Two Steps Forward, One Step Back – WSW16

Sitting in the audience at Monday's launch event for Women's Sport Week, I couldn’t help but feel the momentum behind the profile and awareness of women’s sport. We are moving in the right direction. The world is slowly waking up to an equal playing field and diverse boardrooms equating to a stronger economy and future. We already know the social and physical benefits of sport, and new research from Women in Sport and Investec goes further to highlight the benefits this gives women in their personal and professional endeavors – affirming what the majority of the room already knew.

This can be echoed across the past 12 months. In its entirety, the progress of Women’s Sport in the last year is positive. Yet there is still this underlying attitude that likes to rear its ugly head: we seem to take two steps forward, and one step back.

October 2015 | Chelsea Ladies Leading the Way.
For the second season running the Women’s Super League went down to the final game, with Chelsea Ladies clinching their first ever title. The win also landed Chelsea their second trophy of the season after their victory over Notts County in The 2015 SSE Women’s FA Cup Final. This success would have been unlikely had the women’s team’s future been left in the hands of the club’s board. It was the then Chelsea F.C. and England captain, John Terry, who came to the rescue when their budgets were cut in 2009.

November 2015| Slow Progess for NGOs
Change needs to start at the top. Having a greater number of women in decision-making roles will benefit sport at every level. The annual ‘Trophy Women’ Report, published by Women in Sport, highlighted that almost half of sporting organisations boards failed to meet the 25% gender balance guideline, while 16% were found to have no women at executive level at all.

December 2015 | Women’s Participation Rising Faster than Men’s
Good news: the gender gap is closing at a grassroots level. Sport England released its latest findings from its Active People Survey. The number of people regularly playing sport rose by 1.65 million between 2005 and 2015, with the rise driven by an increase in the number of women playing sport. 7.01 million females aged 16 years or over (31.2%) played sport once a week, with running the fastest growing sport for women.

January 2016 | Gayle’s Conduct Falls Short
Gender equality is not recognised by all. West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle rightly drew sharp criticism for his comments after asking out reporter Mel McLaughlin live on air. He was subsequently fined £4,900 for his remarks.

February 2016 | NFL Believes in Diversity
Across the pond, the NFL continued with its efforts to encourage female involvement in the sport. February 2016 saw the introduction of a “Rooney Rule” for women, requiring teams to interview female candidates for “executive positions”.

March 2016 | Indian Wells CEO Sparks Outrage
Another day, another example of a high-profile gender howler. Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore’s comments that the women’s tour “rides on the coat-tails” of the men’s game received widespread backlash, resulting in his resignation. This reignited the debate of women’s pay in tennis – despite the sport remunerating men and women equally across the four Grand Slams.

April 2016 | Netball Goes Full Time
England Netball announced that players would go full-time from June 2016, with 14 players initially selected to join the summer training camp. The move is part of England Netball’s mission to reach the 2019 World Cup.

May 2016 | Record SSE Women’s FA Cup Crowd
For the second season running, The SSE Women’s FA Cup Final was held in front of a record crowd. Nearly 33,000 people were in Wembley Stadium, with millions more at watching from home as Arsenal defeated current holders Chelsea to claim their 14th title.

June 2016 | Synergy: This Girl Does
Synergy’s event with Jacqui Oatley MBE, Tanya Joseph, Colin Banks, Ruth Holdaway and Carly Telford provided thought-provoking discussion. Brands left with a clear positive message on the commercial and social value to be gained from women’s sport partnerships. See here for our seven top takeaways from the day.

July 2016 | Royal Troon Enters a New Age
After Muirfield voted not to admit women members in May, Royal Troon showed the golfing world the way forward as their members “overwhelmingly” voted to allow women to join.

August 2016 | RFU Tackles Sexism
The RFU announced they are to award 48 new contracts, including 16 full-time deals, to members of the senior women’s squad ahead of their World Cup defense in 2017. The decision came as part of new £1 million investment in the women’s game, and will allow the squad to train full-time.

August 2016 | Olympic Coverage Backlash
Media coverage of female achievements during the Rio Games was consistently slammed as sexist and degrading. From Andy Murray’s put down of John Inverdale to Helen Skelton’s wardrobe debate, everyday sexism within the media was quickly shut down. The level of backlash to the media coverage showed a growing intolerance of gender inequality amongst sports fans and represents a new age of women’s sport reporting.

September 2016 | ‘Vast’ gender wage gap still exists
As we begin to feel we’d climbed the summit, our summer and post-Olympic come down was worsened by the Gender Balance in Global Sport report. Published by Women on Boards, it found significant differences in pay for men and women in basketball, golf and football.

