Ex-England footballer Eniola Aluko on how brands can help drive women’s sport forward

Brands need to speak to women at the places that they exercise every day in order to drive participation and boost the growth of women’s sport, according to former England footballer and Aston Villa Woman’s sporting director Eniola Aluko.

In partnership with Iris, Aluko was speaking on a panel as part of The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival, looking at how brands can reimagine women’s sport. One of only 11 female footballers have played more than 100 times for England, Aluko contested that too much of the activation around women’s football is rooted in glitz and glamour, and just isn’t relatable.

Watch the full session here.

The narrative of empowerment

“I recently did this amazing campaign with Adidas called Rent a Player, where an everyday women’s five-a-side football team in East London can bring in a professional like me to help out in a match,” she said. “It was wonderful being part of a campaign built around normalising five-a-side football for women and making it a part of their daily life.

“It is good for brands to show how exercise and sport is an everyday activity for women, rather than creating those moments artificially. Brands need to work hard to find a way to show women playing sports in a more natural way rather than promoting campaigns that are purely cinematic.”

Iris’ creative director Gabi Mostert agreed with Aluko’s assessment. She said brands need to look beyond the empowerment narrative and think what lies beyond to drive participation. “If you look at the sports campaigns aimed at women right now, they are either super competitive and aggressively empowering, or at the other end of the scale, they are so gentle and passive they verge on being patronising,” she explained.

“There’s nothing that sits in the middle. Where is the joy and the fun in these adverts? Surely, that’s what’s needed to drive participation? Brands also need to look beyond creating content and really start reaching out to communities. That what’s really going to resonate with people in this uncertain social landscape.”

How do you make women’s sports more accessible for brands?

Also speaking on the panel was Tom Corbett, Barclays’ Group Head of Sponsorships and Media. He spoke about how the banking brand is trying to change the way football fans define their support for clubs and how to improve the viewing experience at women’s league matches to avoid people only tuning in every four years for major events like a World Cup.

“We’ve recently started to sponsor the Women’s Super League, but we know one of the best things we can do is try to drive participation and really invest, so there’s more accessibility and support for women in communities across the country,” he said.

“There is an opportunity to work more with the FA, too. The reality is that women’s football stadium facilities are really poor compared to men’s, so how can we as a sponsor fix that? This could be one of the reasons why these games aren’t well attended and people only tend to care about the big events. We also want to drive the idea of football fans supporting their whole club, and help spread the message that you’re only a true fan of a team if you support both its male and female players.”

Aluko says marketing around women’s sport is making progress and said it was good to see a more diverse number of female footballers taking part in campaigns.

“In the past, you only saw really good-looking players and it felt very one note,” she admitted. Ultimately, she expects to see more brands wake up to the potential of sponsoring female athletes and teams over the coming years.

She concluded: “I think brands are realising that supporting a women’s team can have really positive brand connotations.

“The men’s game is synonymous with greed and capitalism, but women’s sport doesn’t suffer with that negative perception; it’s more related with helping to boost confidence, self-esteem and families. Companies want to advance their agendas in those areas so becoming involved with women’s sports can benefit the entire culture of their company. The sooner more brands realise this, the better.”

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