Women are sending a message to the sports marketing industry. Time will tell whether anyone’s listening.
Women want to play sport, watch sport and when asked, they are more inclined than men to see sport as a force for good within society. Hardly earth shattering news, yet the market for sport sponsorship can often appear to be tone deaf. Of all reported UK sponsorship deals, 79.9 per cent are for male only sports, with women’s only sports making up just 2 per cent of the total.
This disparity drives other indicators of gender inequality in sport: Chelsea won £5,000 for winning last year's Women's FA Cup while Arsenal won £1.8 million for the men's equivalent; across sport, the top ten women earned $124million between 2014 and 2015 compared to $901 million for the top ten men. Depending on your point of view, this disparity is reflected in, or caused by, the relative dearth of women’s sport coverage in the media. In the US, only 3.2 per cent of network television airtime was given to women’s sports while the influential news show SportsCenter on ESPN attributed women to just 2 per cent of its programming.
These and many other such indicators have come to define the debate and worse still, they position women’s sport as a charity case rather than a business one. The language used is revealing. Sponsors routinely talk of (male) football, Formula One, rugby, darts and snooker as driving "return on investment" and other important marketing measures. By contrast, sponsorship of women’s events is often couched in the language of cause marketing and corporate philanthropy.
Despite this inertia, there is considerable cause for optimism. Increasingly, smart brands are seeing sport as an effective and very cost efficient marketing communications platform from which to talk to women of all ages.
The London 2012 Olympics created a new cast of heroes telling a new type of sport story. Tough, smart and charismatic, women sports stars are higher profile than ever, whether it’s Victoria Pendleton’s switching saddles at Cheltenham or England’s Lionesses’ thrilling Fifa Women’s World Cup ride. On average 25.4 million people watched the 2015 final of that event, the highest for any football game ever in the United States. Broadcasters around the world showed a total of 7,781 hours of coverage – a 31 per cent increase on the levels of content broadcast during the 2011 competition.
More than 30,000 attended the SSE Women’s FA Cup final, another record. In the UK more women watch Wimbledon than men and of the 5.2 million people attending a live Premier League match last season were female.
One response to these good news stories is to plough on with the old model. Rights holders selling commoditized portfolios of sponsorship rights around their events, driving eyeballs over engagement. What’s worked in the past will work again. Won’t it?
But it’s here that we need to take a breath. Stop for a moment and ask some questions. When it comes to women’s increased engagement in sport we need to be really sure we know what’s gone right.
For example, do women want to consume sport in the same way as men? Do female fans use social media or mobile differently to men? Are women inspired to take up sport by images of famous athletes or are some, as Women’s Health editor Katie Mulloy said at Advertising Week Europe recently, are they intimidated by "these Greek gods, with their unattainable bodies"? Why is that the biggest sports marketing campaigns are fronted by women who don’t play sport and give a brand instant attention via celebrity – Rihanna (Puma), Rita Ora (Adidas), Misty Copeland and Gisele (Under Armour)? Do young women today prefer the glamour of reality TV and pop culture to role models delivering sporting success?
Could it be that women engage with sport in a more nuanced way, and respond better to brands that talk to them on a more authentic and meaningful level?
Coca-Cola certainly thought so when it introduced its ParkLives initiative – a daily series of free, family-friendly outdoor activities in the heart of local communities – the parks. The brand has devoted £20 million to a long-term commitment to get one million people active through its programmes by 2020 and is connecting women with sport in a way that adds real meaning and value to their daily lives. Likewise, we shouldn’t just accept that greater exposure to a major global sporting tournament will lead to grassroots participation and brand engagement.
Sport England figures have consistently shown an alarming drop in adults participating in sport on a weekly basis since the London 2012 Olympics.
But if we can connect on a more meaningful brand level around the current upsurge of women’s sporting successes – via technology and appreciated content – we can better communicate with a female audience who is proven less inclined to filter out relevant advertising and who make the majority of all major household retail decisions. In short, we can take the chance to build a more robust and sustainable business case for women’s sport.
Pedro Avery is the global chief executive at Havas Sport & Entertainment.