How brands are helping the rise of female sports stars

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Zazzle Media on the evolution of women’s sport and why it's now a prime space for marketers to invest in.

We’re moving into a new era for female sport and it’s palpable. It’s something that no-one in marketing can ignore. The trends in women’s sport tell us a lot about the current marketing landscape and the opportunity for future campaigns. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.

Female sports stars are not just performing in their respective sports anymore. Their athleticism and their strength is being appreciated, their victories (and their losses) are being spoken about, they’re receiving airtime, they’re being recognised at awards ceremonies… and their marketability is noticeably increasing.

While there will always be naysayers and some that sniff at women’s sport, times are definitely changing. Numerous brand campaigns have been released this year with female stars at the forefront or joining their male counterparts for the first time.

With a sizzling summer calendar of both women’s and men’s sport ahead of us, it’s the perfect time for brands to be aligning with the stars on show. The momentum has been building into this year and that’s being represented in many campaigns.

The 2019 FIFA Women’s Football World Cup starts on June 7 in France and the Netball World Cup is just around the corner, starting on July 12, while Wimbledon takes to centre court on July 1. These three tournaments are just the tip of the iceberg - the summer months are packed with women’s sport.

There’s much to be discussed, whether it’s Serena Williams’ influence on the global stage (her narration of the ‘Dream Crazier’ Nike campaign has been a huge talking point this year) or even the emergence of women’s football stars. There’s also the desire for brands to connect domestically, with established rugby franchises such as Wasps investing in netball and also Saracens Rugby investing in Hertfordshire Mavericks.

Of course, women’s sport isn’t a new thing, and the millions playing their sports week in, week out will be singing a chorus of ‘finally’ at media and commercial recognition.

As journalist Natalie Morris quite rightly wrote for Telegraph Women’s Sport: “That night (when England won Commonwealth Netball Gold) was a catalyst in the growth of the game certainly, but don’t tell me netball is ‘having a moment’. It is a phrase that has been repeated over the past year by journalists and commentators who have seemingly only just realised that netball exists.”

Alex Sexton, former communications manager for England Netball and current communications director for Netball Superleague franchise Saracens Mavericks, also made a great point when he told Zazzle Media: “The progress that has been made in the rising profile and bigger sponsorship deals for female athletes has been substantial over the last decade.

“This momentum has been unparalleled in the history of sport and due to societal pressure, looks set to continue. However, the question is asked – without this societal pressure, would this change have been as quick and as insistent?”

While we don’t know the answer, it’s important to work hard now we’re in this position. Brands now have a responsibility to ensure these strong and talented female athletes are represented appropriately.

The increasing coverage and commercial success of women’s sport certainly isn’t a ‘moment’, it’s here to stay and brands should take note.

‘I think women’s football is the key’

When I interviewed Clare Balding in 2013, she predicted that women’s football would be the answer to popularising women’s sport when she explained to me: “I think women's football is the key. It's the cheapest and most accessible sport to play, it has a broad appeal and it has a great history in this country…

“It is gaining ground now and although still semi-professional, will benefit from increased investment and coverage. If England do well internationally, the rest will follow.”

The BBC Sport, Channel 4 and BT Sport broadcaster added: “Netball and hockey have huge potential, rowing and cycling have grown hugely, equestrian sport has always been strong for women, athletics and swimming are fully integrated sports so showcase men and women equally but it's football where I believe the greatest impact can be made.”

It seems Clare Balding’s predictions are starting to come to fruition for the first time, starting with the 2018/19 season, where all 11 women’s football Super League sides (and Manchester United in the second tier) are now all full-time and professional.

Female footballers are now being included in the sort of adverts historically dominated by men. The Head and Shoulders #JustWatchMe campaign released earlier this year includes both the male and female England footballers coaching young players. Even just five years ago this wouldn’t have been something anyone could have dreamed of. It’s no longer acceptable to associate sporting images with men alone and marketers must bear this in mind.

