Changing Perceptions in Women’s Sport

On Monday 26th September there was a picture on the front page of the Guardian showing Manchester City Women celebrating the moment they became WSL Champions. On the front page. Now that is a step in the right direction. Less than a week later, the football club completed the double by winning the Continental Tyres Cup. There wasn't even time to put the champagne back on ice.

Female sporting role models surround us and it is brilliant. But, with all of these successes, it is important to take a step back and assess the impact this is having on women’s sport and, more pertinently, on young girls around the country. It would be difficult to argue that the aforementioned role models aren’t encouraging women to be active. But do they engage those that simply aren’t huge sports fans? Yes, Manchester City Women were on the front page of The Guardian and quite rightly the story focussed on their on-pitch successes. However, would you flick to the back pages to read the full story if you didn’t like football? Would you even notice it on the front page? Maybe not.

Inspiring young girls around the country to play sport can’t only be about the success of elite athletes. Moreover, changing perceptions of women in sport won’t be achieved solely in the back pages of the paper. It is, in fact, this prerequisite for somebody to like sport in order to play it, that might actually be putting people off. Instead, the value of sport and the impact it can have must be communicated in a much broader way which is relatable to all (sports fan or not). Not everybody should require an ambition to be the next Steph Houghton in order for them to feel empowered to kick a football. Young girls should instead want to go and play because the results are more far-reaching, they transcend sport itself. And because their everyday role models (enter mum and dad) are encouraging them to do it. Even mums and dads that don’t have a deeply ingrained passion for sport themselves.

A recent post on the Facebook account of ‘Parenting Girls – Raising Good Women’ argued that parents don't simply pay for their kids to play sports; they pay for the opportunities that sports provides to develop attributes that will serve them well throughout their lives. Respect, teamwork, winning and losing. The fundamental life skills that make up a well-rounded person. A recent ParkLives film by Synergy client Coca-Cola takes this one step further showing that sport can quite simply bring children, parents and communities together.

And the simplicity of this is what makes it the perfect area for brands to explore. It’s far too easy for us to simply tell the story of a female that has defied the odds to reach the pinnacle of her sport. Of course these stories can be incredibly powerful, but they aren’t always relatable. Instead we should be telling the stories of how football, and sport generally, has impacted the day-to-day lives of normal young girls. How it can build their confidence and enrich their social lives. How it has given them the tools to succeed academically. But most importantly, how their parents supported them through this process and encouraged them to play. Because this is a parent’s responsibility.

Which might just be the key.

Parents have a responsibility to encourage their children to be active. They also have a responsibility to change the perceptions of women’s sport with their own children – it should start at home. So let’s encourage them to do it. At the very least, we might make mums and dads think more about the power of sport. At best, we might empower parents to take their daughter to the park to play football, regardless of their ability or previous interest in the sport.

So what is the endgame? Somebody with no interest in sport is impacted by a sporting story. It’s something we tried to achieve when working with SSE on their ‘Dads and Daughters’ series. A football story that is about way more than just football. It’s about family bonding. It’s about overcoming challenges in life. It’s about togetherness, inclusion, equality and being a part of something that can change your life for the better. And it so happens that it couldn’t have happened without two things: dedicated parents and the power of football.

Therefore, the challenge is clear: we must talk to all parents about sport, not just those that are sports fans. And we must engage them with the power sport can have on the everyday lives of their children – regardless of whether or not their daughter might one day be pictured celebrating on the front page of The Guardian.

Why Eni Aluko’s Under Armour Deal Is Bigger Than You Think

“Aluko’s unique position as a role-model to women and girls alike takes Under Armour in to a space where they can truly connect with consumers”

Last week marked another welcome breakthrough for women’s sport. Under Armour announced a long term sponsorship deal with Eni Aluko, the first of its kind for a WSL player, making the England international the first UK based female footballer to join #TeamUA.

But while we celebrate another positive step forward for women’s sport, we must also take a minute to applaud Under Armour. In signing Eni Aluko they have taken themselves into a new space. Forget Lionel Messi. Ignore Neymar. They both have their (obvious) merits. Eni Aluko is the secret weapon.

So why is this partnership so special?

As a female athlete (who, by the way, has been instrumental in raising the profile of the women’s game here in the UK), Aluko has the power to transcend football. Her impact will be bigger than selling a pair of football boots. With over 100 England caps to her name, Aluko has arguably been the most high profile advocate of women’s football over the past five years and is hugely respected within the game. After becoming the first female footballer to appear as a pundit on Match of the Day, Aluko headed to the European Championship’s in France this summer as part of ITV’s broadcast team. Suddenly we have an athlete that is not only inspiring girls to play football, but inspiring women within the wider confines of sport. She is famous for her determination and drive to succeed both on and off of the football pitch.

