Brands in women’s football: 'Those who genuinely care about the agenda will be rewarded'

Avon's pioneering Liverpool sponsorship from 2017

Women’s football is currently one of the fastest growing female sports today in terms of coverage and interest, with all eyes looking ahead to the 2019 World Cup in France.

The recent news of Barclay’s multi-million pound three-year deal of the Women’s Super League and Boots’ UK partnership with the women’s national football teams of every federation in the UK and Ireland are certainly watershed moments for the sport from a commercial and marketing perspective.

These sponsorships dispel the misguided notion that sponsoring women’s football – or women’s sport in general – is the cheap option that makes your brand look good. We have arrived at a crossroads where women’s sport should and is starting to be talked about in the same breath as men’s on and off the field of play. The opportunities are equally, if not more compelling for brands, and as a sponsorship industry we have a duty to continue to educate brands about the benefits and value, which we are already starting to see from companies such as Visa, who has committed to equal spend to support activation of their respective partnerships within the game.

Women’s football offers a refreshing and significantly exciting opportunity for brands in a traditionally cluttered environment as it offers scale, greater value, is more accessible and is hugely untapped when compared to its male counterparts. The opportunity is there and there is an open goal as well as a hungry media to leverage the value women’s football can offer as a platform for success from a marketing and cultural perspective. Active sponsors, rights holders, media owners and talent need to continue to work together to demonstrate the opportunity women’s football can deliver to engage with audiences and shift key needles in perceptions and marketing/business objectives.

The growth

In 2015, the world was captivated by the Fifa Women’s World Cup in Canada with its thrilling matches, a total stadium attendance of more than 1.35 million spectators, and TV coverage in 188 territories with record figures topping 750 million viewers globally (dwarfing the viewing figures of the rugby men’s world cup in 2015). The final between Japan and the USA was the most watched football game ever in the United States.

In 2017, the UEFA Women’s Euro was the most watched tournament in its history, surpassing the 2013 audience by more than 50 million viewers. It reported more than 550,000 interactions on official tournament social media platforms, while there were 4.4 million video views on the #WEURO2017 Facebook and Instagram accounts. Stadium attendance also surpassed previous hosts with the Netherlands becoming the first to sell out all their matches. This year’s World Cup is set to be even bigger.

Domestic landscape

On a domestic level, we are also seeing an increase in coverage across TV and media. The success of the English Women’s National Team in Canada 2015 with a combined UK TV audience of 11.9 million people following its journey made the FA and clubs realise the opportunity and build their strategy. Broadcasters such as the BBC seized the opportunity and increased their coverage of women’s football and the new long-term sponsorship deals of Barclays and Boots that will boost the development of the sport nationally. The next key opportunity is to develop a domestic broadcasting platform for the FA’s Women’s Super League, which will put the game in a position where it has got regularity, a slot, and the best exposure across the season to deliver regular opportunities to watch and engage.

Despite its steadily growing success, women’s football is only starting to find widespread support from global and local sponsors. However many are still skeptical and believe women’s football is not commercially viable - ludicrous thinking. The landscape is continuing to change and improve, not just in women’s football but across all sports and the good of sport in general. Focusing on women’s football specifically, there are three areas which will continue to help the progress and development. Firstly, global football’s governing bodies need to leverage the success of their women’s competitions and further explore their commercial opportunities separately from the men’s game. They need to break away from just including them in sponsorship packages as an add on. Secondly, brands need to continue to be more exposed to the women’s game and acknowledge the economic value women represent today and take inspiration and learnings from brands such Visa, Barclays and Boots. Thirdly, the quality on the pitch needs to continue to improve with consistent support nationally, regionally and globally.

The power of the female athlete

Promoting gender parity is one of the strongest movements of our time. Brands that align with and genuinely care about this agenda will be rewarded by one of the most economically powerful segments of society: women. There is a very strong case for brands to sponsor women’s football, especially as one in five women is the main breadwinner in the family. This fast-growing female economy means that women have increased financial stability and huge buying power. And, they’re pretty bloody good at football too.

Many successful brands have realised the value of promoting female role-models. Early adopters who tapped into this potential include sporting giants such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. Nike took the lead on this in 1992 by supporting the USA women’s football national team and endorsing iconic players such as Brandi Chastain. They also supported a bold move by the Dutch women’s team in the women’s Euro league, introducing a uniform that portrays the crest of a lioness designed to encourage more women to take up football. In the United States, the brand started selling the US women’s team shirts in men’s sizes. This was followed by EA Sports who introduced female footballers into its Fifa video game series after getting pressure from female gamers.

The future

By 2026, Fifa is aiming to increase global participation of girls and women by 60 million and other football organisations have pledged their support with the European football governing body, Uefa recently launching its “Together we play strong” campaign. Investing in player development is directly related to success on the pitch, and at the same time translates into potential business opportunities and more funding to invest in the future of the game.

More brands need to wake up to the opportunity that women’s sport can offer. In turn women’s football needs to seek brands that have innovation and creativity at their forefront and commit to creating a dedicated team focused on exploring commercial potential and take advantage of global campaigning. Being able to not only raise the profile of the sport but also the women that play the game and showcasing their personalities on and off the pitch will deliver a win-win for all stakeholders. This is just the beginning of an exciting future for women’s football, sponsors and the stars which represent it, and will continue drive a cultural change in the modern world and bring communities closer together for the overall growth of the game and the marketing opportunity for sponsors.

James Anderson is business director at Publicis Sport and Entertainment.

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