While she’s recently told of the levels of abuse she receives online on a daily basis, former Arsenal and England player Alex Scott is also paving the way for female pundits. A woman being given a full time punditry contract for the men's game is groundbreaking for the sport. In May, her male colleagues praised her and highlighted how she’s handled the negativity while breaking new ground for the female pundits of the future.

It’s having females visible in these roles that will elevate the chances of other women in the future to hold these positions and increase the chances of commercial opportunities.

Netball takes centre stage

It’s not just football being represented on a larger scale, though. As a result of years of hard work, coupled with their Commonwealth Games gold medal success on the Gold Coast, England’s netball athletes have enjoyed increasing media and commercial coverage.

Clare Balding told me back in 2013: “I firmly believe that the reason there were no women on the short list for Sports Personality of the Year in 2011 was not because they hadn't done anything but because they hadn't had any coverage - either on TV or in newspapers.”

For the first time ever England’s netballers also won not one, but two awards at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in 2019 and are receiving far more media coverage. For the first time ever, netball was splashed all over the back pages of national newspapers, it featured on various television slots and gained magazine features in publications such as Vogue and Grazia.

The CEO of England Netball, Joanna Adams explained to me how the players’ commercial opportunities have increased with Commonwealth Games success and coverage: “There are more opportunities for us to go and speak to brands. Their doors are more open and they’re more welcoming for us to go and speak to.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, post Commonwealth Games gold medal it is easier because we don’t have to explain who we are anymore, people know who we are. “So that’s been amazing for us. I think it’s been reflected in TV audiences as well.”

This high-profile media attention, something which the sport hasn’t always had the luxury of receiving (despite participation across the country having always been high in the UK) has attracted more and more commercial interest since the Gold Coast 2018.

Former international netball player and ITV journalist Sacha Shipway told me: “Women's sport is definitely becoming more marketable - you can see this in the way advertisers are engaging with female athletes in ways they haven't done previously.

“It's becoming more and more obvious that there's a huge appetite to see strong, successful athletes that are female and it's about time advertising companies saw the potential and tapped into this. Prime examples are England Netball striking groundbreaking deals with Vitality, Nike and Oasis. I think companies are looking at the numbers of followers players/athletes have and seeing that they are amazing role models who also have an audience.”

What’s even more exciting about these campaigns and the future of female sponsorship, is the way the players have been represented. Their strength and athleticism has been celebrated. It’s also great for the brands who are seen to be at the forefront of a positive success story.

Joanna Adams explained the success of the Oasis fashion campaign:

“When a fashion brand wants to engage with you, your imagery has to be aligned with what they want to do. So, we can’t have them in a gym, pounding weights which is what the girls do do. And that’s what we love about it, again it’s made those girls normalised but it’s shown the beautiful athletic bodies that they have and that’s really important to us.”

Brand opportunities for the long term

The summer of women’s sport ahead is being showcased on the BBC with the launch of the ‘Change The Game’ campaign. This is fronted by female presenters and athletes such as Clare Balding, Sue Barker, Alex Scott, Sara Bayman and Gabby Logan among many others.

On this fantastic summer of sport we have ahead, Joanna Adams commented: “It’s a showcase window for our sports but it doesn’t mean it’s just a one-off opportunity. They can continue with us during the domestic leagues, the internationals, they can continue with all the great participation stuff. Brands are finally realising they don’t just have to align themselves with male sport and again I think the sports have worked really hard to make sure there is an offer that is appealing to brands.

“The offer is highly appealing now and they’re realising it. The thing for us is that we’ve had Gilbert and we’ve had lots of those brands that have loved netball and women’s sport for a long time and we mustn’t forget them. But to encourage new brands like Oasis, it opens up a whole new audience for us and that’s absolutely crucial.”

Very few athletes, male or female, receive commercial deals or coverage without professional success, but even with success many female athletes still have to battle for sponsorship, deals and coverage. So, it’s fantastic to see England Netball rightly begin to build some commercial momentum.

