Barclays recently announced a £10m three-year sponsorship of the Women's Super League triggering a mass of comment and speculation about the significance of their investment and the prognosis for women’s football that such investments portend.
We have (sports marketing agency Octagon) consistently taken up positions within women’s football because its trajectory has been for some time in an unstoppable upward vector - and is very much on the side of history. The reasons for this situation are complex and varied but worth assessing since they offer further insight into where the women’s game may be going.
Women’s football has suffered chronic underinvestment with core issues around a lack of professionalism, low levels of participation and disinterest from fans fixated on the men’s game. Active measures by the FA in the late 90s went some way to addressing participation, it has provided full support to partner Mars who commissioned a statue of the 'first' Lionness Lily Parr (pictured) to show the sport has existed for more than 100 years. However, it was in the USA that the issue of investment was confronted head-on with the creation of the first professional League on the back of the wildly successful USA women’ World Cup of 1999. Despite the ultimate failure of this endeavour, the US college system has supported a degree of professionalism and offered excellent levels of coaching. It is no surprise therefore that the USA has won three World Cups and remain the team to beat at the international level.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the women’s game relied on a handful of visionaries to invest ahead of any immediate material benefit and simply because it was the right thing to do. First David Dein at Arsenal created a powerhouse built on professional lines and with a line of funding that wasn’t reliant on profit but on an understanding that the team contributed hugely to the Arsenal brand and its values. It has taken the rest of the leading clubs 20 years to catch up but the Arsenal model has now been imitated by all the major sides (with Manchester United joining the party only this year). The next phase will be to commercialize these teams and begin the generation of media and sponsorship models which mirror those successfully developed on the men’s side. There is strong evidence that from a sponsorship perspective deals are being done and dedicated resources are being given to the women’s teams to evolve these opportunities. The FA should also be commended for driving the WSL and creating the grassroots pathways for talent to emerge and be fed into the clubs.
The other visionary was Jean- Michel Aulas whose 20-year investment in Olympic Lyon feminine has built the World finest and most consistently successful women’s club team. Across the last seven women’s Champion League finals each one has featured Lyon. They have won five. Their squad is comprised of the best talent from a Global pool including five national team captains and the first women’s Ballon D’Or (Ada Hegerberg). Aulas is to be lauded for having the vision to appreciate the potential of women’s football and for creating the conditions for the world’s best talent to hone and develop their skills.
The axiom in sport is that talent follows money, eyeballs follow talent and money follows eyeballs. Dein and Aulas understood that to kick start that cycle there had to be investment in capturing and developing the talent in the first place. The key to improving standards in any sport is to give the talent both the time, the opportunity and the guidance to be the best they can. As standards improve the audience and interest grows. This then creates the conditions for media interest and where media audiences grow sponsorship blooms soon after. There is every reason to believe that women’s football is close to this tipping point, but there is another factor at work and this is the arc of history and the modern societal narrative of diversity and inclusion.
Women’s football offers a superb metaphor for the issues of diversity and inclusion. Women’s football has faced a historic struggle with prejudice and provides a ready shorthand for the growing belief in the empowerment of women and their right to participate in those areas of society thought of as male preserves. It would be a struggle to think of a modern and progressive organisation which does not have these concerns at the forefront of its corporate mission and values. Consumers want their brands to stand for something and equality, diversity and inclusion would rank highly in any list of causes. In light of this, it is easy to see that women’s football can add a highly emotive cause-related string to its bow, offering advantages over its male counterpart. If the pure metrics of audience are still playing catch up, a values-based proposition can more than compensate.
Many recent investments may be better understood in light of the above. It is also interesting to consider the sectors from which the larger Sponsorships have derived with financial services leading the charge. Visa has taken a big position with Uefa to add to its Women’s World Cup and the Barclays investment was referenced at the outset. The momentum for these investments is almost wholly driven by a values-based initiative where women’s football will be used to validate a narrative around equality and opportunity. This is almost the first example of a sport generating this type of investment ahead of a fully evolved quantitative and audience based proposition.
So what of the immediate future? There is no doubt that the club level of the women’s game is still playing catch up with variations in standard affecting credibility, but this is changing.
The area where the recipe is almost complete is international football, where standards are high, competition intense and the commercial proposition is already in place backed by money and impeccable broadcast platforms. There is also an unrivalled event horizon to really accelerate the women’s game.
Over the next three summers, fans can enjoy a World Cup in France, an Olympic tournament in Japan (women’s Olympic tournaments are full squad affairs) and finally the women’s Euro hosted in England. All of these events will have terrestrial broadcast platforms, moreover, England are among the favourites. So reasons to invest and leverage those existing assets?
Phil Carling is head of global football at Octagon