Changing the Game for Women’s Sport

Although consensus on London 2012’s tangible legacies in the UK remains elusive, arguably the most high profile and certainly the most sustained legacy is the momentum behind greater recognition for women’s sport, created by the medal success of the Team GB women and their starring role at the Games.

It was clear before London 2012 that momentum was already building, with the public furore at the omission of women from the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist a clear signal of things to come.

Now, post Games, nowhere is the legacy in the UK more evident than in the competition between the BBC, BT Sport and Sky to out-behave each other as champions of women’s sport.

BT and Sky both have dedicated editorial platforms and sportswomen of the year awards. BT Sport broadcasts Women’s Super League football and the BBC has ramped up its coverage of England women’s international football, in particular the most recent England v Germany friendly, which also out-sold – for the first time ever – the previous month’s men’s international.

And what a difference a few years has made to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, with the 2014 Team of the Year award presented to the World Cup-winning England women’s rugby team.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, as consistently demonstrated by a long-running Women In Sport campaign, that women’s sport in the UK is overwhelmingly the poor relation to men’s, in terms of both media coverage and, as a result, sponsorship.

The transformative financial effect that media coverage can have can be clearly seen in women’s tennis. Billie-Jean King’s pioneering work in creating the WTA, and above all the dual men’s and women’s format of many major tennis events – in particular the Grand Slams – has kept women’s tennis and its stars in the spotlight, and as a result the money, for years. Other women’s sports, lacking the media spotlight, are playing catch-up, and the gap is growing.

Bridging it will not happen overnight, but in time, increased media visibility will come and will inevitably drive increased commercial viability for brands looking to sponsor women’s sport.

However, media coverage is only part of any viability equation for brands.

New behaviours will also be required. The inconvenient but undeniable truth is that much of the brand money invested through sponsorship in women’s sports is connected to sex appeal – what one might call the ‘Kournikova factor’.

It’s easy for brands to get quick wins by adding to the purses of the planet’s most glamorous stars – after all, sex sells, right? But sponsors that genuinely care about the advancement of women’s sport will look to celebrate women as athletes, not pin-ups, and to lead the way in promoting an attitudinal change.

This is something that has been confronted by the brand Always, with its highly creative and engaging #LikeAGirl campaign. Based on the simple question of what it means to do something (such as run, throw or fight) ‘like a girl’, and demonstrating quite how loaded this phrase has really become, the campaign challenges both genders’ thinking, acting as an apt reminder of the effects adolescence has on both girls’ and boys’ perceptions of themselves and others.

And, as well as new behaviours, brands interested in using sport to market to women will also need to navigate two major and related disconnects between theory and reality in this space.

The first is the assumption that a higher profile for women’s sport will automatically drive greater women’s participation in sport. This is unproven. Famously, for example, after London 2012, sports participation in the UK actually decreased across all groups, including women.

Which leads on to the second disconnect. The fact is that many women, for a variety of reasons, are not sports fans. As such, another widely held assumption, that using women’s sport to promote exercise amongst women will be effective at scale, is also unproven.

The new Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign recognises this, attempting to drive attitudinal change to sport amongst women by confronting the fear of being judged, a key barrier for many women.

At Synergy, our understanding of these disconnects has led to successful campaigns for clients, proving that brands can make a difference if their activity is grounded in the appropriate insights.

Bupa’s ‘My First Run’ campaign demonstrated how crucial the right female ambassador is (in this instance, Jo Whiley) to drive coverage, engagement and ultimately behaviour change, which in this case led to an estimated 23,000 women being inspired to take part in their first ever organised run.

Similarly, Coke Zero’s ParkLives programme, which offers free, fun, family activities in local parks, has seen great success, with communications specifically avoiding the ‘s-word’ to ensure female participants are not put off by a direct association with ‘sport’.

So, there’s no doubt there is a big opportunity for brands here. That said, they must beware of thinking about it solely in the context of sponsoring Women’s Sport – capital W, capital S. For us, the biggest opportunity lies in driving attitudinal and behaviour change in the context of women in sport and in women’s relationship with sport in its broadest sense: in building trust, providing inspiration, and creating the environment in which women can express themselves, and audiences and participants can connect without prejudice or agenda.

Tim’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.