The Momentum Behind Women’s Sport

It’s been business as usual this week at Synergy, because we’ve been celebrating and championing the momentum behind women’s sport.

On Tuesday night we were celebrating the SSE Women’s FA Cup, which we partnered our client SSE in creating, winning the inaugural ‘Empowering Women Through Sport’ award at the UK Sponsorship Awards. Fantastic recognition for SSE, our team, and a sponsorship that is literally a game-changer. It is focused on a commitment to invest in the women’s game with funding dedicated to creating a national programme of girls-only football activity and, as the first ever major sponsorship of the Women’s FA Cup, it signals the growth and stature of the women’s game.

And the day before, we championed women’s sport and, in particular, women’s tennis following Raymond Moore’s sexist idiocy and Novak Djokovic’s ill-advised, and subsequently retracted, reaction, when I made the point on that night’s main BBC evening news bulletin that women’s sport worldwide has greater momentum and investment behind it, by every measure, than ever before.

Further proof of that — if it were needed — and of the popularity of women’s tennis arrived the same day from the latest ESPN Sportspoll, sent to me by my friend and ex-colleague Alex Balfour.

Female sports fans are the biggest growth area in the last ten years in the US, whereas male fans in the 12–34 year old segment have decreased.

Look at the biggest ethic grouping among WTA fans in the US…

And where are they in the US? The south. These aren’t Federer, or Nadal, or Djokovic coat-tailers Mr Moore: they’re Serena fans.

Go Serena. Go women’s sports.

Success & Scandal: The Inspiring Early History Of Women’s Football

Goodison Park was packed to the rafters as 53,000 fans watched Alice Kell – captain of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies – score a hat trick in her team’s 4-0 win over St Helens Ladies. By all accounts, the 14,000 supporters turned away from the stadium missed a great game of football. The day was Boxing Day; the year, 1920.For the best part of a century this game stood as the record attendance for the women’s game. It wasn’t till London 2012 when 70,584 saw England beat Brazil 1-0 that this dusty record was broken. In recent years – and especially in the wake of the England’s heroics at the 2015 World Cup – women’s football has been experiencing an extraordinary rise in popularity. England’s semi-final against Japan peaked at 2.4m viewers on BBC 1 and Round 7 of The FA WSL in July 2015 experienced record crowds. Moreover, the Women’s FA Cup – boosted by SSE’s historic title sponsorship – drew 30,000 to Wembley.A challenge for the game’s champions and sponsors is to consolidate and grow this fanbase ahead of the European Championships in 2017.

Given compelling stories celebrating brands’ pasts are often the backbone to strong campaigns, (see Johnnie Walker and Lloyds), perhaps the same strategy could be applied to women’s football, given its fascinating and tumultuous history…

In 1894, feminist Nettie Honeyball founded an unprecedented entity – the British Ladies Football Club – with the aim, she said, of “proving to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured”. It was a radical idea and led to the first official recorded game of football between two women’s teams. This took place in 1895 when a collection of players from North London took on their Southern counterparts.

A “huge throng of ten thousand” travelled to Crouch End to witness the spectacle. There followed a series of games, raising money for charity, around the country. Some reporters were sneering, “the laughter was easy, and the amusement was rather coarse” (Jarrow Express); whilst others were supportive, “I don’t think the lady footballer is to be snuffed out by a number of leading articles written by old men” (The Sporting Man). However, by the time the year was over, crowds – apparently blasé to the novelty – had petered out and the women’s game disappeared.

Twenty years later, with World War I raging on the Western Front, The FA suspended the Football League as players joined the ranks in the trenches. Meanwhile, 900,000 women were sent to work in munitions factories, where kicking a ball around at lunch breaks was a welcome respite from their dangerous job. From these kick-abouts, ‘Munitionette’ teams from various Northern factories were formed.

The most famous and successful of these was from Dick, Kerr’s & Co. in Preston. The team’s first match drew a crowd of 10,000 but this success was unlike the short-lived successes of 1895. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies went on to play numerous matches, raising £70,000 (£14m in today’s money) for charities supporting ex-servicemen and other causes. True, there were mutterings of the game’s unsuitability for women but the crowds continued to pour in even after the war ended – 35,000, for instance, saw Alice Kell’s team play Newcastle United Ladies at St James’ Park in 1919.

Alongside Alice Kell, Lily Parr was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies star player. One local newspaper wrote that there was “probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country” and it is said her shot was so hard it once broke the arm of a professional male goalkeeper. Parr’s 31 year playing career saw her score over 1,000 goals, 34 in her first season in 1920… not bad for a 14-year-old.

1920-21 represented the peak of Dick, Kerr’s success. In 1920 they represented England, beating the French women’s team on both sides of the Channel and finished the year at Goodison Park in front of 53,000 fans (by comparison 50,018 attended the men’s FA Cup Final that year). Meanwhile, 1921 was packed with 67 fixtures in front of a cumulative audience of 900,000. Yet, 1921 was also the year of the second downfall of the women’s game, courtesy of a directive from The FA banning female teams from all FA affiliated stadiums and grounds.

The perennial complaint against women’s football – and the excuse used by The FA – was that it was harmful to female health. In 1895 the British Medical Journal had declared “We can in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence, of organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect.” Now in the ’20s, Harley Street’s Dr Mary Scharlieb wrote, “I consider it a most unsuitable game, too much for a women’s physical frame”.

However, one might argue that these medical opinions were merely a pseudo-justification for The FA’s real fear that women’s football represented an uncomfortable shift in society’s hierarchy. Now the war was over, here you had female teams – “in knickers [shorts] so scanty as would be frowned upon” – attracting more fans than many men’s games being played on the same day.

