By the time he was three my nephew had been to three weddings. At three and a half he went to his fourth. As the ceremony began he turned, somewhat surprised, to his mother and remarked: “Oh, men and women do this too!”
My sister realised at this point that the three previous nuptials had all been for gay couples. He wasn’t an idiot: he knew that all types of people were married, he knew about husbands and about wives, but his three-year-old brain had not made the connection between weddings and marriage.
This anecdote is not to illustrate how very metrosexual my family is (goes without saying) but to demonstrate the power of normalising. He had only ever seen men get dressed up and make public declarations about their relationships so for him that was the norm.
Normalising is enormously powerful. It is what encourages us to pay our TV licence or our taxes, wear a seat belt, get a tattoo. The more we see something, the more normal it seems and the more likely we are to do it ourselves because as human being we want to be part of the herd, no matter how much we like to think of ourselves as different and individual.
Why am I talking about this now? Because the last few weeks have felt like a bit of a watershed for women’s sport.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup was a fantastic tournament, in part thanks to the progress of England’s Lionesses to the semi-finals, again. While our women cricketers may not have fared as well in their Ashes battle this summer, they have had more attention than ever before. Throw in the tennis (Serena, Simona, Johanna, Coco) and it has been a great summer for women’s sport so far.
We have had them before. Four years ago the Lionesses did equally well and many were predicting a new dawn in women’s sport. I was hoping for one but not expecting it. Just as well, because it didn’t come.
But this time I am expecting change. Why? Because this summer women’s football got normal. This time, we have more of the essential elements in play: performance, personality and profile; the three things which make men’s football so compelling as a viewer, as a media owner and as an advertiser.
Women’s football is prime territory for brands that want to be associated with top-class players who people care about and who are getting media attention.
We got to know the players. Clearly Megan Rapinoe was the standout star on and off the field but there were others: US team mate Alex Morgan, France’s Wendie Renard and Australian Sam Kerr, as well as our very own Karen Carney.
They provided some human interest to the whole thing. And both the performances and personalities helped to drive the profile. According to FIFA, the competition attracted 1 billion viewers, including 28.1 million in the UK. The England v USA quarter final saw the highest live TV audience of 2019 so far with 11.7 million viewers, while the final got a peak BBC One audience of 4.7 million and peak share of 38.5%.
Just to be clear, the majority of the viewers (61% to be precise) were men. These figures have encouraged the broadcasters to devote more time to women’s sport.
Women’s football is prime territory for brands that want to be associated with top-class players who people care about and who are getting media attention. There are added benefits too.
The values and behaviours female players tend to exhibit and which are especially noticeable among female footballers – focus, resilience, no histrionics, no arguing with the ref, camaraderie, graciousness – are ones I suspect are more attractive to more brands.
While a few brands have jumped in, the field is relatively clear. Those who get involved sooner rather than later will have an opportunity to build a real relationship with teams, players and competitions, often without rapacious agents and over-officious PRs getting in the way. And to do so far more affordably than with the men’s game.
And these players’ performances will encourage other girls to get active. Not because they all want to be the next Rapinoe or Carney, though some will, but because girls playing football, as indeed men watching women play, has become visible, normal.
We have already seen the number of women and girls playing football increase. Canny brands will, I hope, finally realise that being associated with the beautiful game at all levels will give them multiple opportunities to engage with a huge variety of audiences. And if football isn’t your thing, well, anyone for netball?