As a host of new brands jump into women’s sport sponsorships from football to netball, is it time to shift the narrative from empowering women to focusing on the technical skill and high calibre performances of female athletes, just as we would with the men?
This was the question posed by the German national team, whose viral World Cup campaign shot down the misconceptions about women in football in serious style.
In the video, created in collaboration with decade-long sponsor Commerzbank, the players challenge the fact the viewer probably doesn’t know their names, despite the women’s team being two-time world champions and eight-time winners of the European Championship. As they point out, the team were gifted a tea set for their first European victory in 1989.
The squad also discuss the prejudice they have had to overcome, with trolls likening the women’s game to “watching amateurs in slow motion”. They end by rejecting the male stereotypes with the line ‘We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them’.
Uwe Hellmann, Commerzbank’s head of brand management, says the time was right time to bring the independence of women’s football to the fore.
“In our view, it’s time to take a clear stance. We want to make a contribution so that the reservations about women’s football stop,” he explains.
“Commerzbank has been sponsoring the women’s football national team for 10 years and we consider it part of our social responsibility to contribute to recognising women’s achievements.”
In terms of the dynamism, athleticism and entertainment provided on the pitch [women’s rugby is] a phenomenal spectacle, so first and foremost it’s about letting more people see and engage with what is a fantastic sport.
Jonathan Castleman, HSBC
Women’s Sport Trust board director, Laura Weston, acknowledges that moving the narrative away from empowerment to showing the technical prowess of female athletes is an important challenge for brands.
The tactical element of the game is something that Weston has discussed with the BBC in relation to its coverage of the forthcoming Netball World Cup (12 to 21 July), as she believes it is crucial for brands and broadcasters to demonstrate that women take sport as seriously as men.
“There are hundreds of thousands women and girls playing netball around the country. We’re not only watching netball for entertainment, we’re watching it to understand how to get better,” says Weston.
“There’s an interesting element of getting more technical and actually explaining why these women are so good at what they’re doing, how you can get better at it yourself and not being afraid to be too technical.”
In football, in particular, brands appear wedded to the empowerment narrative, rather than focusing on the female players’ technical ability. Owen Laverty, director of fan intelligence at sports agency Ear to the Ground, recalls trying to create a mood board showcasing the athleticism of women’s sport and struggling to find the right kind of images in football. Instead the team had to pull images from tennis, athletics, swimming and basketball.
Laverty points out that as professionalism spreads across the women’s game the players are able to dedicate more time to intense training, meaning the women competing in the World Cup are phenomenal athletes and therefore should be celebrated for their dedication to their craft.
He argues that if brands “change the lens” to focus on the players’ technical ability then the conversations shifts from ‘we’re great for giving you a platform’ to ‘let’s show that you’re incredible’.
Showcasing the technical ability of female athletes and their deep understanding of their sport goes a long way towards getting more women on screen commentating on both men’s and women’s matches at the highest level.
Former Arsenal defender and England captain Alex Scott is a prominent recent example of an ex-professional female player commentating on men’s and women’s football matches for the BBC and Sky. She spoke publicly earlier this year about the sexist abuse she receives from football fans on social media, despite having 140 caps for her country and winning countless trophies.
The Football Association (FA) is keen to champion more women becoming broadcasters as this sends out an important message that football is one game, says Kelly Simmons, FA director of the women’s professional game.
“A good commentator is a good commentator – male or female – and they should be able to commentate across men’s and women’s football. It’s football,” Simmons argues.
“You look at Alex Scott who talked quite recently about the abuse she’s had to put up with on social media because she’s female, yet she’s won countless titles, she’s won the Champion’s League, she has 140 caps for her country. She has got to the very top of her profession and been really successful, so why not? Why can’t she commentate on the men’s game just because they’re men?”
Appreciating the skillset
Brands can play an important role in helping fans appreciate the skill with which the women play, agrees Jonathan Castleman, global head of brand partnerships at HSBC. He cites World Rugby data which shows that women playing Rugby Sevens match the men on every metric apart from conversions.
“Everywhere else as a spectacle and skillset the men’s and women’s game are operating at the same level,” Castleman states.
“In terms of the dynamism, athleticism and entertainment provided on the pitch it’s a phenomenal spectacle, so first and foremost it’s about letting more people see and engage with what is a fantastic sport.”
