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Women's Football: rise like lionesses

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Cherry London on the potential advertising prowess of the women’s national team, England’s Lionesses.

England’s Lionesses kick off their Women’s World Cup campaign in France this summer and Ed Leech of Cherry London believes that women’s football represents a great opportunity for brands to reach new audiences.

The last summer’s World Cup was an unforgettable moment in the history of English football. A first semi-final in 28 years and, after so many years of hurt, a nation of fans believing once again that football is on its way home. Even manager Gareth Southgate’s taste in fashion accessories sent the country wild. Marks and Spencer attributed ‘The Southgate Effect’ to a 35% increase in waistcoat sales during the competition. It really was a summer of giddy highs. The next major tournament seems a lifetime away but in three months’ time another English team could be writing their names into the record books.

England’s Lionesses, the women’s national team, will be kicking off their own World Cup campaign in France and are tipped to progress into the latter stages. It’s estimated that one billion viewers will watch the 2019 Women’s World Cup, a substantial increase on the 750 million viewers that tuned into the previous edition in Canada – a record at the time.

These figures reflect the changing landscape of women’s sport, particularly in the UK. Since 2013, attendances for UK women’s sports have grown 38% on average, year-on-year. Last year’s FA Women's Cup Final, which saw Chelsea beat Arsenal, had a record attendance of 45,423 – 10 times higher than the final five years before. However rising participation and attendances only paint part of the picture as dramatic changes are happening across the entire industry.

Last year Manchester United, arguably the biggest brand in world football, announced the formation of their own women’s side and in doing so ended years of resistance by the club after they had disbanded the team in 2005 to focus on youth. Elsewhere the Daily Telegraph became the first UK newspaper to appoint a full-time women’s football reporter and at the BBC Sports’ Personality of the Year awards in December, England’s netball team were the undoubted stars of the night picking up Team of Year and Greatest Sporting Moment gongs. Women’s sport is undoubtedly gathering momentum but it’s only scratched the surface.

In a world where Paul Pogba’s latest trim is back page news, there is still the feeling that the stars of the women’s game are relative unknowns and the public know very little about them as personalities and the journeys that they’ve been on to make it to the top.

Dugout banter

One brand that is trying to address this imbalance is Cherry London’s client Dugout, a digital football destination created by clubs and players and owned by 10 of the world’s biggest football clubs, including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City. Not only do Dugout have access to some of the football’s biggest names in the men’s game, but content from the corresponding women’s teams, 58 in total, are regularly featured.

Dugout president Matthew Baxter considers women’s football front and centre of the brand’s plans, explaining: “Football is everything from grassroots, 5-a-side to the lifestyles of the world’s most expensive players. Women’s football is a core component and all these different aspects are part of football’s DNA – we don’t differentiate”.

Dugout’s business model is based around satisfying the constant hunger of digital-first, millennial football fans for exclusive content and taking them on a journey deep inside the world of the modern footballer. Sport consumption has evolved and brands can no longer rely on traditional sponsorship packages and TV audiences that are falling year-on-year, despite the positive predictions for this year’s Women’s World Cup.

Fans are demanding entertainment and sponsorships now represent an opportunity for storytelling and engaging an increasingly complex and selective audience. You only have to look at the success of The Players’ Tribune where stars such as Raheem Sterling and Romelu Lukaku have tackled controversies head-on and given raw, honest accounts of their journeys from childhood to household name.

Meanwhile Netflix’s behind-the-scenes series Sunderland ‘Til I Die has set the bar and brought new meaning to the phrase ‘behind the scenes’. Baxter adds, “Good content is good content but storytelling and relevancy are most important if you want to drive genuine engagement. These are the true ingredients we base all our content on at Dugout and are integral in any brand activation or partnership we execute. Our approach won’t change in what is an exciting year ahead for women’s football.”

Brands with balls?

Women’s football is primed to embrace these trends. Which is why now is perfect timing for a brand to make the jump and put the spotlight firmly on the Women’s World Cup and women’s football in general. Visa made the first move in December when it announced a seven-year deal as the first sponsor of Uefa women’s football but how this will be activated remains to be seen.

Women’s football is crying out for their equivalent of what Channel 4’s award-winning Superhumans ad campaign did for the Paralympic Games and the athletes themselves, bringing them front and centre and creating a public atmosphere of expectation and excitement.

Cherry London Founder and CEO Tamara Gillan believes the time is now, adding, “We are seeing a rise of equality across the board. This year’s International Women’s Day calls for better balance. Sport should be no different. The first brand to get it right will reap the benefits, even more so if the Lionesses go one game further this summer.”

Ed Leech is a senior account director at Cherry London

This article originally appeared in The Drum Network's latest Entertainment special publication. To find out more about how The Drum Network can support your agency, click here.