How brands can level the playing field for women in sport

An unprecedented number of brands are jumping into women’s sport sponsorships, but are they doing enough to advocate for female athletes or just benefitting from the wave of popularity?

Women’s sport is having a long-overdue moment in the sun. Powered by the global interest in the Women’s World Cup (which ends on 7 July), brands from food and drink to financial services and beauty are clamouring to get in on the action.

Over the past seven months alone a host of brands have splashed out on women’s sport sponsorships, signing long-term partnerships across football, rugby and netball.

Perhaps most notable is Barclays, which signed an eight-figure deal to become title sponsor of the Women’s Super League (WSL) until 2022, a record investment in UK women’s sport. Finalised in March, the partnership is thought to be worth more than £10m over the next three seasons.

Meanwhile, in December Visa signed a seven-year deal to become the main partner of the Women’s Champion’s League, the first UEFA sponsor dedicated to women’s sport. The same month Guinness became the first official commercial sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations.

On International Women’s Day (8 March) Lucozade Sport made its first foray into women’s football through its partnership with the Lionesses and promptly rewrote the lyrics to England football anthem Three Lions in their honour. Then in April, Boots signed a three-year deal to sponsor women’s football in the UK and Ireland, Jaffa Fruit signed on as Netball World Cup sponsor and Coca-Cola and Channel 4 teamed up on a weekly women’s football show.

We want to see the development and we want to change perceptions of women’s football.

Tom Corbett, Barclays

All this is good news, but decades of under-investment in women’s sport has only widened the gender gap, so what are these brands actually doing to advocate for female athletes?

First and foremost, support should be unconditional. Women’s World Cup kit sponsor Nike found this out the hard way when it was exposed by female athletes for reducing sponsorship payments during their pregnancies because they failed to hit “performance-based targets”. Nike has since said it will waive targets for pregnant athletes over a 12-month period.

Brand must also find their niche and understand where they can add the most value. Laura Weston, Women’s Sport Trust board director and former managing director of Iris Culture, is wary of brands seeing women as a “marketing trend”. Instead she argues brands should decide what they stand for and how they can translate that into sport in a meaningful way.

“They’ve all got these brand values and they love talking about them in PowerPoints, so it would be nice if they actually did something. Don’t say it, do it,” urges Weston.

She points out that women’s sports partnerships have to be sophisticated, because they need to work on multiple levels. For instance, fuelling participation could be a good fit for a brand with customers across the country that can get involved with local activations, whereas others could use their expertise to help a club rev up its match day experiential marketing.

Alternatively, a brand might be able to use its insight to build a more detailed picture of the audience or help improve the visibility of the athletes by amplifying their stories. Ultimately, investment is needed to ensure women can play sport at a professional level and translate the excitement around big tournaments into domestic fans week in, week out.

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The sustainability gap

Brands have a crucial part to play in building sustainable foundations for women’s sport that mean future success is not reliant on money generated by the men’s game.

The investment made by Barclays means the WSL will have prize money for the first time, with £500,000 divided among the teams according to their league position.

Kelly Simmons, Football Association (FA) director of the women’s professional game who helped broker the deal, explains the WSL players are less focused on closing the gender pay gap and more concerned with developing the league’s long-term viability.

“If you said to me now, how are you going to crack equal pay when you think about the level of pay men receive compared to women, it would be in bitesize chunks,” she explains.

“Our first priority in terms of equal pay is to make the WSL sustainable so it’s not reliant on whether a chairman of a club or owners decide whether or not to invest in women’s football and enable the game to be professional.”

Over the next five to seven years the FA wants the WSL to generate enough revenue to stand on its own and enable the clubs to use commercial broadcast revenue to compete at the right level based on how they do on the pitch.

WSL women
Arsenal being crowned WSL 2018/19 champions.

With the Women’s World Cup generating an unprecedented buzz, Simmons can only see the WSL benefiting from the likes of Nike, Boots and Lucozade taking an interest in the Lionesses, as raising the profiles of the individuals should carry over to the league once the tournament ends.

Barclays, which is in the process of signing three or four ambassadors across women’s football, is clear that a multi-year partnership is the only way to drive real change.

Head of sponsorship Tom Corbett says: “We want to see the development and we want to change perceptions of women’s football. We want to create accessibility and that’s going to take a number of years to achieve. We’re putting in place measurement and we’ll be tracking that over a period of time. One of the big drivers for us is around the confidence of young girls.”

While he applauds brands that have made a financial commitment to women’s sport, because in a sport like football investment is needed to professionalise the game, he urges companies embarking on a sponsorship deal to think about how they can help the sport achieve a sustainable future.

“It’s also important that the rights owners think about how they’re using that money and I think the FA has the right approach in terms of making the league sustainable, so it isn’t effectively subsidised by the male game,” Corbett adds.

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Showing solidarity

Based on its involvement in women’s sport over the past three decades, Mastercard is adamant investment in female athletes should never be seen as a “one-time activity” brands can use to their advantage.