And guess what? Under Armour share these values. A match made in heaven may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s pretty special. The brand are no strangers to addressing stereotypes that exist in sport. In fact they are proud of leading the way in this field. In 2014 they made headlines with their (literally) hard-hitting ‘I WILL WHAT I WANT’ campaign alongside Gisele Bündchen. The point of the campaign? To inspire. To break down barriers. To overcome.

So, this is where the next 12 months will be interesting. Under Armour must now activate this sponsorship in a way that is only possible with a female athlete in Aluko’s position. Her unique position as a role-model to women and girls alike will take Under Armour in to a space where they can truly connect with consumers. Challenges that women and girls face in sport can be addressed and the next generation of young aspiring female footballers can be inspired. Eni Aluko is the only athlete on Under Armour’s UK roster that can tell this story in a truly credible way.

Will other brands follow suit?

Although they are the first sports brand to strike a long term partnership of this kind with a WSL player, it would be naïve to view Under Armour’s investment in women’s football as a risk. While a recent SSE campaign proved that Aluko is already a massive inspiration for girls around the country, the potential value for brands working in women’s sport is great.

According to Sport England, there are over 7 million women engaging with health and fitness in the UK today. 75% of women want to get into sport and those participating is increasing at a faster rate than men. Couple this with the fact that women’s buying power combined with increasing influence now drives 70-80% of all consumer purchasing in the household (Ernst & Young) and you have a marketing formula that is going to work.

As Synergy’s recent ‘This Girl Does’ event uncovered, brands must connect to their audiences in an authentic way in order to engage. When you talk to people in the right way, they can’t help but want to get involved. Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign proved this by shifting women’s perception to feel like sport is a place where they can be.

So, what next?

In Eni Aluko, Under Armour now have the opportunity to engage with women and girls in a unique way. Let’s hope they do it. We can’t wait.

This Brand Can

Does anyone out there still doubt that women’s sport offers one of the most exciting opportunities in sponsorship?

In a week where Synergy is hosting #ThisGirlDoes, a brilliant panel exploring why no brand should be without a strategy for women and women in sport, it makes sense to have a quick look at how rightsholders and brands can work together to not only fuel this fire, but benefit from it. And it’s actually pretty simple:

Where possible, any rightsholder with both men’s and women’s propositions should commercialise them separately. And where they are not currently commercialised separately, brands should ask for them to be.

The fact is that most big properties that have both men’s and women’s propositions still tend to bundle them together. Sponsors of the FIFA World Cup (let’s be honest, no-one sponsors FIFA, they sponsor the World Cup), get the Women’s World Cup as part of the deal. The exact same thing applies to the UEFA European Championships, the Champions League, the RBS 6 Nations and the ICC Cricket World Cup. Similarly, if you sponsor England Rugby, Arsenal, Manchester City, PSG or any other major team, you typically also get the women’s team thrown into the deal. While this may simplify things for both rightsholder and sponsor, it is not necessarily the best solution for either side.

One competition where this is not the case is the FA Cup, with the Emirates FA Cup and SSE Women’s FA Cup running side by side. Synergy have been working closely with both SSE and the FA from the beginning to create a bespoke programme for Women’s/Girl’s football, so we have seen the power of this unbundled approach first hand.

By bundling the men’s and women’s propositions together, rightsholders are likely to be leaving value on the table. Basically, this sponsorship version of Buy-One-Get-One-Free doesn’t attribute the appropriate amount of value to the Women’s proposition. How much value do the FIFA World Cup sponsors attribute to their Women’s World Cup rights? Would Emirates expect to pay any less for their overall sponsorship of Arsenal if the Women’s team had a different brand on their shirts?

This isn’t to say that those sponsors don’t value the women’s property at all – of course they do. It’s just that they don’t value it as much as a brand that wants to focus on the women’s property in its own right. And a brand that values it more highly will also be willing to pay more for it.

The brands that value the women’s propositions more highly in their own right are also the brands that are going to create more powerful activation campaigns. Although a slightly different form of unbundling, what Sainsbury’s and Channel 4 did with the Paralympics was one of the most powerful lessons from London 2012. As “Paralympic-only” sponsors they could identify what made the Paralympics so uniquely powerful and could focus their activation budget on bringing it to life. They were able to create brilliant Paralympic campaigns – not just Olympic campaigns that ran during the Paralympics.

There is no doubt that this same principle applies to brands that want to tell empowering women’s stories. As an industry, we need to make sure that they have access to great properties that will allow them to do so. Campaigns like This Girl Can, Always #LikeAGirl, Dove Real Beauty Sketches, Under Armour #IWillWhatIWant and Nike #BetterForIt show what’s possible when a brand gets it right. And it’s a strategy worth pursuing as research by Google suggests that women ages 18-34 are twice as likely to think highly of a brand that creates an empowering ad about women and nearly 80% are more likely to engage with it.

