sponsorship to fund grassroots programmes for girls football in an effort to drive uptake of the sport.
While Aluko agrees that brands are beginning to see the value in sponsoring women's football, she maintains that most are still missing out on how best to capitalise on the sport’s increasing popularity with women.
Despite its rising stock, marketers are yet to fully grasp how to empower women to exercise without feeling bad about their bodies. Its why Sport England launched its ‘This Girl Can campaign’. Spurred by its sassiness and refusal to patronise women, the campaign is now revered as a clear example of how to scrap long ingrained gender stereotypes in society.
Aluko was quick to praise the campaign which she said “spoke to the insecurities that women face in society and went straight to the heart and told them that it doesn’t matter”.
And yet she believes the success of Sport England’s efforts have been largely passed over by other brands that, rather than been inspired by ‘This Girl Can,' have toed the line with beauty and glamour fronting their advertising.
From her experience in the game, the 29 year-old believes that “a lot of brands could follow that example but they’re not doing it because they don’t seem to see it as they’re responsibility”.
She maintains that “most of them don’t feel responsible for growing the sport. They need to understand that by challenging these issues they will help themselves as well as the sport”.
One of the central issues with attracting sponsors is audience size. Sponsors ultimately will want to see a return on their investment, and if the majority of games are not televised, then a brand’s capacity to increase awareness is severely dampened.
“I think brands have to see value in their investments and the value comes from the amount of people a sponsorship is exposed to and the broadcasters aren’t putting the game in the light," she said.
“BT Sports viewing figures aren’t as high as when a game’s on the BBC or ITV and if you’re trying to attract brands you need to increase the number of people watching it and that’s not going to happen when it’s not as widely available. “
Beating the Brazil at Wembley in the Olympics and a third place finish at the World Cup last year far outstrips the achievements their male counterparts have achieved. England's women are currently amongst the best in the world, so brands and broadcasters should be positioning themselves firmly within that space.
In football terms, women have done more to drive the sport forward with their performances and success than brands have through their sponsorships, but the glory can only quell the stereotypes so far.
Brands have a great opportunity to engage with audiences and stimulate meaningful conversations with sponsorships in women's sports, but if the 'This Girl can' campaign has shown us anything, its that applying the same template used in marketing to male sports is a missed opportunity.