What’s more, the women’s football matches, which had raised thousands for charity, were now supporting the struggling families of miners during the 1921 Miners Lock Out – a politically charged dispute where miners were had been banned from working in the coalfields, having refused significant wage reductions.It was a lethal combination: Women flouting the role dictated to them by social convention to play a scandalous sport that drew bigger audiences than their male counterparts, whilst raising funds in support of anti-establishment trade unions.

The FA’s ban effectively squeezed the sport into obscurity. Whilst teams such as Dick, Kerr’s continued to play, their banishment to nondescript playing fields meant that never again would they be cheered on by thousands in Goodison Park or St James’s. Years in the wilderness followed until the FA ban was finally lifted half a century later, allowing the game to begin its slow recovery. Although that’s another story for another time…

Back in 2016, with the women’s game reaching the popularity levels of the 1920s, the challenge is to maintain its upward trajectory ahead of, and beyond, forthcoming major Tournaments. The stories, characters and controversy from women’s football’s intriguing past are potentially a real starting point from which to catalyse powerful campaigns around the sport.

Shelley Alexander, ‘Trail-Blazers who Pioneered Women’s Football’ (BBC)
John Simkin, ‘British Ladies Football Club’ (Spartacus Educational)
John Simkin, ‘History of Women’s Football’ (Spartacus Educational)
‘The History of Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge’ (The Guardian)
‘WW1: Why was women’s football banned in 1921?’ (BBC)

More money, more problems?

Earlier this month, the rights to broadcast the Premier League in the UK from 2016 to 2019 were sold for a combined £5.13 billion. At over £2 billion more than the equivalent package from 2013 to 2016, this works out at £10.19 million per game over that period, or a staggering £113,000 a minute (which is still three times cheaper than Wilfried Zaha...). It now means that, when the deal starts, all Premier League clubs will receive more money for their domestic TV deals than any other club in the world, save for the two Spanish behemoths, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Whichever way one spins it (and there are a lot of ways – including this excellent analysis from The Swiss Ramble), it represents a dizzying sum of money, but what are the implications of the new deal for the sport?

For football traditionalists, there is no shortage of concerns, including the introduction of Friday night Premier League football and the increased dominance of the Premier League over other domestic competitions (the £3.5 million prize pot for the FA Cup compares fairly unfavourably with the projected £152 million for the Premier League champions). But, perhaps most intriguingly, the announcement has caused football fans to sharpen their focus on how clubs utilise these vast sums of money.

With accusations of greed and wastefulness already commonplace, the increase in TV money will be an added stick for supporters to beat clubs with if there is no tangible change in the way that most fans feel they are treated. Rising ticket prices, poor matchday experience, difficulty of getting to matches and poor administrative club staff pay are all familiar, justified gripes from football fans that will be inevitably magnified by this influx of cash.

At the announcement of the new deal, Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore declared that the Premier League would be putting more money towards grassroots football, but also called on individual clubs to act to help fans, specifically around ticket prices. This sentiment was shared by many in the footballing fraternity, who queued up to heap pressure on Premier League clubs: Gary Lineker commented on Twitter that football was now ‘awash with money’, and called for clubs to ‘cut ticket prices and make it affordable for real fans to attend.’ Jamie Carragher continued the theme by stating that ‘ticket pricing, especially for away fans, has to change’, advocating a policy of ‘£20 for the 20 away games.’

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Although ticket pricing should be the minimum that clubs are doing to improve their relationship with fans, it will be intriguing to see their different approaches to it, and will be a fairly simple aspect to track. Will we really see wholesale changes or will we see the continuation of a general theme of token gestures from clubs (I got a £2 discount off a recent away match ticket from my supported club, which knocked the cost down to a much more manageable £53…)?

If no substantial action is taken by clubs, it is clear that fans will waste no time in airing their grievances. In a world where fans feel increasingly ostracised from the football club hierarchy, there has been a noticeable rise in high-profile protests by supporters using the level of focus on the sport as an opportunity to push their agenda. This fan action is not focussed solely around the issue of ticket pricing and club treatment of fans, but in recent times has also included high-profile protests against clubs signing particular players, club owners who do not seem fit for purpose and even the use of WiFi in stadia.

In a world where Premier League clubs’ financial power continues to rise exponentially, and where fans increasingly feel marginalised, we are progressively seeing examples of supporters effectively undertaking their own PR stunts. It is a disappointing sign of the times that the public tarnishing of clubs’ images (often by their own fans) and those of governing bodies is seen as one of few viable ways to force action.

Of course, this sort of protest from supporters can also have a negative effect on club partners; Portsmouth shirt sponsor, Jobsite were probably not delighted to be associated with the above march against club owners, who fans believed were wrongly appointed to their powerful jobs. But outpourings of fan sentiment like this can often give sponsors interesting openings. Not only does it give useful fan insights that can influence creative activations (maybe fans aren’t desperate for WiFi in stadia?) but more importantly creates opportunities for sponsors to step in and add real value for fans when they may otherwise be feeling neglected.

This can be in the form of clear, tangible demonstrations of support like increasing opportunities to get to games or cutting costs of getting them there, but also can be through adding value to the matchday experience. Also, as has been seen in high profile examples such as with Ched Evans, sponsors can use their considerable clout to reinforce fans’ views to push for action and influence clubs in a way that fans simply cannot.

It will certainly to be interesting to see if, and how, Premier League clubs look to help fans with the increased TV money. But, equally, if there is continued inaction, then the reaction from sponsors to these ‘injustices’ will be worth keeping an eye on.

Watch this space.