Is 2020 the year the women’s game teaches football some new tricks?

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Few could argue against 2019 being a pivotal point for women in football and sport as whole. Record match attendances and viewing figures for women’s games and landmark sponsorship deals have meant more people than ever have been watching, supporting, and talking about the sport. But what does this mean as we head into 2020?

Affordable, inclusive, and accessible; many are now citing women’s football as the driving force pushing the game forward into the next decade. This summer’s partnership between UN Women and FIFA provides a catalyst to drive lasting change on a global level. Aiming to “raise awareness about women’s football and its impact in terms of health, empowerment and positive role models for women and girls around the world”, the partnership aims to inspire clubs, media and organisations with a platform to turn words into action.

Collaborating with UN Women UK, On the One created the 'Active Listening' series of events to better understand how grassroots initiatives in culture can help push forward these ambitions. At the first event “Game Plan: Can Football Lead the Way In Gender Equality?” we spoke to some of the leading voices in the local game about the role brands and clubs can play in the process.

Claire Barnett, UN Women UK

“There has never been a more important time for everyone to get on the bus. We have some big ambitions to change the way sport works for women and girls, and we are asking the biggest influencers in the sporting world to step up and join us in this movement. The partnership between UN Women and FIFA is one of those. It's going to be making real change happen in three areas: sustainable grassroots programmes helping absolutely every girl have the access to sports, changing attitudes and perceptions around women's sport, and working with the major players to create fairer sport policy.

The programmes we run with girls in sport have a huge halo effect on communities - we open the door through coaching team sports, but at the same time the players also receive information and training about sexual violence, reproductive rights, career opportunities... the influence is massive.

This work can feel like a huge task, but actually it's just about a lot of individual people stepping up and making a commitment - as individuals, and communities, and as brands. Then asking their friends to do the same. Whether it's taking action as a donor, or an activist, or using our power at work, we can all help make this change happen more quickly. And it's absolutely critical that is does happen a lot more quickly. We need everyone to be asking themselves, "what can I do?"”

Felicia Pennant, SEASON

“Nike is definitely leading the game when it comes to women in football. I was in their 2018 World Cup campaign as a fan and since then the innovation in terms of the bespoke Lionesses kits, how female players and fans have been given parity with their male counterparts in certain campaigns, and the support given to teams, campaigns and grassroots initiatives is impressive.

It will be interesting to see how other brands plan to involve women going forward because it's so important to give male and female the same visibility and storytelling opportunities in an authentic way and to create inclusive spaces. Fans can see right through bandwagon-jumping which means credibility will be lost. We all know how gendered sports are, so given current conversations about a gender spectrum, another thing that brands can do better is to make their products and marketing as genderless as possible.

Football is football and that immediately makes the men's game feel more inclusive to women and the women's game feel more inclusive to men's. Anyone can get involved. Not permeating a white, ‘laddy’ culture overall. There also needs to be diversity - age, race, class, religion etc- in front of the camera and behind it making the decisions and actually producing the content. A background in football isn't essential either, it's actually more interesting to try and reach new audiences with football via creative means and someone who cares a little less can help there”.

Karen Dobres, Lewes FC

“Women’s football is an emerging market of potentially half of the world’s population. It’s an obvious space for brands who want to appeal to women, especially those who want to be seen to value innovation, growth, wellbeing, sustainability and passion, for example.

Football is the most popular game on the planet with more than 3.5 billion passionate fans worldwide, gender equality and pay parity have been pioneered by Lewes FC in the Championship league - the first and only club in the world to have assigned equal playing budgets to both first teams. At Lewes believe we are leading a cultural shift that will see women valued in football, and allow little girls to dream of the kind of fame and fortune that is currently only realistic for boys.

Brands should jump at the chance to align with the history-making potential of this evident phenomenon, and the new market of women rapidly becoming exhilarated watching their new she-roes hard at play”.

Amina Khan, Romance FC

“I think things like a televising the Women's World Cup - not one o'clock in the morning - but at peak times and having, Match of the Day covering it, having Lionesses on the side of buses and Lucozade bottles has really helped women go, ‘you know what, actually, I used to play football when I was younger, I want to go back to football now’.

I think that whole sense of grassroots and community like you can't one without the other, it’s inherent in grassroots movements, I think, and especially in sport, with that comes along a community and the support you need”.

Elles Pinfold, On the One

“Brands are key in shifting out-dated mindsets in football whilst reaching a mass-audience: Adidas paying female athletes the same performance bonus as their male peers during the Women’s World Cup was an excellent example of brand leadership while the debate around equal pay rages on elsewhere. Solidarity moves from. The FA’s ‘For All’ campaign, to Man Utd’s ‘All Red All Equal’ and even Arsenal’s mutual male / female team support on twitter are all important too- factoring in equality into the everyday fabric of how a major club operates is a crucial step in creating bigger change.

Clubs and sponsors aside, there’s a spectrum of work to be done in getting more women involved on and off the pitch. Historically, the football universe hasn’t been physically designed with women and girls in mind, a key issue highlighted by our panelists, creating barriers to involvement that could easily be challenged: from lack of sanitary bins at grounds to kits designed for male bodies only. Brands like Nike who address this through sports bras and kits designed with input from female athletes around their needs and bodies may feel like a no-brainer but is only just beginning to be the norm in football, and can be the difference between a girl kicking a ball for the first time and thinking it’s not for her”.

On the One’s Active Listening series with UN Women UK will return in the new year with a music theme. We are taking the insight and learnings from the first event to help drive meaningful change in women’s football. If you’d like to speak to On the One about how to be a part of this, then drop us a line and say hello.

Rob Mathie is founder of On the One.

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