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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.

SOURCES:
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)

Synergy Loves…The Changing Face of Women’s Sport

Here are a few arresting stats for you from Sport England:

- In the UK, 1.75m fewer women than men regularly play sport

- Commercial investment in women’s sport is 0.4% of the total investment in sport

- By age 14, just under 10% of girls achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day

Disappointing, huh? Have a couple more:

- Since 2010, 12 nominees (out of 42) for BBC Sports Personality of the Year have been female. All winners have been male

- This season's men's FA Cup winners will secure £1.8m in prize money, while the team who lift the women's Cup will net £5,000

So let’s not beat around the bush (ahem), it seems fair to say that women’s sport, both at an elite level and within general participation, still has a way to go to reach the same level of popularity and success as male sport. Within these two categories, there appear to be clear barriers:

  1. Barrier for general participation: Involvement - women don’t feel confident enough to get involved in sport, and are not aware of the opportunities available to them
  2. Barriers for professionals: Representation. Whether it be the level of TV coverage or the funding available, professional sportswomen seem to get the raw end of the deal in comparison to their male counterparts

 

ennis

These barriers are clearly significant but there is no disputing that the landscape is shifting, and at an increasingly rapid rate. Indeed, 2015 has proved to be a watershed year in the changing the face of women’s sport, and it’s about time!

So what’s changed? There have been numerous rule amendments, brand campaigns and incentives programmes, backed by professional bodies, which are excitingly changing perceptions in women’s sport. Below I have outlined a few of our favourite examples:

“This Girl Can”

A nationwide campaign across TV, outdoor media and print, launched by Sport England, featured REAL women sweating and jiggling to get women and girls moving, regardless of shape, size and ability.

The campaign is striking, using strong photography and film to articulate an important message and say to women that it doesn’t matter if you are big or small, tall or short, fit or unfit, everyone can and should get involved!

 

The campaign film has already had 13 million views online, with Sport England about to launch a second phase in the campaign off the back of its popularity.

As well as the impressive view numbers, another positive outcome that Sport England reported was the female community coming together online to support the campaign. Whilst the ads didn’t experience much internet trolling (depressing that this was potentially surprising), when they did, Sport England didn’t need to respond, because real women did it for them.

England Cricket Board

Following the success of the 'This Girl Can' campaign, the ECB is aligning with Sport England through a series of exciting opportunities and initiatives to help inspire and motivate more women and girls across the country to play cricket.

The ECB is encouraging cricket clubs up and down the country to be part of a nationwide push to inspire more women and girls to get into the game. By signing up, clubs will be able to access bespoke guidance documents and resources recommending new ways to attract women to the sport.

“Inspiring The Future” 

'Inspiring Women' is asking women who work in the sports sector to pledge one hour a year to go to a local school and chat to girls about what it is like to work in the industry.  They are looking for women working in all types of sport doing all kinds of jobs – including athletes, coaches, HR officers, physios, journalists and accountants.

Once again, many high-profile sporting organisations have already given their backing, including 'Women in Sport', the British Olympic Association, the FA and BT Sport, whose presenter Clare Balding is taking a leading role in the campaign:

FIFA 2016

In an exciting turn of events, EA Sports created positive headlines for FIFA (not many of them around currently) by announcing that it will be introducing female footballers into its video game series, beginning with the forthcoming FIFA 16 edition.

The game features 12 international all-female teams, 11 of whom will appear at next month’s World Cup finals.

 

The FA

At the start of 'Women's Sports Week' and with the FIFA Women's World Cup just days away, The FA has launched a month of free football sessions for girls and women.

From after school skills sessions for 5-11 year olds to coaching sessions for 12-17 year olds - not forgetting social football for adults - there is a way to get into football for women and girls of all ages.

The Boat Race

In 2015, for the first time in 88 years, the Women’s Boat Race was shown and staged for the first time on the course that has for so long been the sole preserve of the men.

Glamour Magazine - "Say No To Sexism In Sport"

Glamour are also getting behind the women in sport revolution with their “Say No To Sexism In Sport” campaign.

The aims of the campaign are as follows:

  1. Raise the profile of women's sport
  2. Lobby for more coverage in mainstream media
  3. Increase the number of women involved in sport at every level - from those who watch it, to those playing it, all the way to those in the boardroom

If you want to get involved, you should pledge to regularly watch women’s sport games in 2015, be it on TV, at a stadium or on the sidelines.

 

Always - #LikeAGirl

Our final example comes from the US. The #LikeAGirl campaign from Always aims to change the perception of what “like a girl” means. The powerful ad was shown for the first time during the Super Bowl ad break, and was viewed online an impressive 56 million times.

In fact it was so successful, that they have made a sequel showing how the meaning of the phrase is already changing.
Why can’t “running like a girl” also mean winning the race?

The answer is, it absolutely can! I challenge anyone in 2015 to argue against this statement - before immediately running fast in the opposite direction.

Whilst this year is key, the change needs to continue uninterrupted. The women’s World Cup in Canada and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio provide two key opportunities for further brand campaigns and involvement. Rio itself already has over 25 brand partners, and only time will tell which are brave enough to join the party and prove that running like a girl can most definitely mean winning the race.

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.