There has been a seismic shift in attitudes towards women's football in recent years. And with the Women's World Cup in France about to kick off, major brands are out in force to support the squads. Here we look at some of the most significant sponsorship investments into the sport in recent years and the standout creative campaigns.
Women's football is growing both on the field and off it. European governing body Uefa recently launched the 'Time for Action' campaign, pledging to double women's representation in football in five years. It has also been running #WePlayStrong, a content series spanning exclusive interviews with players, celebrity cameos and tutorials to shine a spotlight on the sport. Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown and pop singer Rita Ora are among those to have leant their weight to the drive – a sign of how women's football is now breaking through to the mainstream.
The game's growing popularity has not gone unnoticed by marketers. In 2017, women’s cosmetics company Avon extended its sponsorship to Liverpool women’s football side, an early signal of the growing interest for women’s football across the industry. Even in the financial sector, a longstanding backer of the men's game, there has been considerable recent investment from brands such as Visa and Barclays. While Visa has offered its full sponsorship to the World Cup, Barclays has stepped in to sponsor the Women's Super League on a three-year contract, the first of the league's premier sponsorship deals.
But what is it that's leading this huge commercial interest in women's football? In a brand world increasingly fixated upon cause marketing, it is true that supporting women's sport gives brands a perfect platform to convey their progressive and inclusive credentials. But more than that, it just makes business sense.
As Nike's chief financial officer, Andrew Campion, explained on a recent earnings call: "The women's footwear and apparel market is 1.5 times the size of the men's footwear and apparel market globally." But, Campion went on, it accounts for "less than [a] quarter of our revenue". This is why the sportswear brand is "more aggressively shifting resources within Nike towards the women's opportunity," as he put it. To not do so would be commercially foolhardy.
Currently placing third in the world rankings for women’s football teams, the England side is going into the 2019 World Cup with a reasonable level of expectation. The Three Lionesses, as they have been dubbed, have enjoyed support from a diverse range of brands eager to back their bid.
One such sponsor is Lucozade Sport. In a move to drive awareness and raise the profile of women’s football in the run-up to the World Cup this summer, the drinks brand released 16m special edition bottles featuring members of the England squad. The artwork on the bottles features the team’s defender and captain, Steph Houghton,+ and forward Nikita Parris.
Lucozade is no stranger to championing athletes, but this is its first major foray into women's sport. Previously it has supported England football captains Steven Gerrard and Harry Kane, and it is also currently running a sponsorship campaign with British boxer Anthony Joshua.
After winning the broadcasting rights to every World Cup match, the BBC launched its 'Change the Game' campaign looking to drive interest around 2019's summer of women’s sport. The ad features prominent football players from a number of teams, but the spot is led chiefly by the stars of the England national team.
Featuring music from London rapper Ms. Banks, the spot is both creative and inspirational and made its television debut during an episode of Football Focus. However, not everything about the BBC's women's sports push has been well received. The corporation came under fire after it was accused of plagiarizing the work of authors Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené by using their slogan 'Slay in your Lane' in one of its executions.
Elsewhere, haircare brand Head & Shoulders has also come out in support of the Three Lionesses. In an ad featuring TV presenter Claudia Winkleman, the shampoo brand encourages England's fans to sport the patriotic hairstyle as modeled by top England footballers Beth Mead and Keira Walsh.
Additionally, the England side has received the sponsorship of American beer brand Budweiser. It will serve as the official beer of the England team.
And in the first-ever sponsorship deal of its kind, Boots UK has struck an unprecedented deal to sponsor all of the UK and Ireland's national women's teams.
The fervor around women's football has spread internationally. The German team, two-times champions of the women’s World Cup as well as eight-times European champions, are enjoying plenty of backing as they go into the tournament as firm favorites.
As sponsors of both the male and female national teams, German corporation Commerzbank takes great pride in its ties with the country’s national teams. In conjunction with the women’s team, Commerzbank released a creative spot which both highlights and tackles the persisting degrees of discrimination experienced by female football teams. Entitled ‘We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names’, the ad features national team players and discusses the varying levels of discrimination, lack of reward and recognition for their achievements.
The piece is defiant, inspirational and is a strong call to gender parity.
In the US, women’s football is far more popular than men's football. The US squad are the defending champions of the World Cup. They have now won the tournament three times and have taken four Olympic Gold medals, resulting in a huge national following. In spite of these successes, the US women's team was embroiled in a lawsuit against U.S Soccer for institutionalized misogyny, and earlier this year successfully sued the association.
The success of the women's US team has led to a number of high-profile sponsorship deals, with Fox coming out in support of the squad earlier this year. The broadcaster has run a series of ads featuring the women's team, including this 30-second spot named 'Goliath'. The creative was produced in collaboration with Wieden+Kennedy.
On the run-up to this summer's Women's World Cup, the squad teamed up with Nike to drive interest in women’s football in a spot named ‘Dream with us’. The creative, narrated by award-winning actress Viola Davis, aimed to mobilize young women and encourage them to take part in not just football, but sport in general.
Building on this, Nike has just released another creative spot encouraging aspiring female footballers to chase their dreams. Set to an exhilarating Joan Jett and The Blackhearts soundtrack, the spot follows 10-year old Makena Cook as she lives her dreams and plays alongside some of the tournament's biggest names, including Australia's Sam Kerr and the Netherlands' Lieke Martens. The ad debuted during the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham.
Despite Nike’s impressive track record and recent ventures into politicized marketing, it recently came under fire for its policy of freezing sponsorship payments to female athletes when they fall pregnant. Nike has now said it will change its policy, but the row serves as a reminder that it's not just what brands say about women's sport that matters, but what they do.