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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

July 8, 2024 | 8 min read

Almost a decade ago, Sport England launched a groundbreaking campaign that encouraged women to participate in sports without fear of judgment. As we mark this milestone, we reflect on the progress made and the trends shaping women’s sports today.

The genesis of a movement

Few campaigns can claim to have sparked a movement as important as ‘This Girl Can.’ But that’s exactly what happened nearly 10 years ago. Delivered by agency FCB Inferno, it all began with a specific, data-driven goal: to address the disparity where 2 million fewer British women participated in sports compared with men, despite three-quarters of women aged 14 to 40 expressing a desire to exercise more.

Funded by the National Lottery, the campaign aimed to bridge this gap by sharing real stories of women who get active or play sports in ways that work for them. The first film featured images that honestly depicted physical activity in all its sweaty, jiggly glory. For the first time in a long time, women around the world felt seen.

“It’s a fear of judgment,” recalls Sport England’s director of marketing, Kate Dale, who has been with the organization for 20 years. “And that was judgment about the way we see ourselves represented in sport.”

Dale is alluding to the myriad campaigns that had traditionally depicted women in peak physical condition, absolutely smashing various activities. But that’s just not the reality for most people and can cause women to lack confidence in their own abilities.

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A decade of progress

Some critics argued that the ad merely dressed up traditional female objectification in the guise of empowerment. However, the overall response was overwhelmingly positive. Within a few months, an independent study revealed that the campaign had inspired 2.8 million women to adopt a more active lifestyle, with 1.6 million of them reporting that they had started exercising for 30 minutes or more after seeing the ad. For its creative boldness and social impact, The Drum named This Girl Can the 31st best ad of all time in 2022.

In the past decade, women’s sports have made remarkable strides, though there is still a long way to go. The fear of judgment, once a significant barrier, has been significantly reduced as more women see diverse representations of themselves in sports media.

“Someone asked me what moment I realized things had changed, and it was actually at a US baseball game in London,” recalls Dale. “Two men behind me were talking about the match tonight, and it was the women’s England team; that must have been four years ago.”

She adds that over the last decade, they’ve realized this change is not something that can be accomplished by solely women or solely the Sport England team. Allies are needed. Brands and sponsors need to continue to do more in this space to provide affordable and inclusive activewear for all. “They need to invest,” says Dale. “And at grassroots level as well.”

Sharon Jiggins, managing partner at 23Red and former chief marketing officer at FCB Inferno, recalls that years ago, sponsorship of the women’s team wasn’t even back financially, but now brands are waking up to the change in attitudes. “It’s good for business as you’re expanding your audience,” she adds. “We’ve opened it up now.”

Ten years on, the campaign is still trying to find ways to help women feel like, emotionally, they can get involved in sports.

“There are mental benefits of exercise as well as the physical,” Jiggins continues. “And [women] have to deal with so many health inequalities as it is that actually, we have to do it ourselves because the system conspires against us.”

Modern trends in women’s sports

The spectrum of activities promoted by This Girl Can has also broadened. Initially, the focus was on structured team sports, but it has since expanded to include a variety of physical activities. This shift recognizes that fitness isn’t one-size-fits-all and encourages women to find what works best for them.

Now, the priority is addressing intersectional barriers. This includes focusing on lower-income groups, older women, and those with disabilities or cultural barriers to participation.

Efforts are being made to create more inclusive sports environments that cater to women of all backgrounds and abilities. Initiatives like community-based sports programs and affordable access to facilities are helping to break down these barriers.

The role of major events

Major sporting events have played a crucial role in shifting perceptions. The success of the Lionesses and other high-profile women’s sports teams has inspired a new generation of women to participate in sports. However, as Dale notes, these events must be complemented by grassroots efforts to ensure lasting change: “Just because you’ve got a major event with incredible women, that’s not going to speak to everyone.”

High-profile events, such as the Fifa Women’s World Cup and the Olympics, have increased visibility for women’s sports and provided platforms for female athletes to showcase their talents. These events have also highlighted the need for continued investment in women's sports at all levels.

The next decade

The future of women’s sports continues to look promising, with a focus on inclusivity, diverse activities, and broadening involvement. The journey from fear of judgment to widespread acceptance and participation marks a significant achievement, setting the foundation for the next decade.

However, ongoing investment from brands, sponsors, and government bodies is crucial. Grassroots initiatives will continue to play a vital role in promoting women’s sports, agree both Dale and Jiggins.

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These programs provide opportunities for women and girls to get involved in sports at a young age, fostering a lifelong love of physical activity. Community-based efforts can also address specific needs and challenges faced by different groups, ensuring that everyone has the chance to participate.

The past decade has shown that when women are given the support to participate in sports, the benefits extend far beyond physical health. This Girl Can has laid the groundwork for a more inclusive and active future.

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