Sexism, stereotyping and missed opportunities in women's sport

The consumer backlash to the stereotyping of female Olympic athletes by the media underlines the missed opportunity for brands and media owners to capitalise on the power of women's sport, Nicola Kemp writes.

When the Chicago Tribune tweeted "Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics", you might have assumed that media coverage of the Olympics had hit "peak sexism". Yet as the US women’s gymnastics team blew the competition away in their qualifying round, a commentator on NBC opined that the athletes looked like they "might as well be standing in front of the middle of a mall". The ensuing backlash across social media channels highlighted the growing disconnect between consumers’ view of female athletes and the perceived stereotyping by traditional media channels and brands. 

Lisa Parfitt, managing director of sports marketing agency Synergy, believes that mainstream media needs to catch up with consumers because the young generation coming to the fore simply will not accept behaviour that reinforces inequality or discrimination. "Women are athletes in their own right and the media would do well to think about tackling the conscious and unconscious bias that exists. But the debate in itself is progress; without increased profile and coverage, we wouldn’t be having this discussion," she explains.

However, the pace of progress – particularly in terms of the "investment gap" between men’s and women’s sport – is frustratingly slow for industry leaders. Women’s sport accounts for just 5.4% of the value of all sponsorship deals, and a movement towards equal pay and equal prize money remains far from complete. Nicola Miller, director of campaigns and engagement at charity Women in Sport, says there is a latent level of sexism in sport that hasn’t gone away yet. "The Olympics has put the issue under the microscope. From a public perspective, there is more interest in women’s sport but media coverage and sponsorship spend haven’t improved," she says.

According to Miller, while there was a great expectation that London 2012 would provide a tipping point – both in terms of the media coverage and sponsorship of women’s sport – the raised expectations haven’t yet translated into investment. "Consumer attitudes have shifted and brands are starting to catch up but, while the BBC and Sky Sports are making huge inroads into the coverage of women’s sport, we aren’t seeing that shift," she adds.

This year, an all-time high of 45% of Olympic athletes are women and, as the social media-driven #AskHerMore campaign to challenge sexism in the media continues to gain momentum, industry experts believe the expectation for progress will soon be matched by tangible increases in both marketing spend and media coverage. 

Sally Hancock, managing partner of sports sponsorship consultancy Y Sport, says that the industry has seen a greater recognition among media owners of the importance of women’s sport, driven by cash from brands including Newton Investment Management and SSE, which invested in the Women’s Boat Race and women’s football respectively. "The opportunity for brands to be a maverick and drive change is there, but rights holders need to stop looking at women’s sport as a poor relation," she explains.

There is already change afoot in terms of both the aesthetics and attitudes towards women’s sport, and how female athletes are being used by brands to connect with consumers. Steve Martin, chief executive at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, emphasises that the Rio Olympics is essentially a very traditional media platform and, while the coverage of women’s sport matters, there is already significant change in how marketers approach women’s sport. As brands increasingly look to build communities of influence, rather than just investing in a third-party event or individual sporting platforms, they are shifting towards more inclusive strategies.  

The US women's gymnastics team at the Rio 2016 Olympics

Clearly, in order to create an emotional connection, brands need to ditch the stereotyping and support women’s goals. And with seven million women engaging in sport in the UK, there is an established platform. "Women operate in communities rather than hierarchies – much like team sport – and if you respect her and like what she likes, she will like your brand in return," Parfitt says. 

Smart brands are already embracing this shift and Iris’ recent work for Samsung’s sponsorship of Netball Australia successfully challenged the industry to "Rethink role models". Laura Weston, managing director at Iris Culture, says the campaign delivered a 100% increase in brand mentions: "For women, the response was that finally there was an ad about women in sport that gets it." According to Weston, the "self-perpetuating myth" that women’s sport doesn’t have any audience – which is used by broadcasters, sports editors and brands as the reason not to support it – is, of course, rubbish. 

Latent sexism aside, there is no arguing that the Olympic and Paralympic Games provide a phenomenal showcase for women’s sport. Industry leaders agree that, although the opportunity is not being grasped by brands, there will be "exponential growth" in the sector ahead. M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment says it is receiving a growing number of briefs focusing on the female sports-lifestyle market. "There is a lag but there is also a huge opportunity," Martin says.

While the Rio Olympics’ legacy may not deliver a sea change in media coverage and marketing investment in women’s sport, the message is clear: get in quick, otherwise your brand will be left behind. Or  you will be as out of touch as the commentator who equates the awe-inspiring achievement of competing in the world’s biggest sporting event with hanging around in a shopping centre… simply because he’s referring to a group of women. 

Women's sport in numbers


Between September 2011 and December 2013, women’s sport received just 0.4% of the total value of all reported UK sponsorship deals in sport.


Between September 2011 and December 2013, women’s sport sponsorship deals accounted for 5.4% of the total number of UK sponsorship deals.


The most valuable women’s sport sponsorship deal recorded in The World Sponsorship Monitor in 2013 totalled £450,000 for 12 months (Continental/The Football Association Women’s Super League).


The most valuable men’s sports deal recorded in The World Sponsorship Monitor in 2013 totalled £280m for 12 months (Adidas/Chelsea FC). 

Source: Women in Sport