By Phil Carling, Managing Director of Football, Octagon Worldwide
Women’s football has been increasing in popularity over recent years. Fifa have reported 29 million women and girls play football worldwide with the goal to double this to 60 million by 2026. However, as seen at the recent Women’s FA Cup Final, there is still quite a disparity in the support, sponsorship and media coverage between the women’s and men’s beautiful game.
The forthcoming UEFA Women’s Euros will undoubtedly attract comment and speculation about the prognosis for women’s football and the role that sponsorship can play. The investment trajectory of this sport is an unstoppable upward vector, with complex and varied reasons worth assessing, as they offer further insights into the status of the women’s game and the role that sponsorship can play in building positive momentum.
Historically women’s football has suffered chronic underinvestment with core issues being raised around a lack of professionalism, low levels of participation and disinterest from fans fixated on the men’s game. Active measures by the Football Association introducing The FA Women’s Premier League in 1994 went some way to addressing participation, but it was in the USA and the creation of the first professional league where the issue of investment was confronted head on, off the back of the wildly successful USA Women’s World Cup of 1999. Despite the ultimate failure of this endeavour, The U.S. college system supported a degree of professionalism in women’s football and offered excellent levels of coaching. It’s no surprise that the USA have won 4 World Cups and remain the team to beat at an international level.
In Europe however, the women’s game relied on a handful of visionaries to invest ahead of any immediate material benefit, simply because it was the right thing to do.
Reliance on Women’s Football Visionaries
First David Dein at Arsenal created a powerhouse built on professionalism, with a line of funding that wasn’t reliant on profit but on an understanding that the team contributed hugely to the Arsenal brand and its values. It has taken the rest of the leading football clubs over 20 years to catch up, with Arsenal’s model now being imitated by all the major teams.
The FA’s Women’s Super League (WSL) has been quite pivotal in laying the grass roots pathways for talent to emerge and enter into the clubs. The next phase will be to commercialise these teams and begin the generation of media and sponsorship models which mirror those successfully developed on the men’s side. There is strong evidence that sponsorship deals are being done with dedicated resources being given to the women’s teams to evolve these opportunities. For example, Standard Chartered and Mastercard have both built specific leverage programmes targeted towards the women’s teams they support. Arsenal are an example of a club where sponsorship can be bought specifically for the women’s team without first having a relationship with the men. Both developments are evidence of a growing confidence and maturity in the commercialisation of the sport.
The other women’s football visionary was Jean- Michel Aulas, whose 20-year investment in French women’s football club Olympique Lyonnais Féminin has built the world’s finest and most consistently successful women’s team. Across the last 9 Women’s Champion League Finals all but one has featured Lyon, including their sixth win this May in Turin against a magnificent Barcelona team. Aulas is to be lauded for having the vision to appreciate the potential of women’s football and for creating the conditions for the world’s best talent to hone and develop their skills.
The Sponsorship Tipping Point
The axiom in sport is that talent follows money, eyeballs follow talent and money follows eyeballs. Dein and Aulas understood that to kick start that cycle there had to be investment in capturing and developing the talent in the first place. The key to improving standards in any sport is to give the talent both the time, the opportunity and the guidance to be the best they can. As standards improve the audience and interest grows too. This then creates the conditions for media interest and, where media audiences grow, sponsorship blooms soon after. There is every reason to believe that women’s football is close to this tipping point, but there is another factor at work in this arc of history – the modern societal narrative of diversity and inclusion.
A Values-Based Proposition
Women’s football offers a superb metaphor for the issues of diversity and inclusion. It has faced an historic struggle with prejudice and provides a ready shorthand for the growing belief in the empowerment of women and their right to participate in those areas of society thought of as a male preserve. It would be a struggle to think of a modern and progressive organisation which does not have these concerns at the forefront of its corporate mission and values. Consumers want their brands to stand for something and equality, diversity and inclusion would rank highly in any list of causes. In light of this it is easy to see how women’s football can add a highly emotive cause related string to its bow, offering advantages over its male counterpart. If the pure metrics of the audience are still playing catch up, a values-based proposition can more than compensate.
Many recent investments may be better understood in light of the above. It is also interesting to consider the sectors from which the larger sponsorships have derived with financial services leading the charge. Visa have taken a big position with UEFA to add to their Women’s World Cup, Standard Chartered have taken on Liverpool Women’s FC and Mastercard now has a significant portfolio of elite clubs and star talent, including Hegerberg , Wendy Renard, Pernille Harder, Alex Scott and Golden boot Sam Kerr.
The momentum for these investments is almost wholly driven by a values-based initiative where women’s football will be used to validate a narrative around equality and opportunity. This is a fascinating development and almost the first example of a sport generating this type of investment ahead of a fully evolved quantitative and audience based proposition.
So What of the Immediate Future?
There is no doubt that the club level of the women’s game is still playing catch up with variations in standards affecting credibility, but this is changing. The area where the recipe is almost complete is international football, where standards are high, competition intense and the commercial proposition is already in place, backed by money and impeccable broadcast platforms.
This Summer, fans will enjoy the Women’s Euros hosted in England featuring nearly all of the world’s best teams and many of its best players. All of the matches will have terrestrial broadcast platforms, and moreover England are amongst the favourites. So reasons to invest and leverage those existing assets? Most certainly.