Six ideas for brands to boost women's football

As the Women's Super League returns, advertising and sports pros offer suggestions to get people engaging more with women's football.

Lionesses: how can adland help promote women's football?
Lionesses: how can adland help promote women's football?

Last weekend saw the return of the Women’s Super League. There are huge hopes for this season following an amazing World Cup over the summer. 

Which is why this is so disappointing: 

"I do not enjoy watching women's football, it just doesn't seem feminine and is just a bunch of butch women wanting equality."  

Or this: 

"I’m sick of hearing about 'equality' etc etc blah blah blah women’s this women's that."

Or this:

"I don't think that football is a women's sport."

Earlier in the summer, Dark Horses ran some research to find out what would make people engage with women’s football more. (Knowing more about the players and their narratives/back stories was the main takeaway.)

As part of the survey, we asked if they watched women’s football, and if not, why not. Some of the answers were sickening, but sadly not shocking. 

Which really pissed me off. While I’m loath to give this outdated, bigoted bile any airtime, I thought it was pertinent to remind us all that while we are making headway, there is still a long way to go. 

But with a bit more positivity of thought, I couldn’t help thinking that at Dark Horses and within the industry, we have some brilliant minds that would be perfect at finding solutions to eradicating this thinking. 

And maybe preventing non-progressive brand partnerships such as the new Man City Women's sponsorship deal with Dylon Colour Catcher detergent – sigh. So I asked some of them how this could be done.

Here is what they came back with.

Kate Dale, campaign lead, 'This girl can', Sport England:
There are still far more well-known male footballers than female ones and that’s because we see them in the media and advertising more. We know their life stories and their personalities. The good news is that some branches of the media have dramatically improved their coverage of women's sport, as the Women's Sport Trust report published shows.

But more needs to be done to raise the profile of women sports players by showing their stories on and off the pitch – the blood, sweat and tears – so that the general public can name just as many female players as male.

Katie Lee, chief executive, Lucky Generals: 
I'm not sure I'd attempt to change the attitudes of a bunch of prehistoric misogynists whose opinion and relevance is dwindling by the day. The opportunity is how women's football opens the game to an entirely new audience of people who previously felt excluded by football and its fans or felt it lacked relevance. My daughters love women's football and will grow up being fans of a game that held absolutely no appeal to me. 

Brands need to invest in the future of women's football and the opportunity to be part of something that's massively on the rise. Forward-thinking brands and platforms will succeed if they look at the future opportunity rather than the current audience and reach, and their support and investment will only accelerate this rise. This is a space where entrepreneurial and brave marketers are going to win. 

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, former Chelsea, Leeds and Holland footballer; ex-manager, Queens Park Rangers and Northampton Town:
As attitudes towards women in society change, this will really help with women’s football. In all our lifetimes, women were seen as secondary to men in many parts of society. Progress is slow, but we are moving in the right direction. Football reflects society – hopefully this will change.

Brands can help change the way that women are perceived. Women should no longer be seen as homemakers secondary to men. Advertising has a responsibility to help shape perceptions.

Edie Kelly, keeper, Fulham FC Women; social media manager, Dark Horses:
To change people's perspectives on this, we need to see and hear a significant amount more about women's football organically. We need to read about it more in the paper, have more games on the television and have it spoken about more on the radio alongside men's football, and then it'll start to become more normal for people to see. The more people learn about the game and the players, the more people will be invested in women's football, and they will then understand and realise that the quality of the game is good. The work that the BBC and The Telegraph are doing in increasing their coverage is exactly the right movement that football needs to follow, but it is a process that will take time. 

Rachel Pashley, head, Female Tribes Consulting:
Much in the way that Geena Davis calls herself an actor, not an actress, we have to decouple football from gender. It’s not "women’s football"; it’s football – otherwise we automatically assume football is a male pursuit and that’s how it conditions adults, but most importantly children. Football is football is football, and ovaries are not an impediment to winning – ask Megan Rapinoe. The competition, thrill of the game and technique is framed in a different way when we term it "women’s football". Sadly, it’s something of a pejorative until as a society we become more familiar with the idea.

The increased sports coverage with women’s teams is changing this, but it’s going to take a while. However, the fact that 7.6 million people tuned into the Women’s World Cup at its peak tells you something.

Brands can do more to engage with this idea, to sponsor and endorse the players, but also in their CSR activities and brand activations, to hijack expectations and presumptions. If you’re taking footballers into schools, we need women going into schools, and in the imagery that we use, so consider casting decisions and more gender balancing in advertising. It’s simple, obvious stuff, but it’s not happening enough.

Nicky Russell, associate partner, White Door Consulting: 
Women's sport needs more exposure, first and foremost. Female visibility in traditional male-dominated fields hasn’t yet transferred over to sport. It currently takes up 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK. Until it becomes part of our mainstream culture, it is going to be difficult to tackle the many challenges it is currently facing.

Money is a huge issue when it comes to elevating women's sport, as it simply doesn’t have the same buying power as men’s sport. Brands can help by using their budgets and their platform to champion and support women's sport, hopefully going some way to bringing much-needed balance to the current gross inequality across pay and spend.

Alex Fearn is senior account manager at Dark Horses

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