September 2016 | City Make the Front Page
Ending on a high, Manchester City claimed their first WSL title in style, beating the current champions 2-0 and earning a rare front-page slot in The Guardian. A watershed moment for the women’s game, and a huge step forward for Women’s Sport.

Recapping on the year, it is apparent the media, sponsors, governing bodies and NGOs are all saying, doing, or acknowledging what needs to be done to continue to move forward. Disappointingly, the work of the many is all quickly undermined by the headline-grabbing actions of the few. Fortunately, opposing these outdated perceptions is a much stronger force and fans are ready to openly voice their outrage and disagreement. 10 years ago complaints would be buried in the news editors’ inboxes; today sport is an ongoing social media spectacle, and fans are the harshest, but most honest critics. Harnessing the power of them will be integral to really making a difference. Surely this, combined with new research, is enough for us to take action, instead of continuing to simply highlight the issues? I remind myself that we’re preaching to the converted: a room full of women – and men – who are at the forefront of advocating and supporting change.

We retweet, like and love posts from people that share and validate our opinion. But we are people who love sport, work in sport, and are already invested in it promoting women’s sport.

So, how do we only move forward? Women’s Sport needs to evolve from a movement into the norm. Women's Sport needs bigger brands that talk to a bigger audience. Brands have the power to reach the masses and be a part of social change.

After all, actions speak louder than words.

Women’s Sport Week 2016

In our second instalment of special guest interviews to celebrate Women’s Sport Week 2016 we spoke to Baroness Sue Campbell, Head of Women’s Football at The FA. A former England netball player and coach, Baroness Campbell assumed her position at UK Sport in 2003, a year in which she also received a CBE for her services to sport. In that role, she was responsible for the strategies that led to Team GB’s record-breaking performance at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Baroness Campbell’s appointment to Head of Women’s Football in 2015 was made at a time when the sport has been enjoying an upsurge in popularity and is a real opportunity for her to help shape the future vision and strategy for girls’ and women’s football.
This year you were appointed as Head of Women’s Football for The FA. Tell us a bit more about this role and why it appealed to you?

It is a great privilege to be working as Head of Women's Football. So much has already been achieved, but it is now the time to take the game to a new level and ensure it realises its potential. My role is to work with everyone in the game to develop a new national strategy – doubling the number of women playing the game, doubling the fan base and achieving consistent success on the International stage.

How important is the women’s game to The FA? Martin Glenn has said it is a ‘priority’ for The FA but what does that mean?

Martin is very committed to support the development of the women's game and has made it a top priority for the whole of the FA. There is enormous enthusiasm, passion and support within the football family to get this right.

What is your vision for Women’s Football in the UK? What do you think the “step up” is after the Lionesses’ success in Canada at the 2015 FIFA World Cup?

The game has huge potential to grow and develop at every level. The success of the England team in Canada has raised the profile of the game and set new expectations. The next step is to provide a wider range of opportunities for young girls and women to play, coach and officiate, create a clear talent pathway that is accessible for all girls – no matter where they live – and develop a sustainable, successful high-performance system.

How much do you think it is lack of opportunity vs. challenging perceptions that limits the number of female players coming through?

It’s both! We need to provide a range of opportunities that meets the needs, interests and motivations of all girls and women – whether they wish to play for fun, fitness and friendship or they even have an ambition to play at the highest level. But we also need to change the brand and image of the game and develop a wide-ranging communication plan to reach more girls and women.

What power does football have to change the lives of girls and women in society?

There are some massive challenges facing girls and women in society. Growing issues over their physical and emotional wellbeing, the potential negative impact of new technologies leading to bullying and isolation, a growing complex, multi-cultural society and a lack of employment and leadership opportunities. No sport on its own can resolve these challenges, but the strength of the football brand, combined with the massive potential to grow the game means that football could make an immense contribution to women's role in society.

What do you think needs to change to get girls into sport in their early formative stages of their life?

There is no question that basic physical literacy should be in every primary school and that all sports can play their part in providing support to schools, developing quality after school programmes and providing a range of community opportunities so that all girls can experience and enjoy being active. Primary years can motivate or deter young people for life, so we have to get it right!

Does it trouble you that the likes of Manchester United have no senior women’s team? Is there a plan to get more support from the Premier League?

The teams in the FA WSL are there because of the commitment and excellence of highly motivated individuals who are passionate about the women's game. We want to spread that passion and get more people working to improve opportunities for women to play and succeed in the game. One of my first meetings was with Richard Scudamore at the Premier League, because it is important that we all work collaboratively to achieve the ambitious targets we have set for the women's game.

Are there other governing bodies in the world of women’s football and sport that you are taking inspiration from?

There is always much to learn from everyone across the world of football and in other sports. But I am sure the majority of the country was inspired by the GB women's hockey team’s performance in Rio. It was the style of their success that was so impressive. The very best of women's sport. It would be wonderful if we could have a GB football team in Tokyo to inspire us all.