So brands with a strategy for women and women in sport can create better, more relevant and more targeted activation campaigns, while rightsholders can extract more value. Imagine the Possibilities.

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)

Everyday Sporting Role Models

I grew up surrounded by sport.

Cricket clubs in the summer, hockey clubs in the winter. Some of my longest-standing friends were made running around hockey pitches aged four. I never knew any different: sport has always been part of my life.

This week, to celebrate Women’s Sport Week we ran a straw poll in the office amongst the women to find out the moment they fell in love with sport and how this inspired them to have a career in sport. There is no doubt that in most cases it was through a parent, in particular a strong father-daughter bond. I am no different.

My father was an FIH International Hockey Umpire and weekends were spent travelling the length of breadth of the UK, from one freezing cold hockey pitch to another, the best part being…the teas! Summer was warmer, when we lazed about the boundaries of village cricket pitches. When, at 13 years old, my father died suddenly, my world fell apart. It was such a difficult time for my family, but, looking back, we were given extraordinary support by the sports community that surrounded us. No doubt, my father’s death and that very sporting community had a profound effect on me – to keep his passion for sport alive.

Playing and watching sport never came with a down-side. I always lapped up the banter of girls’ inability to throw (because I can) and I never saw any inequality in sport. At University, girls’ football, boys’ football, men’s rugby, women’s rugby were all recognised with complete equality and the camaraderie was unique. It wasn’t until I left University that I started to realise that my experience of sport so far wasn’t a fair reflection of how men’s and women’s sport was recognised in the big wide world.

I landed my first job at the Evian Ladies European Tour (LET) as an Events Assistant in 2001. My job was to support the team on the event logistics and administration for the Tour events across UK, Ireland and Europe. I had such glamourous expectations of the events, the spectators, the celebrities, elite sport…how wrong I was.

My first event was at the prestigious WPGA Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, a beautiful links course in South Wales, where if the wind was gusting in the wrong direction your first tee shot was more than likely to land on the beach. I arrived on tournament week and had a run-in with reality. It was lunch time on the first day and we all trotted off for food in the clubhouse. At the front door we bumped into the Men’s Club Captain who pointed at me and pointed to a sign, ‘Men’s Entrance’. My colleagues were horrified, but Mr Men’s Captain gave me very specific instructions as to where the Women’s entrance was. It turned out it was through a side gate, round the back of the clubhouse, past the bins and just next to the toilets. I was mortified.

It was the first time I had ever felt singled-out and demeaned for being a woman. And then I felt angry. How was it possible that a club of this stature was allowed to host a professional LET event when it clearly felt that women were not seen as equal? It turned out the club was going to lift this particular club rule once the players arrive. How courteous.

My second surprise was when the tournament teed off. The players arrived from all over Europe – legends of the game, Laura Davies and Annika Sorenstam, and next generation stars, such as Suzann Pettersen and Paula Marti. The players were humble, athletic and incredibly skilled. But where were the spectators? We always had some really loyal fans who travelled to Tour events, but they were few and far between.

As my career developed and I started working on more international events, I realised quite quickly that the low interest in the women’s game was quite specific to the British culture and not matched worldwide. I was proud to be part of the Solheim Cup 2003 project team, where Europe beat the US for the first time in Sweden. Ironically, this was the first time the event had been hosted outside of the UK (for the European hosts) which no doubt had hindered its profile. In Sweden, the European team were rock stars, not female golfers – elite sportspeople. Over four days, nearly 100,000 spectators turned out to see them play, and big brands including American Express, Volvo, Vodafone and Pringle activated the hell out of the tournament, to much success.

In Sweden and much of the Nordics, golf and sport are part of the culture. Men, women, boys and girls at 5pm after school hit the golf club. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing, or what your ability is, it’s just about what you do. There are no gender issues and certainly no different entrances for boys and girls.

The LET has grown enormously, and there is no doubt that the profile of young, incredibly talented players such as Charley Hull are starting to get the game more attention, but not enough. Since 2012, as Tim Crow says in his Now New and Next article, a women’s sport movement was kick-started by the successes of the GB women on a global stage. With campaigns such as This Girl Can, #LikeaGirl, the BBC’s commitment to women’s football, Investec’s investment in women’s hockey, and programmes such as Back to Netball and Hockey, the profile of women’s sport is no doubt increasing.

What excites me the most is that for the first time there is an active and vocal community of women, from grassroots (This Girl Can 250k alone) to elite, campaigning for equal media exposure, an end to inequality and – most importantly of all – to encourage women to get involved in sport in any way they feel comfortable.

As campaigns like This Girl Can continue to create the next generation of ‘everyday’ female sporting role models, no longer will we have to rely solely on the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Victoria Pendleton or Katherine Grainger. I am proud that my Dad is my sporting inspiration, but I hope my two daughters, part of the much discussed ‘next generation’, look to their Dad and Mum.

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



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.