The numbers are also there to suggest that female interest in the sport is growing. There has been a 28% increase since 2017 in registered female rugby players, equating to 2.7 million women. Furthermore, 40% of the 400 million fanbase for rugby worldwide are female, making women fundamentally important to the future growth of the game.
Men’s football is the most popular sport in the world and the ability to integrate the women’s game into that will be really powerful to grow it, promote it and to give it an equal footing.
Tom Corbett, Barclays
When HSBC was renewing its Sevens World Series title partnership in 2014, the inclusion of the women’s game was fundamental to the bank signing the deal. The company has since worked with World Rugby to ensure that six of the eight games the women’s sevens play from 2019 to 2023 will run concurrently with the men to heighten the spectacle and facilitate the game’s growth.
The female players are also at the heart of HSBC’s content strategy. One of the bank’s most successful pieces of content over the past year was an interview with Canadian captain and record-breaking points scorer Ghislaine Landry, who in the video talks about wanting to be known as a good rugby player, not a good female rugby player.
“That’s what comes across to us across all the sports [we sponsor], particularly in rugby. [These women] are athletes who want to be respected for being brilliant rugby players and that is their motivation,” says Castleman.
This view is shared by World Rugby’s general manager for women’s rugby, Katie Sadlier, who is two years into an eight-year plan designed to accelerate the development of the women’s game.
Sadlier recognises that one of World Rugby’s key roles is to lift the profile of women in the sport by investing more in content via the new #WomenInRugby website dedicated to the female game.
“When people ask me what we are trying to achieve long term, it’s about normalising women’s involvement in rugby on and off the field, so you look at it and think it’s men and women, girls and boys. It’s not a male sport that has a little bit of women tagged on,” Sadlier explains.
The new site is the home of World Rugby’s ‘Try and Stop Us’ campaign. Released in May, the campaign profiles 15 ‘unstoppable’ female rugby players from around the world who have broken barriers and pushed the game forward. Not only is the campaign raising the profiles of the individual athletes, but the idea is to drive participation and change perceptions of rugby as simply a men’s game.
The power of male allies
It is also worth brands thinking about how they can harness the power of male allies in their chosen sport.
In the press conference celebrating his team’s domestic treble winning 2018/19 season, manager Pep Guardiola corrected journalists by saying that Manchester City’s men’s team was not the first English team to achieve this honour, as Arsenal Ladies had done so over a decade earlier.
“I think it’s wonderful to challenge that casual sexism that goes on,” says Simmons. “Women are sort of airbrushed out, so I thought it was fantastic that Pep said that and players tweeting about the women’s clubs and coming to the games – all that helps give women’s football credibility in the eyes of existing men’s football club fans.”
This is particularly important as the FA research suggests a key future audience for the Women’s Super League (WSL) is the 18 to 34 age bracket, with a slightly male skew. Furthermore, fans are increasingly coming over from the men’s clubs to follow the women’s as part of a one club philosophy. For this reason, Simmons believes players, managers and the men’s club in general promoting the women’s club will help take it to the male fanbase.
This is an opinion shared by Barclays, which signed an eight-figure deal to become title sponsor of the WSL until 2022, a record investment in UK women’s sport. The bank aims to leverage its long-established relationship with the Premier League, and its huge global fanbase, to boost the profile of the WSL.
“The men’s game is the most popular sport in the world and the ability to integrate the women’s game into that is really exciting and will be really powerful to grow it, promote it and to give it an equal footing as the professional men’s game,” says Tom Corbett, Barclays head of sponsorship.
In terms of legitimising women’s football, having the backing of people who are seen as experts and superstars in the men’s game is absolutely imperative, Laverty adds.
“At the end of the day there’s a long history of football being men’s-focused and it does mean there are huge names people love and respect in that space,” he explains. “With their credibility, having them talking about the women’s game will have a massive impact.”
From a brand perspective, Nike has taken the lead, from hosting kit launches showcasing both the male and female captains from each club, to the ‘Dream Further’ Women’s World Cup campaign, which shows Brazilian superstar Neymar playing a female version of the FIFA 2019 computer game and Alex Scott managing the men’s Barcelona side.
While empowerment is great, the more brands can do to showcase and appreciate the athleticism, technique, power and pace of female sportswomen the further they can go to breaking down the barriers to equality.