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It's time for brands to back women's sports or get left behind

Women in sportSport is bouncing back after the hammer blow of Covid-19 and brands are beginning to rally behind the teams and athletes who will fly their flags into a brighter future. But after a blistering year in 2019, women’s sports are in danger of being sidelined if sponsors take their eye off the ball.


Just 12 months ago, names like Megan Rapinoe, Coco Gauff and Ash Barty were everywhere, and campaigns like Nike’s Dream Crazier were captivating audiences across the world and the gender spectrum.



Serena Williams provided Nike with an iconic figure to narrate and star in the campaign as the leading light in a women’s tennis game that is bigger than ever – the women’s finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open having eclipsed the men’s audience figures in 2018.


There was a similar story in football, with more than half of the fans following the wildly successful 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup being male, dispelling the commonly held assumption that marketing in women’s sport puts you in front of a female-only audience. The competition attracted 1 billion viewers, including 28.1 million in the UK, with the final achieving a peak BBC One audience of 4.7 million.


But despite roaring successes such as these and rapid growth in everything from volleyball to basketball and swimming to skateboarding, total commercial investment in women’s sport still pales in comparison to men’s. Indeed, Athlete’s Assessments reported that women’s sport makes up just 0.4 per cent of sporting commerce. But anyone doubting its growth potential is ignoring overwhelming evidence, not just in terms of audience figures, but also credibility, brand value, and – crucially – perception.


Smashing the stereotypes


When the biggest, most traditionally masculine brands on the planet shift their focus towards women’s sport, you know it’s time to sit up and take notice. And that is what happened at the 2019 Women’s Rugby World Cup, where Guinness launched its Sisters campaign.



Guinness is known for its masterful adverts but with Sisters the brand simply allowed the stories of female athletes to speak for themselves, while subtly realigning the position of the product.


The significance of a brand like Guinness making this shift was summed up by Niall McKee, head of Guinness Stout Europe, who told the Bite Live conference: “Brands play such a big role in culture today, especially for young people. People shape their identities and their values often through brands.”


“There’s a new Ireland and we need to work out how we stand for that new Ireland, which is inclusive, which is diverse, and which is a really exciting place.”


Guinness is not alone in recognising the power of being part of a movement. In July this year, Nike launched a video for its new campaign, entitled You Can’t Stop Us.



Two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe narrates the 90-second film, in which she calmly states: “We have a responsibility to make this world a better place.”


The 35-year-old winger has been unswerving in her support of pertinent causes including equal pay for female athletes and the Black Lives Matter movement, meaning Nike not only gains from its association with the world’s leading women’s soccer player but also the fact that 91 per cent of consumers say they would be likely to switch to a brand that supports a good cause.


Nike stated that its responsibility to advocate for change remains central to the brand’s purpose, as campaigns like This is Us, I am my resolution, and Do you believe in more? have demonstrated in recent years.


Other brands have followed Nike’s lead, with campaigns like Vanguards by Vans celebrating female skateboarders through skillful digital storytelling.



More than just a good cause


But there are increasingly loud calls for marketers to move beyond the view of women’s sports as a cause-based opportunity.


While gender inequality remains a major issue in sport at all levels, there is a danger that the good work being done by cause-focused campaigns obscures the prowess and appeal of the sports and athletes at the centre of them.


If Serena Williams is seen as an ambassador for equality first and one of the greatest athletes of all time second, something is surely amiss.


Thankfully, there are clear signs that perceptions are changing and the view of women’s sport as secondary is fading – among the public, if not yet among all advertisers.


In the US, people can tune into a variety of female-led sports media channels, such as ESPNW and On Her Turf, while in the UK Sky Sports pledged to integrate a greater concentration of women’s coverage into all of its programming rather than boxing it off in standalone shows.


“Sky Sports are investing in a 360 approach to covering women’s sport,” said Georgina Faulkner, director of multi sports at Sky Sports told the broadcaster’s website.


“The live streaming will bring fans closer to the action, the 24/7 rolling Sky Sports News coverage will keep fans constantly updated, and our world-class digital production, and storytelling will peel back the layers of women’s sport like never before.”


The new normal


It is clear the landscape of sports marketing has changed, and right now there is a window of opportunity beckoning to those with the savvy to take advantage.


Brands are recognising that there is a chance to get behind the rising stars of women’s sport, as New Balance did with their sponsorship of prodigious teenager Coco Gauff. Their Call Me Coco campaign established one of the most exciting athletes in the world as the face of their brand – prominence Gauff might not have been afforded had she held out for a deal with Nike or Adidas.



Women’s sport also offers a chance to break with creative expectations and use subversive, humorous messaging to capture the imagination. The German women’s national football team left their mark on the 2019 World Cup with a memorable Commerzbank ad spot that teased: “We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names.”


That kind of creativity can be the driving force behind the revival of women’s sport after the coronavirus pandemic put paid to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, among a raft of other competitions that were postponed or cancelled. Anyone looking for role model campaigns need only glance at Sport England’s This Girl Can, which embedded itself in public consciousness after launching in 2015 with a film that garnered 13 million views in three months.


With the world eagerly awaiting opportunities to engage with the fastest rising women’s teams and athletes, marketers should be poised to create impactful video content that will feed a global appetite and become part of the new normal.


As women’s sport returns to stadiums and screens, brand investment will be key.



Article by Rick Frier, Founder at Fresh Cut


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