“If you are just doing it to tactically take advantage of a particular event it gives you a temporary return, but it doesn’t really do justice to your business model, nor to your brand in the long haul,” states Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer.

Mastercard has allotted a “decent” chunk of its marketing dollars over recent months to a “sizeable number” of new brand ambassadors, including Lyon striker and Champions League winner Ada Hegerberg, and retired Arsenal and England international Alex Scott.

If you work with a team and you show you are putting your solidarity behind certain areas like gender balance I think social and cultural change will happen.

Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard

With competition for assets across women’s sport heating up over the past three years, Rajamannar believes women’s sport has reached a “point of inflection”, shifting from an emerging trend to a genuine sign of society moving in a different direction. This is where brands come in.

“Marketers have got significant dollars and those dollars can significantly influence the outcomes. So, if you work with a team and you show you are putting your solidarity behind certain areas like gender balance I think social and cultural change will happen,” argues Rajamannar.

Drawing attention to sport’s stark gender pay gap is one way brands can drive change and progress is being made, however slowly.

FIFA is doubling the prize money for the Women’s World Cup from $15m (£11.8m) to $30m (£23.7m), marking the first tournament where the female players are paid to take part. However, to put that into context, the total prize money the men’s 2018 World Cup in Russia was $400m (£316m), with the champions France receiving $38m (£30m).

Adidas gender parity
Adidas’s statement on pay parity.

On a brand level, Adidas has gone some way to redressing the balance by committing that all its sponsored athletes on the winning World Cup team will receive the same performance bonus as their male peers.

While this is a step in the right direction, Weston points out that the sportswear giant had the opportunity to be at the forefront of this push for parity and is consequently a “bit late to the game”.

Parity of esteem

Giving female athletes a platform to raise their profiles and appear on an equal footing with men is an important role for any brand. Brands should understand how they add value and how they can benefit the sport, says O2 head of sponsorship, Gareth Griffiths.

“It’s dangerous when [brands] come in and it’s just a bit of a badging exercise, or they come in because something is popular and credible without understanding what their role is,” he states.

O2’s role within England women’s rugby is all about the fame it can bring to the sport and the players by improving attendance at games. The telecoms giant lobbied the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to ensure that England’s women – known as the Red Roses – could play separately to the men in smaller capacity stadiums, which would be fuller and therefore offer a better fan experience. O2 then promoted the fixtures through its Priority customer loyalty programme.

While the brand runs its joint #WearTheRose advertising campaign when men and women play in the same tournament, such as the Six Nations, O2 has developed Red Roses-only creative, which will be used to support the women’s team on their four-part summer series in America.

O2 women
O2’s Red Roses version of the #WearTheRose campaign.

O2 has also supported the call for female rugby players to be given full-time contracts, crediting the success of the Tyrell’s Premier 15s championship for creating an elite level of club rugby that feeds into the England team and shows the next generation they can turn pro.

“You see these role models on telly and think ‘I could be a professional rugby player. I could earn a living playing for England’,” Griffiths notes. “That would undoubtedly get more people playing at the grassroots and that’s really important for us from a brand perspective.”

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Activist spirit

Ultimately, it is crucial for brands to understand that activism is at the heart of women’s sport, following years spent outside the media spotlight without the luxury of high-profile sponsors on speed dial.

Reigning Women’s World Cup champions, the USA, are a prime example. In March, the squad filed a lawsuit against its own governing body alleging years of “institutionalised gender discrimination”.

The team is seeking equal pay to its male counterparts, who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The US Soccer Federation’s own figures show the women brought in more revenue than the men over the past three years.

Then there is Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, who will be a notable absence from the World Cup following her decision in 2017 to stop playing for the Norwegian national team due to issues around the way women’s football is treated in the country.

Brands can only tap into the athlete-driven push for change if they share the same ideals, cautions Owen Laverty, director of fan intelligence at sports agency Ear to the Ground.

This means brands must have a strong track record of advocating for gender equality and pay parity, which is reflected within their own organisation. And they must be prepared to “go to war” with the athletes on the issues that matter to them. One such cause could be gender neutralising the naming rights of competitions, Laverty suggests.

“We talk about the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the 2022 World Cup. Why are we automatically giving a second rating to the Women’s World Cup by making it a sub-set of the men’s tournament?” he asks. “Should brands not be looking at issues like that and holding rights holders to account?”

Brands may also be keen to tap into the passion of fan sub-cultures such as female football fan community This Fan Girl or creative football collective Romance FC. While brand interest helps these counter-culture groups gain recognition, Laverty insists that businesses cannot dabble in that space and think that means they’ve done something great for women’s football.

“As a business you can’t have massive issues with your gender equality and parity in terms of pay, in terms of senior female leaders in the business, and then think that you can back a small female football collective and that makes you a business that’s all about gender equality,” he explains. “That does not work and it will get called out.”

It is imperative that any brand getting involved in women’s sport understands its role in driving long-term change. It is not enough to simply plough money into a sport and hope to benefit from the halo effect in the pursuit of short-term gains. Brands will be judged by what they do to advocate for female athletes and those that fall short will be found out.