The problem of finding substantial sponsorship for women in sport is a long-standing one, so will the UK’s major sporting bodies’ new multi-layered efforts to redress the balance have any chance of making the breakthrough that so many have been looking for? asks Noelle Waugh
Sportswomen have long been the butt of cruel jokes in a male-dominated industry, with a national newspaper once shamelessly suggesting that female footballers were more likely to burst the ball with their long nails and eyelashes than poke it into the back of the net.
But the UK’s key sporting bodies are hoping to change the stereotypes by joining forces to boost the profile of women in sport. The initiative, backed by UK Sport, the Football Association, British Olympic Foundation and Central Council of Physical Recreation, was unveiled last week at a seminar attended by leading UK female sports stars and officials.
New role model
Women’s sport recently received a shot in the arm when Zara Phillips grabbed the headlines by winning individual gold in the three-day eventing competition at the World Equestrian Games in Germany.
The addition of the world title to her European crown makes Phillips an early favourite to win the coveted BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Her mother, Princess Anne, was awarded the honour in 1971 after becoming European champion.
Despite successes such as Phillips’, media attention and lucrative sponsorship deals are dominated by men. Lucy Adams, account manager at sports marketing agency Generate, says the stigma of physical inferiority that is widely attached to women’s sport filters down to event sponsorship.
Industry commentators agree the problem is a vicious circle, stemming from a lack of sponsorship support for women at the grass roots, which in turn inhibits the development of talent needed to attract sponsors at the professional level. “Brands want to sponsor a successful female sport or athlete,” Adams says. “Then they will filter that sponsorship down to the grass roots to leverage and develop their involvement. Perceptions are changing but there is a way to go yet.”
The problem extends beyond the athletes and into the boardroom with women currently holding only 23% of senior leadership positions in sport. UK Sport’s chairwoman, Sue Campbell, who was among the keynote speakers at the seminar, says the programme aims to address this imbalance. “More women are participating and achieving high levels of performance,” she states.
Yet it remains a significant concern that women still fail to attract the level of media attention given to traditional male sportsmen. Williams believes media coverage holds the key to raising the profile of women’s sports, using heavily promoted, male-dominated sports as a point of leverage. “Where there is some media exploitation there are more opportunities,” she says. “Sports that are played separately and exclusively by women have much more difficulty raising their profile.”
There are, of course, key individual female sporting personalities who attract lucrative sponsorship deals, particularly in the field of athletics and tennis where women have tended to excel. Household names such as Dame Kelly Holmes, Kelly Sotherton, Dame Tanni Grey Thompson and Paula Radcliffe remain in high demand.
Marathon runner Radcliffe, for example, has had a long-standing relationship with Nike, appearing in high-profile campaigns such as the recently launched Air Max ads created by Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam. Double Olympic champion Holmes is spearheading a campaign, backed by BSkyB and Norwich Union, to urge young people to participate in physical activity, following her retirement from athletics at the end of last year.
But underlying these success stories are other tales of woe. “Once you achieve, you can market yourself as an individual. But getting sponsorship on the way through is quite tough,” says Williams.
Elliot Moss, managing director of Leagas Delaney London, agrees that brands are interested in sponsoring high-profile individuals. The problem, he argues, is at the team sport level.
While success is an important factor in all sports sponsorship deals, Moss says the key impetus behind investment is viewing figures. “It’s not a question of gender and popularity, it’s about positive association to the biggest sports and what attracts people to the brand,” he adds.
Sponsorship support for women’s football in the UK, for example, remains limited largely because of a lack of broad public interest in the league. “Men’s football can attract ten times more viewers than women’s football,” says Moss. The women’s FA Cup final garners between 3 and 4 million viewers, in comparison to an England men’s World Cup match, which can attract an audience of up to 30 million people.
Nationwide, a longtime supporter of the FA, is continuing its partnership as lead sponsor of the men’s and women’s England teams. In the past, return on investment – the key measure for valuing the success of a sponsorship deal – has been substantially lower for the women’s team owing to lower audience figures. But Moss believes the financial services company continues to support the side because women’s football is one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK.
Nationwide head of brand marketing Peter Gandolfi says the opportunity to sponsor the women’s football team and FA Cup, which began in 2002, appealed to the brand largely because a high percentage of its employee and customer base is female.
Karen Earl Sponsorship director of consulting Tim Crow says attracting brands as sponsors depends on the success of the sport and the accessibility it offers to engage with the target consumer. “The metric is more about success than it is about gender,” he says. “It’s not like we don’t have enough women competing. The issue is we need more success.”
Crow says efforts to raise the profile of women’s football have so far failed, with the sport continuing to attract less well-known brands owing to the lower entry costs. “At the other end of the extreme, successful female Olympic athletes are treated and priced in the same way as successful male athletes,” Crow adds.
Meanwhile, Millwall Football Club executive deputy chairman Heather Rabbatts, another keynote speaker at the seminar, believes the development of a “focused and sophisticated marketing campaign” should play a central role in lifting the profile of women’s sports.
Grass roots initiatives aimed at developing the skills of women in football, Rabbatts explains, should coincide with targeted marketing campaigns around eye-catching events, such as World Cup qualifying matches, to build awareness of women’s football.
“A key ingredient in the success of the London 2012 bid was that it ran a really sophisticated campaign using all the elements of communication,” she says. As such, Rabbatts plans to execute a multi-layered campaign using major sports that already have a strong following, such as football, to raise the profile of women in sport. In the short term, the focus will be on using major forthcoming sporting events to set about giving the initiative some momentum.
The future of women’s sport in the UK is likely to hinge on individual female athletes and teams achieving greater success. They will continue to come under scrutiny while the hunt for the next generation of female sporting stars, driven by the campaign, gets under way.