Women’s sport has, up until now, been very much an afterthought when it comes to sponsorships. Men’s sport has always dominated the industry and it can often feel as though the Olympics and Wimbledon are the only tournaments in which female athletes are taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
In recent years, there has been a major shift in public perception of women’s sport, despite a severe lack of funding among many women’s teams. Some sponsorship deals have been on the rise, however, which indicates that real change is happening and will continue to do so in the coming years. And, in the current political climate, it makes sense that this change would happen sooner rather than later.
But many have asked the legitimate question: are women’s sports worth the sponsorship investment if they aren’t as popular as men’s sports? We’d argue that yes, they definitely are. Let’s explore why.
Women’s sport is actually thriving and there are many reasons for this, most notably, the successes of women’s teams and athletes in tournaments, particularly in the US and Europe. Additionally, participation in women’s sport is at an all-time high, despite the argument that sponsorship decisions are entirely market-driven. In fact, over 3.3 million girls play sports in the US and women make up 58% of participants at running events. The most important statistic of all, from a brand and ROI perspective, is that women control 70-80% of consumer purchases.
Perpetuating the excuse that sports sponsorships are purely market-driven in order to justify the lack of sponsorship support for women’s teams won’t cut it anymore. Women’s sport is a huge market for sponsorships and the growth in the industry only serves to validate this.
And it’s not just women’s sports themselves. Their popularity among fans is increasing at a substantial rate. For example, the 5,000 tickets designated to the Wales vs. England game for the Women’s Football World Cup on 31 August 2019 sold out in just 24 hours. In addition, The Football Association announced that it is likely to double the number of players and fans by 2020.
The lack of sponsorship opportunities for women’s sport could lend itself to the skewed perception of its viewership, both among consumers as well as brands. There is a major misconception that both men and women have an interest in men’s sport, while only women have an interest in women’s sport. But that’s simply not the case. According to Nielsen, 84% of sports fans have an interest in women’s sports, 51% of whom are male. Furthermore, 56% of fans watching the Women’s Rugby World Cup final from home were male, as well as 58% of fans watching the Women’s Euros semi-final.
Turnout at women’s sporting events has grown an average of 38% each year since 2013. Moreover, while over 4 million people tuned in to watch soccer’s Euro 2017 semi-final, 1.94 million people watched the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 final on ITV. And according to Sky, the Women’s Cricket World Cup was also seen by over 1.1 million. So if women’s sports are indeed extremely popular, then why haven’t sponsors acknowledged this?
The bottom line is that the media needs to take action to support women’s sport in order to encourage sponsors to invest in them. Although there is an abundance of sportswomen out there, there is a serious lack of representation of these women and their sports in the media.
It’s also disappointing from the point of view of young girls. If they can’t actually see female athletes achieving incredible victories, then they will be left with very few sports heroines to look up to who could be role models for them. But as well as this, as a result of this lack of representation, when it comes to sponsorships, women’s sport has been forced to get creative. This historic lack of exposure has meant that sportswomen and their teams need to circumvent traditional media and innovate in order to keep up. And if they have to do this, then so do sponsors.
Despite the clear evidence that women’s sport is flourishing in terms of success and popularity, it only attracts a disappointing 1% of the sponsorship market. According to research conducted by Nielsen, just 3% of print and 4% of online coverage goes to women’s only sport and less than 20% of all TV sport covers women only or mixed sport. So that’s the bad news. But, there is hope yet. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of women’s sports sponsorship deals increased by 47%. Brands such as SSE, Visa, and O2 have all paved the way for women’s sports sponsorships.
For example, Uefa women’s football now has a seven-year deal with Visa. This is their first sponsor and it has allowed them to showcase their value both to the public and to other sponsors. SSE signed a four-year deal with the women’s FA Cup in 2015, garnering much support from both consumers and staff. Over the past two years, the number of spectators at the event has grown, with the final in 2017 drawing in a record audience of over 35,000 people and over a million watching at home. By allowing children to attend the event for free, SSE could also target families, rather than exclusively male or female demographics.
So the problem isn’t necessarily the fact that women’s sports simply don’t accrue the same audiences as men’s sports. The problem is that brands’ attitudes towards sponsoring women’s sports need to change. Colin Banks of SSE asserts that measuring women’s sport using the same metrics as men’s makes it difficult for a client to sell in. Brands have to look at women’s sport from a different angle that is much broader than a single project. It’s about looking beyond the traditional ways in which brands measure success and instead, opt for a more creative approach that could produce more lucrative opportunities for both the sponsor and the team or individual athlete.
To sum up, women’s sport sponsorship is prospering like never before, accumulating support from a wider range of audiences. Brands need to realize that targeting for women’s sport shouldn’t be limited to female demographics, especially since, as we’ve already discussed, a substantial percentage of women’s sport’s viewership is male. It’s also important for brands to really engage with women’s sport and focus on the bigger picture rather than one-off returns for a single event. If the trajectory of women’s sport continues the way it is, brands could be missing out on valuable long-term investments by turning down sponsorship opportunities for women’s teams and athletes. By approaching these opportunities in a unique way, these sponsorships could provide both the brands and the sportswomen just as, and possibly more, value in the long-term than men’s sponsorships.
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