NEWS

THE CHERRY ON TOP

2019 has been a record-breaking year in women’s sport.

A few of the notable highlights include: the Lionesses’ stunning performance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup; Jamie Chadwick lifting the first W Series trophy (and thereby cementing her place in driving history) and Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s heptathlon win in Doha, eclipsing Jess Ennis-Hill’s previously held British points record. The Vitality Roses won Team of the Year at the Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards and just this week Fallon Sherrock became the first woman to win a match at the PDC World Championships.

Women’s sport has, quite rightly, garnered a lot of attention over the past year, but, as Billie Jean King once said:

“Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top, too.”

To understand whether 2020 really could provide that “cherry on top” moment for women’s sport, it’s helpful to understand the multitude of factors that have influenced positive change in the past year. It’s key to note that sport does not exist in a vacuum, and the wider societal conversation around gender equality needs to be acknowledged…but that’s a whole different article for another time – this blog will focus on some of the ground-breaking changes we’ve seen for women’s sport in 2019.

Big Brand Thinking

Brands’ increased involvement has been one of the key factors in the drastic shift we have seen this year. For example, Visa’s seven-year UEFA women’s football deal, which includes the brand becoming the main partner of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, made them the first UEFA sponsor dedicated to women’s sport. Barclays have also stepped up, signing a purported £10m deal to be the title sponsor for the Women’s Super League (WSL) for the next three years, a record investment in women’s sport. This deal has enabled the WSL to have prize money (£500,000) for the first time since it began in 2011. This sponsorship also comes with investment into the grassroots of the women’s game, as Barclays became the lead partner of the FA Girls’ Football School Partnership, a nationwide scheme aimed at helping more girls access football at school.

Lucozade Sport supported the Lionesses in the summer, raising the profile of the players and the game during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. As well as rewriting the lyrics to the beloved football anthem, Three Lions, in support of the team, limited edition Lucozade Sport bottles during the tournament featured England women’s team players for the first time in history in a bid to make these individuals household names. Their support went beyond just brand awareness, however, as Lucozade also gave away 90,000 minutes of free pitch-time through Powerleague and Goals Soccer Centres, to encourage more women to get out and play.

NEW SPONSORS ENTER THE FRAY

And 2019 showed that women’s sport is not just for the perennial sponsor categories. This was the year when a number of health and beauty brands – traditionally not involved in sport – took an active lead. Avon became the first female-focused brand to sponsor a women’s football club, after they signed a deal with Liverpool FC Women – the first time the Liverpool women have had different shirts to the men. Avon’s Managing Director Andrea Slater stated the brand’s aim with the sponsorship deal is to “inspire women all over the world to drive real change in women’s football – breaking down social barriers, challenging stereotypes and empowering young girls and women to play sports that they love.”

Boots have also moved into the sporting arena, having partnered with the Women’s Football Associations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The company cites the need to support and help improve women’s confidence through sport, having started their own women’s sport team in 1894.

Such sponsorships plays a vital role in the ecosystem of women’s sport, funding facilities, staff and players’ pay, directly empowering more women to focus on their sport as professions.

And it’s not just football that has seen investment. Guinness have guaranteed themselves a place in women’s rugby history (and hearts) by becoming the first official sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations since it started back in 1996. Vitality have made a huge investment in Netball, as the headline sponsor of both the England Roses and the Vitality Netball World Cup in July of this year. While women’s football has seen the lion’s share of investment – helped by the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup – women’s sport in general offers an open and relatively uncluttered commercial landscape for sponsorship compared to men’s, where brands have been investing for years, particularly in football and rugby.

Progressive Performance

This renewed attention on women’s sport has caused some PR headaches for some of the brands already in this arena. Nike, for example, have had to re-evaluate their performance targets as they didn’t take pregnancy into consideration, resulting in pregnant athletes receiving reduced sponsorship payments as they failed to hit strict performance-based targets. The brand since stated that targets will be waived for pregnant athletes over a 12-month period.

Generation Equality

This investment in women’s sport has commercial value for brands. Gen Z (those people born between 1997 and 2012) are the up-and-coming generation of consumers. They’re the fastest growing consumer cohort (and therefore are the demographic that all brands are desperately trying to get on their side), broadly known for their political engagement and social activism, (with 64% saying that gender equality is of major concern to them). This generation have also grown up in a world of fake news, so brand values on a company website mean very little to them without any tangible action to back them up. Brands that have understood Gen Z values, worked out how to translate them into action, consequently involving themselves in women’s sport, are future-proofing their business with tomorrow’s consumers, today.

A Watching Brief

UNESCO data indicates that, historically, only 4 % of sport media content was dedicated to women’s sport, with research from New Zealand suggesting that male gold medallists receive more than twice the coverage of their female counterparts. There’s little doubt that this lack of coverage has hampered women’s sports in growing their fanbase, stopped more female athletes from becoming household names and, by consequence, led to fewer young girls being inspired to take up sport themselves.

BUT THE TIDE IS TURNING.

In 2019, 47% of the UK population tuned in to watch the Lionesses’ semi-final against the US, and a record-breaking 1.2 billion viewers globally watched the final, showing women’s football can definitely bring in a global audience. And then some. This may not come as breaking news to some of us: from 2010 to 2014 the US Open Women’s Singles final drew a larger audience in the US than the Men’s, demonstrating the power of female sport stars such as Serena Williams. More people watched Kim Clijsters’ final in 2010 than Nadal’s victory the same year, and over 1.5 million more people watched Samantha Stosur’s final than Djokovic’s in 2011. The world of print is also changing, with publications dedicated to women’s sport, including the Slowe Club, who put out their first magazine in 2019, creating more media opportunities to showcase women’s sport.

The more women’s sport is written about and televised, the more we can expect fanbases of women’s sports to grow.

Affirmative Action

It’s important to understand that women’s sport has come a long away, but there is still a way to go. We can all agree that the WSL having prize money for this first time in the competition’s history is a milestone to be celebrated, but that fact the competition had been running for eight years prior to that made it a milestone that was embarrassingly overdue. 83% of sports now reward female athletes with equal prize money to their male counterparts, but there are still some sports with huge gender pay gaps. The biggest offenders tend to be those that are most traditionally male-dominated, with football being the main example.

The prize money for the male winners of the FIFA World Cup in 2018 was an eye-watering $400 million, while the US women’s team in 2019 won just 7.5% of this sum ($30 million). It’s therefore perhaps understandable that the US women’s football team – four-time World Champions – felt the need to file a law suit against their own governing body, alleging “institutionalised gender discrimination” – in particular the fact that they had generated $20m more revenue than the US men’s team when they filed the complaint in 2015. It’s worth noting that the US men’s team failed to qualify for their World Cup in 2018.

This progress in women’s sport can’t be a passing trend. We’ve simply come too far. More and more brands are coming on board as sponsors, and it’s clear that other companies looking to make a meaningful and bold gesture through sport to their consumers need to move fast. Brands need to understand what values they want to reflect and work out how they want to show them.

The sporting world is changing, and the playing field is starting to level out. There are a number of high-profile changes on the horizon, such as the mixed gender events taking place in Tokyo 2020, as well as the launch of The Hundred, the new cricket competition that has been created with equality for both men and women’s teams in mind, highlighting the progressive change happening at the top level of sport.

This year has shown that things are moving in the right direction, but are we close to the fabled cherry on top? Is this cherry even something women should be aiming for? Maybe we should just be striving to eat the same cake?

Realistically, we have some way to go before we can claim equality across the sporting universe, but the major progress of 2019 proves we’re closer than ever before to this destination.

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