If the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup was a tipping point for the women's football, particularly in the UK, then this summer's tournament should confirm its arrival in the mainstream. While a record-breaking 750 million people watched the 2015 tournament in Canada, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has set a target of 1 billion for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, which kicks on June 7 in France.
This surging interest in women's football and, for that matter, the full spectrum of women's sport, has been a long time coming, and there is still a long way to go. While viewing figures and attitudes are heading in a positive direction, gender inequality, including an often eye-watering pay gap, remains a significant issue.
Which is why this summer's Women's World Cup presents an exciting opportunity to advertisers. It offers brands the chance to join in a vital and timely conversation, and to signal to consumers their support of gender equality and the women’s game.
Levelling the playing field
This is particularly true in the UK where the combination of Brexit and movements, such as MeToo, has created a highly politicised atmosphere. Interest in politics in the UK is currently at a 25-year high, according to the British Social Attitudes survey published in March 2018 by the National Centre for Social Research.
As people demand greater accountability from all institutions and organisations, they’ve become far more likely to call out inequality. Sport is no exception. In March 2019, the US women’s national soccer team filed a lawsuit in federal court against the US Soccer Federation, alleging gender discrimination, including unequal pay – a development that made the front page of The New York Times, and was heralded by fellow athletes such as Serena Williams.
Meanwhile other national football federations are moving on these issues. In 2017, the Norwegian Football Association announced equal pay for their male and female national teams, followed by the New Zealand Football Association in 2018.
It is not just about the money, however, but challenging stereotypes and outdated sporting ideals. Last year, Chelsea Ladies Football Club became Chelsea Football Club Women.
Meanwhile, the creative and advertising industries are picking up on the zeitgeist. BT Sport’s "Take Them All On" campaign, created ahead of the 2018 Premier League season, depicts a young female sports fanatic, Charlotte, using her skills to take on leading sports personalities such as Tottenham Hotspur's Dele Alli and former Welsh rugby international, Sam Warburton.
Marketing activation tip: Be conscious of changes to long-held sporting traditions, but also that there is still a lot more to be done to achieve equality. Manchester City's social media campaign #SameGoals, launched last year, is particularly noteworthy. Not only does it seek to inspire the next generation of female players by showcasing talent on Instagram, but it also holds special events to improve the prominence of the women's game more generally.
The Rise of Women's Sport, a Nielsen report published last October, lays bare its potential global audience. Of the global football fans surveyed, 43% are interested in women's football. That's a potential fan base of 105 million.
It is an interest that goes beyond football; however, as it also found that 84% of general sports fans are interested in women's sports, and 51% of those fans are male.
Such figures have caught the attention of the major sporting institutions too, and broadcast coverage of this year's Women's World Cup will be focused on the mainstream media. Social platforms, however, provide fans with opportunities to reach out to each other.
Freestyle footballer Lisa Zimouche and Alex Morgan, the US football star, boast a combined Instagram following of nearly 7 million, while @football4women, which has 54,000 followers, promotes user-generated content exclusively of amateur female footballers. Instagram is a vital tool for the community of women's football fans, allowing them to keep the conversation going outside of the match days.
Brands are following suit too with Nike, which has designed the kits for 14 and the 24 teams competing in France, launching podcast series The Fenom Effect last November. The series features stories from female athletes and footballers, as well as providing a platform for debate around equality, representation and leadership.
In the UK, national newspaper The Telegraph has launched a multi-platform channel, including @TelegraphWomensSport on Instagram, dedicated to women's sports coverage, and to raising the profile of women's sport and it's visibility in the media.
Marketing activation tip : Mainstream media will be the focal point for viewing the matches, but social platforms provide fans with the opportunity to connect and build a sense of belonging. These moments offer brands the opportunity to make a connection with fans outside of match day and provide a more authentic way of joining conversations on topics such as gender diversity.
Go beyond the expected
With a 37% rise in sponsorship deals for women's sport between 2013 and 2017, brands are waking up to the untapped potential, according to a Nielsen report. This year's Super Bowl saw two brands, car maker Toyota and dating and social app Bumble, launch campaigns with strong female empowerment narratives.
However, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Global sports fans understand a disruptive shift is occurring, with 32%of global sports fans citing women's sport as progressive, according to the Rise of Women's Sports report, compared to just 17% for male-dominated sports.
Fans also understand that the lack of sponsorship and investment support to date also means that motivation is different in women's sport. Only 7% of global sports fans think women's sport is money-driven compared to 39% for men's sport.
There is a hunger for authentic stories about female athletes and footballers, and for female empowerment narratives in sports. This year's Women's World Cup offers brands a chance to tap into this interest, but also to back up these stories with action.
Outdoor brand North Face launched its first global campaign that focused on women. The ‘Move Mountains’ campaign concentrate on the stories about sportswomen pushing the boundaries, including ultrarunner Fernanda Maciel and climber Ashima Shiraishi, but also included a collaboration with the Girl Scouts ofthe USA. North Face has also created a $250,00 grant programme to enable female exploration.
UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations– is already seeking to make football the number one sport for women across Europe through its Together #WePlayStrong campaigns. It has partnered with 55 member associations in a bid to make it the top sport by 2020.
The campaign, which stars over 750 teen footballers from across the continent, highlights the skills, confidence and friendship that playing football can build. It reached 29,380 people on Facebook and built up 28.3k followers on Instagram. Meanwhile, seeking to develop a broader debate, singer Rita Ora, a brand ambassador, launched a competition on Instagram inviting girls to answer what "strong" means to them.
Marketing activation tip: Brands seeking to get involved with the Women's World Cup will have to think beyond the standard sports sponsorship deal. Engagement must be authentic, and brands must be willing to be active participants and catalysts in supporting new, progressive initiatives and conversations.