If you could change just one thing in women’s football, what would it be?There is much to be proud of in the women's game. The key to achieving many of our goals is to attract the investment and marketing support of a range of commercial partners committed to the women's game.

How important is continued commercial investment for women’s football in this country?

Very important at every level. We will be seeking corporate partners who can work in partnership with us to market the game to girls and women across the country and whose business mission aligns with ours.

What do you think is the biggest area of opportunity for a brand in women’s sport?

Any brand coming into the game at this point will be entering girls’ and women's sport at a time when the physical and emotional well-being of young women is a major growing concern. Investment in women's football is an investment in the future health of the game, women and society as a whole. It is the opportunity to transform a generation of young women.

This week it is Women’s Sport Week. Can you see a time when we won’t need special weeks to raise awareness of women’s sport and how far off are we from that time?

The special focus on women's sport is key to raising awareness and celebrating all that is being achieved by women at every level of sport. The media have gradually improved their coverage of women's sport, but we still have a very long way to go!

Who do you currently think are the greatest role models in women’s sport?

Women's sport has many individual role models and the members of the England women's football team are among the most inspiring. It is not just their achievements we should celebrate but the journey they have taken to get there – overcoming so many barriers and setbacks to reach their goal. At the grassroots end of sport, my role models are the volunteer coaches who turn out in all weathers to support their players and develop their talent.

Who is your biggest influence on you when you were younger and now?

The biggest influence on me as a young person was my dad, closely followed by my PE teacher. Today I am inspired by young people who, given a chance, always amaze you!

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.

Women’s Sport Week – 2016

This week we are celebrating Women’s Sport Week #WSW16 with a take-over of our blog & social channels.We are passionate about raising awareness of, and reducing, the gender gap that exists in sport - in participation, media coverage and within our industry.

We believe that brands have a massive opportunity to engage with 7 million active women by investing in women’s sport, raising its profile and making a real difference.This week we will bring you a number of different perspectives from the world of sport - Ruth Holdaway CEO of Women in Sport, Baroness Sue Campbell Head of Women’s Football at The FA and Author of Eat, Sweat, Play Anna Kessel along with lots of our own thoughts and opinion.


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.

The Future for Women’s Sport: Learnings from our This Girl Does Event

Women’s sport is a really good investment. We have proof. It is time that brands understand what the opportunity is. Expertly hosted by Jacqui Oatley, MBE, Sport Presenter and Journalist, Synergy’s This Girl Does panel consisted of Tanya Joseph, Director of Business Partnerships at Sport England; Colin Banks, Head of Sponsorship and Reward, SSE; Ruth Holdaway, CEO Women in Sport; and Carly Telford, England and Notts County Footballer.Watch the video in full here.

Here are our 7 top takeaways from the day:

Untapped potential

Tanya Joseph, who orchestrated the widely successful campaign #ThisGirlCan, shared that the work was built on research revealing 2 million fewer women do recreational sport than men, but 75% of women say that they would like to do a lot more sport. As Joseph suggests, when women make up over half the population and are responsible for the majority of purchasing decisions made in the home, that’s a lot of untapped potential. Joseph claims that the campaign was so successful due to an acute understanding of the underlying fear of judgement that goes hand in hand with exercise for many women. Being able to liberate women from this fear of not being comfortable in their own bodies in a tone that is not patronising or preachy, has so far inspired 2.8 million women to get active.

Increase in role models

Carly Telford acknowledged that 2012 was when women’s football really got put on the map in this country. According to Telford, what the nation saw was the same as the men with regards to the passion they felt and the honour with which they represented the Three Lions. This, combined with the media putting them on a pedestal, encouraged record audiences. Before 2012 there were no female sports role models and in the past five years the nation has been inspired by the success of the Lionesses, Olympic and Paralympic athletes and our talented rugby union team (among many others).

The Opportunity

The figures show that a vast receptive audience exists. Women’s sport makes up less than half a percent of sponsorship going into sport, so “whatever you are looking at there will be an opportunity” says Ruth Holdaway. In the next three years the women’s Cricket World Cup (2017), the Hockey World Cup (2018) and the Netball World Cup (2019) are all being hosted in this country. According to Holdaway, the plan is to offer all three of these sports to every single school girl across the country which presents a real opportunity for brands to inspire our nation’s girls and reach their parents. It is also a great example of how innovative the rights holders are being working together to strengthen the offering.

Accessibility & Storytelling

Not only are our female role models so much more accessible they have really powerful stories for brands to tell. Superstars in men’s sport are shut off to their fans; they are a step removed by the PR teams managing their channels. Telford explained that female sports stars are far more accessible and more likely to engage personally with their audience. Their stories can connect, because ultimately they are women ‘like you’. As Tanya Joseph so aptly put it, ‘Women want to see themselves reflected in marketing.’

