Differentiation is key for marketing women’s sport

Ahead of the Lionesses’ historic World Cup final on Sunday, Flo Williams, professional rugby player and women’s sport lead at marketing agency Matta, urges brands to take a more considered approach to marketing women’s sport.

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‘Another record-breaking moment for women’s sport’ is a phrase often used by pundits and journalists, but, ironically, is beginning to sound like a broken record itself, given the sheer pace women’s sport is growing at. In 2022, viewership of women’s sport was up 131% on the previous year, according to the Women’s Sport Trust. But how have marketers contributed to growth across several sports and on a global scale?

There is no silver bullet or magic formula to successfully market record-breaking moments in women’s sport. However, there are key areas of consideration that if understood, interrogated and implemented properly can result in hugely diverse, innovative and successful campaigns, as demonstrated by the UEFA Women’s Euros, the Women’s Ashes and more recently the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Organisations marketing women’s sport should be immersed in the strategic process with consideration of location, timing, target audience, sport and how these all impact societal perceptions.

The contrast between how different countries and sports go about it creates an interesting cultural and societal tension. Societal perceptions often define how we market a sport. The differentiation between these areas means campaigns promoting the same sport, at the same event and at the same time can have completely different (and sometimes contradicting) points of view, but are individually successful nonetheless. Differentiation is, of course, important for any type of marketing, but when it comes to women’s sport, we can’t treat all facets the same.

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Don’t generalise

‘Women’s sport’ is a term used to summarise an entire category, but when we analyse more deeply how women’s sport is marketed, a broad brush will only limit success and miss out on truly understanding the sport and its potential market.

The marketing surrounding the Women’s World Cup has been a showcase of varying points of view, for example, from the sheer confidence of the USA team to the swagger of ‘Like a Lioness’ and Nike’s work showing individual players. We were even lucky enough to see a documentary on Disney+ from behind the scenes in host nation Australia’s Matilda’s camp.

What works with English football fans would not have worked in France, even in the same year, for the same sport and tournament.

In the past year, the World Cup, along with the Women’s Euros, the Ashes, have all demolished (and continue to demolish) records. The Euros broke the record for the most attended European Championship in history – men’s or women’s – and the Women’s Ashes this year had 4.5 times the attendance of the 2019 event. Meanwhile, in the World Cup the Matildas have on average outperformed prestigious men’s sports including the AFL Grand Final and the Rugby League Grand Final in terms of TV ratings this year during the tournament.

But while their successes have been a similar story globally, the marketing approach has been diverse.

Matta, where I work as women’s sport lead, created the Women’s Euros ticketing campaign last year, and lead with the line ‘It’s Show Time’, putting women’s football unashamedly on the mainstage, promising thrills, skills and excitement. We wanted to hold up the athleticism and skill of the players, and the entertainment they provide, from the get-go. This was women’s football in all its glory, swagger and confidence.

A year on, Orange’s viral campaign promoting France’s national women’s football team, Les Bleues, ahead of the World Cup gave a whopping 51-second share of its ad to convince the audience they were watching male players before revealing, with visual effects, they were actually watching female players. Many still believe male football players are superior and women lack skill, so the ad highlighted the bias fans have towards the male team with visual trickery.

In contrast to both, and somewhere in the middle of this scale, the Women’s Ashes gave equal focus to the male and female teams in the ‘Ashes, Two Ashes’ campaign this year by dialling up the series and simultaneously levelling the playing field by creating a dual purpose static and motion campaign.

While the Euros ad solely focused on championing the female players’ style, skill and fan excitement towards the event, Orange used the support of men’s football to unconsciously convert people into women’s football fans with a far more serious, direct and almost protesting tone of voice. Meanwhile, Ashes, Two Ashes removed the gender focus by hyping up the tournament equally.

These campaigns are all different but have each reaped rewards. The Women’s Euros broke records, the Les Bleues campaign amassed millions of views, sparking major conversation and debate, and Ashes, Two Ashes won Sport Industry Group UK’ campaign of the year award. The different approaches in these campaigns demonstrate the importance of location, timing, target audience and the sport in impacting societal perception.

What works with English football fans would not have worked in France, even in the same year, for the same sport and tournament. And while the tone of France’s campaign is successful now, next year it will have to evolve to keep up with the growth of the sport. The French campaign looked to target male fans or previous rejectors of women’s sport, while the Euros campaign embraced the developing base of women’s football fans in England. Women’s football in contrast to cricket is further ahead domestically and commercially, and is attracting a wider fan base, therefore how we market the sport reflects the sport’s position itself.

If we want to continue to not just break records for women’s sport, but to drive it to new, previously unimaginable standards, we need to market the sports, teams and athletes as distinctive and unique. As marketers we should always be thinking outside of the box.

I hope to see more records smashed this weekend, but not only TV ratings and match attendance, but merchandise sales (for god’s sake can we get a Mary Earps shirt into production) fan park attendances and digital channel records. I want it to transfer to the domestic growth of women’s sport. We cannot allow moments like the Women’s World Cup final to pass without it being a game-changing legacy. Let’s continue to be brave, think differently and dive deeper into the most exciting and fastest-growing aspect of sport. It’s not a gamble, it’s a dead cert.

Flo Williams is a professional rugby player and women’s sport lead at marketing agency Matta.