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The Women's Sport Trust: we're keeping athletes from the sidelines, and brands can too

Emily Defroand, hockey player for Team England and Team GB says the support of WST has been 'life-changing'

Amid the sport shutdown, the Women’s Sport Trust found a space to tell the unique stories of athletes from a wide range of backgrounds and use community to drive change. Post-lockdown, it hopes a so-called ‘invisible summer’ for women’s tournaments won’t hinder the progress already made in unlocking the value of women’s games for fans and sponsors.

In January, the Women’s Sport Trust (WST) launched ‘Unlocked’ – a campaign designed to amplify the achievements of women’s sport in the UK.

The five-month-long initiative from the charity paired 40 elite athletes from 24 sports with leading figures from the world of business, sport and the media. Marketers from Disney, Sainsbury’s and Facebook signed up to be matched with sportswomen including Rio Olympic hockey gold medallist Maddie Hinch; England and Manchester City goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and Emily Defroand, hockey player for Team England and Team GB.

The initiative was planned as a means to drive an “unprecedented critical mass of noise and energy” that would propel women’s sport to the next level in 2020. The athletes and activators were to support each other to unlock media platforms, pitch to investors, speak out on live issues and tell new stories, getting into boardrooms and breaking down assumptions about women’s sport.

But just as things were getting started, lockdown put a pin into WST’s best-laid plans.

Like their men’s counterparts, women’s games were halted, postponed or called off entirely. Vitality Netball superleague, cancelled. Women's Super League and Championship, cancelled. Women's Champions League and the FA Cup, still to be concluded. Women’s Six Nations, paused. And, of course, Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, delayed.

Unlike their male equivalents, though, women’s teams appear at first to have been sidelined by governing bodies. Premier League football has already made its return and women’s football in England is still stalled; and the Rugby Football Union has, as of yet, made no arrangements to restart the Premier 15s.

After enjoying a bumper summer in 2019 thanks to a Netball World Cup, the women’s Ashes and the Lionesses’ success at the Women’s World Cup, campaigners have cautioned that cancelling women's competitions will lead to even greater inactivity among girls and that a decade of progress will be lost thanks to an “invisible summer”.

But, if the WST and the athletes they work with have anything to do with it, that will be the absolute last thing that happens.

Using community to drive change

“At the start of lockdown there was this negative media narrative that women’s sports were going to go back to square one,” Laura Weston, head of PR & trustee at WST tells The Drum.

“It was quite frustrating. All sport had finished, we were on an equal playing field with everyone.”

Amid this, Weston spotted an empty space among the noise to start telling more diverse sporting stories, pitching out women athletes to national newspapers and educating sports fans.

‘Unlocked’ too has pivoted from its original form, with the programme's athletes now joining weekly Zoom meetings where they introduce themselves and support each other in boosting women's sport.

“Every Thursday morning for the last 12 weeks we’ve gathered together and heard the athlete’s stories,” says Weston, adding that guest speakers from the likes of Twitter and Sport England have joined to help women understand their role within the wider industry.

For Emily Defroand, hockey player for Team England and Team GB, Tokyo 2020 was to be her first Olympic cycle. In lieu of taking to the pitch in Japan she says the ‘Unlocked’ experience has been “life-changing”.

“I’ve seen it give athletes the chance to use their voice. It’s given me confidence to use my own in a meaningful way.”

Zarah Al-Kudcy is head of commercial partnerships at Formula 1, as well as being a trustee at WST. Also a former marketer for the ICC Women’s World Cup and England Rugby, she argues that the charity-founded community will equip the athletes involved with the skills they need to work with brands and boost their profile.

“In the various sports I’ve worked in, there are assumptions athletes know what to do with social media and how to work with brands. Sometimes they don’t want to ask, so this scheme has broken down some of those barriers.”

The sponsorship question

The trio are in agreement that brand investment is, of course, key if women’s sport is to continue to thrive in post-pandemic.

With ad spend in decline, some sponsors have failed to reinstate long-standing contracts. Defroand points out how in May, long-time partner Investec, the international bank, declined to renew its title deal with England and Great Britain Hockey.

“The brand’s involvement and investment has been game-changing in terms of raising our visibility,” she says. “But now the question for us as a women’s team is how we can attract big companies that want to get involved and have influence in our sport. We need to show as a squad that we’re passionate about seeking sponsors that share the values and visions of our team.”

Al-Kudcy highlights that the sponsorship market will be a tough challenge across almost all sports in the next year.

“The teams and athletes that have the better storytelling abilities will be the ones who emerge stronger,” she continues. “There’s actually going to be a huge opportunity now for athletes themselves.

“Emily, for instance, creates content on Instagram that would be amazing to get behind. In these instances, brands don’t have to start from scratch, but they’ve not quite cracked that yet.”

Defroand, Al-Kudcy and Weston spoke with The Drum's trends editor Rebecca Stewart as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good.

You can watch the interview in full below.

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