Chicken & Egg

The barriers to investment were brought up by Oatley asking “do you need success first before investment comes, or do you invest early and be part of that success from the start”? It was fascinating to hear from Colin Banks at SSE about how they reached their decision to sponsor the Women’s FA Cup. He started off by stating that when developing their sponsorship strategy women’s sport rose to the top in terms of value for money, and meeting core brand and business marketing objectives. From a brand perspective, Banks pointed out that “commercial ventures need return”. For SSE women’s sport was a no-brainer and they have seen real, tangible return on their investment. Banks also said that when meeting with the rights holders there was true willingness to bring partners into the fold; “exposure is of course key, but the days of media coverage being the be all and end all are over, it’s about how you engage with your audience”. So far, so successful for SSE and The FA.


For brands to engage the key is to connect to their audiences in an authentic way; when you talk to people in the right way, they can’t help but want to get involved. #ThisGirlCan proved this by shifting women’s perception to feel like sport is a place where they can be. Open, honest conversations with all stakeholders and your audience are essential to ensure your brand connects. According to Telford, where you will find success is when you move away from this ‘puppet on a string’ approach to working with athletes. Brands also have much more to being to the table, to generate the much needed awareness to genuinely build the sport, instead of paying vast amounts of money in exchange for reluctantly handed over assets and limited access to players that is often the experience in the men’s game.

Don’t miss out

According to Joseph “in five years’ time people will be kicking themselves that they didn’t get involved earlier”. It’s becoming quite evident that SSE has set a historical precedent in this space and we at Synergy hope to see many more brands follow suit..

If you’re interested in discussing Women’s Sport further please get in touch with Synergy’s Lisa Parfitt –

Heart Over Head: Spotlight turns on sponsors after Sharapova ban

In the 48 hours following the news that Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years for taking banned substance Meldonium, the spotlight has invariably shifted to her sponsors to see their reaction.

Many would have expected Nike, Head and Evian to pull the plug on their sponsorship deals with the former world No.1, but all three have done quite the opposite. Nike announced it will be continuing to partner with Sharapova, citing that she did not dope intentionally and is appealing the ban. Originally Nike had suspended its relationship with the Russian pending the investigation.

Evian, likewise, had first said it would follow the investigation closely before making a decision, but has now come out in full support of Sharapova and will continue to work with her despite the ban.

Head, though, took things a step further – a big and controversial step further – by challenging the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Head has claimed that the ban was based on WADA’s flawed process and was therefore a flawed decision, and so the brand will be sticking by Sharapova and continuing its sponsorship.

Quite why a tennis racket manufacturer is challenging WADA’s global drugs policy is baffling. What expertise does Head have to make such a criticism of WADA and doping in sport? A well-advised sponsor would steer clear of such a move and comment only on its relationship with the athlete, certainly not taking on a governing body that is trying to keep the sport clean and fair.

This follows the original statement Head released back in March when the failed drugs test first arose in which the company nailed its colours to the mast and came out in support of Sharapova without knowing all the facts or what the final outcome of the independent investigation would be. This did not sit well with one of its biggest athletes, Andy Murray, who openly criticised Head’s position in supporting Sharapova.

Sharapova is a Head ambassador

At the same time, another Sharapova’s sponsors, Tag Heuer, took the non-emotional route and put loyalty to one side by announcing it was suspending renewal talks and cutting its ties with the tainted tennis star. Tag has reaffirmed this stance and said it is not in a hurry to discuss any new contract, signalling the partnership will wind down

Porsche took a similar approach to Nike in suspending all planned activity with the former Wimbledon champion and has now said it will hold back final judgement until the outcome of the appeal is known.

Avon sensibly chose to remain silent back in March, but has now confirmed the sponsorship will expire at the end of the current contract without renewal, pointing at a limited engagement window for activity being the reason as opposed to the doping situation.

The Nike positioning is interesting when you look at the business value and the brand’s reputation. Supporting an athlete banned for doping damages the reputation of the brand, although a precedent was set by Nike’s renewed support of two-time drugs cheat Justin Gatlin. If there is a huge business value attached to the athlete that outweighs the reputational risk in the long-term then you could understand Nike supporting Sharapova. However, she is approaching the end of her career, especially by the time she can return to the court, and when put alongside the other stars on Nike’s books she no longer has the revenue pulling power.

We now await the verdict of Sharapova’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and to see what the sponsors do next. Will Murray and other top stars with Head or Nike partnerships speak out publicly against Head challenging WADA or Nike sticking by Sharapova?

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.

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)