Joanna explained that this is the point women’s sport has always wanted to reach - for it to be ‘normal’ for male and female sport to receive an equal share of coverage based on success:

“We want this to stop being a battle, we want it just to have all the same advantages the big male sports have got. But also with the understanding that there are still a lot of niche male sports that don’t get coverage.

“It’s not that every single time a woman does something in sport it should be covered because men aren’t, but for sports that are doing well and there is a legitimate story behind it, it’s just normal now and covered the same as male sport.”

Rugby investing in netball

An exciting movement in domestic netball in recent years has been rugby franchises investing in the Vitality Netball Superleague. Three years ago, the Wasps brand started the trend by helping to create a new netball franchise. This has been followed up for the 2018/19 season with Saracens Rugby joining forces with the long-established Hertfordshire Mavericks to create Saracens Mavericks.

The communications director of Saracens Mavericks Netball, Alex Sexton explained the impact this move is going to have: “As a brand, they have an incredibly strong background in rugby union and have seen both their men’s and women’s teams’ pick-up trophies in 2019. Their expertise in the field of sport as a whole, including the additional commercial support that they will provide, should take the netball side of their operations to the next level.”

Sexton pointed out that Saracens have been brave enough to capture a moment and become revolutionaries of the sport: “It is my belief that this partnership work across sports will continue to grow. It is not hard to envisage a club brand which encompasses all and creates supporters of a club and not just the sport.

“Using the power of brand and club would increase the exposure and prestige of athletes pulling on the shirt. It should also have a positive impact on sponsorship and marketing opportunities.

“That is what is being built in Hertfordshire. When you take to the pitch or the court, gender is irrelevant. You are representing the club, you are playing for Saracens. By breaking down the barriers of gender on the field of play, you are encouraging them to be removed altogether.”

What does this mean for marketing?

While there is still a discrepancy when it comes to sponsorship deals and brand campaigns between women and men, the signs are positive for female sports stars. Things are moving in the right direction, but there’s always more that can be achieved. With media recognition when it’s deserved, the commercial appeal of female athletes can build, and as Joanna Adams said, has the opportunity to be ‘normal’.

Sexton pointed out there is great work being done, but there’s room for improvement: “Joint kit-unveilings and marketing material continue to promote the message of equality. The hope is that this doesn’t become little more than a box-ticking exercise.

“It would be a far greater shift if the next time a major sponsor was reflecting on which superstar to front their campaign, they went for a female athlete and didn’t succumb to making another Instagram-loving, viral dance-creating, follower-seeking idol as their poster boy.”

For deals such as the one between England Netball and brands like Oasis, this opens up whole new audiences for the brand, athlete and sport. As Joanna Adams so rightly highlighted: “I think the thing that brands really understand now is this will kick off a whole host of other sport involving women. So it’s not just this moment in time and then it stops, we’ve all got very strong domestic leagues, it means they can have a real year-round connection to women’s sport rather than waiting for these peak opportunities.”

By embracing the power of women's sport, brands have the opportunity to break new ground. The marketing of sportspeople is absolutely moving into a fresh new era and marketers should get on board with creating campaigns starting now and moving into the future.

Key takeaways:

1. The increasing coverage and commercial success of women’s sport certainly isn’t a ‘moment’, these stars are here to stay and their status is building so brands should take note.

2. Women’s football could be the key in terms of carrying the torch and lighting the way for representation women’s sport - Clare Balding predicted this back in 2013 and it’s coming to fruition. With the female England athletes receiving parity of representation in campaigns and former players such as Alex Scott leading the way with punditry contracts for the men’s game, visibility is increasing.

3. While this summer is a ‘showcase window’ for women’s sport in this country and the world over, brand representation doesn’t have to start and finish this year. There’s a real opportunity for year-round connections.

4. Partnership work across sports will continue to grow. Breaking down these barriers on the field of play is encouraging them to be broken down altogether. This is a trend for brands and franchises to keep a close eye on.

5. This is a two-way opportunity - as much as brands like Oasis coming on board with England Netball is increasing the profile of the sport, it also opens up a new audience to the brand.

Emma Baxter is the senior content editor at Zazzle Media.

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