This girl can! – Has the tide turned for women in sport and sponsorship?

By in Sponsorship Activation, Thought Pieces

Much has been written recently about Women in Sport.  Just recently as I squished myself onto the delightful Northern Line with my copy of Stylist’s Suffragette Issue in hand I noticed the reference to the ‘This Girl Can’ initiative.  For those who have not been party to this yet, it is a campaign launched by Sport England’s CEO to encourage more women to participate in sport.  Apparently two million more men play a sport regularly than women in the UK.  There are many reasons for this and at last honest barriers including fear of judgement, appearance, ability and a woman’s perceived ‘correct’ priorities (ie. Caring for family) all having finally been acknowledged as contributing to this huge gap.   Undoubtedly behavioural change is required to address this.

The truth is women’s elite sport, in lots of cases, has played the part of poor relative to the men’s equivalent since time in memorial.  Some may even have turned their nose up at the mere thought of women participating in some of those sports: football, rugby, cricket for example.  Certainly the financial rewards and critical investment from sponsors has been miles off the men’s.  Somewhat horrifyingly only 2-3% of sports written media is dedicated to women’s sport.  There is a clear link between media coverage and sponsorship.  Sponsorship brings money, development, profile so clearly a virtuous cycle exists here:

Poor Media Coverage = Low Profile = Lack of Sponsorship Investment = Low Participation

With such wonderful role models like Jess Ennis-Hill, Jo Pavey, Charlotte Edwards, Katy McLean and Steph Houghton to draw on for inspiration, to name just a few, this imbalance needs to be addressed.

The tides appear to be slowly turning, both in attitude and support.  The Women’s FIFA World Cup was a perfect display of what the girls can achieve and how their profile can be raised.  Let’s face it, I don’t even like football but completely surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying watching the England women’s team battle through that tournament with more heart and passion than any of our men’s teams have shown for decades.

What can be done to redress the imbalance?  At a recent Women in Sport conference that I attended, Leshia Hawkins of the ECB explained how the rights for the England men’s and women’s cricket teams have been split.  Suicide for the women’s team you might think, but not so.  Kia elected to be the England Women’s cricket team title sponsor, the women’s game dovetails perfectly into their business values and targets their desired demographic audience.   Moreover, the arrival of Kia as title sponsor for the Women’s team has gone some way to legitimise the team’s position. Leshia explained that it has even made some of those internal to the ECB sit up and take notice and has changed their perception of the women’s game status.   Hurrah, I can’t help having a little punching of the air for that.

Kia’s support, belief and commitment to the women’s game is so strong that when they were offered the option to discuss being the automotive partner for the men’s team when that came up for grabs last year (Jaguar stepped aside and Toyota took it). Kia apparently turned it down saying it did not fit with their objectives and demographics for sponsorship activation.  That has got to be a first, a sponsor actively choosing to align themselves with the women’s game over the men’s.

Then comes the practicality of splitting the rights for men’s and women’s sport and the rewards and spotlight that can bring to the women’s game.  The ECB seem to have cracked it but split rights is not without its issues.  The women’s cricket team benefits profile wise from playing broadcast double headers with the men’s match as the ‘headline’.  The venue management practicality of that is that the logistics team have to be drafted in between matches to completely redress the sponsor boards, move the boundary rope out and basically re-set the ground for the men’s game to adhere to their sponsors’ rights.   In this example, having the women’s team fall under the overall umbrella (as it is with the RFU and FA) seems easier.

Broadcast rights are also key, Sky Sports are obligated to put 2 women’s ashes matches on air, they elected this year to broadcast all 7 matches and to show every ball of the Ashes which is clearly a great endorsement.  In order to attract more women to participate in all sports does there need to be a broadcast quota in place, a societal obligation to show women’s sport?

We are in the grips of Rugby World Cup.  The England team are the World Champions don’t you know…….the Women’s team that is.  Name me 3 players in that winning side? Nope, didn’t think so.  Now imagine, admittedly a serious stretch of imagination is required here, the England Men’s team had won we would all be able to real off the names of pretty much the entire team.  As fantastic as it has been to see Maggie Alphonsi included in the RWC 2015 opening ceremony and on commentary; the profile & financial rewards for the women’s World Champions in general is a mile away from the potential for Mr Robshaw & co.  even in the face of their painful defeats.

This is not about bra burning feminism but about progress, changing perceptions and fairness.   In the same way a little boy can dream about playing for a premiership club in a sport he loves making oodles of money, a girl should be able to dream the same dream.  The determination, commitment and dedication they will require to achieve that goal will be no different so why should the rewards.

Tennis has paved the way in giving both the men’s and women’s singles champions equal prize money.  Of course there’s still the raging debate about whether it’s correct.  Bottom line, if the women train as hard, put as many bums on seats, attract the same sponsor endorsement and get as many people to turn on their TVs to watch then this is entirely correct.  As an industry, this has got to be our aspiration across all sport and further discussions and positive steps on achieving this goal must be encouraged.   The ‘This Girl Can’ initiative has reminded me how much I loved tennis and rounders and that it’s time to get back on the court and reignite my dream of winning the Wimbledon mixed doubles with Rafael Nadal in his Tommy Hilfiger boxers………..oh sorry, my mind seems to have wandered.  But you get the point.  It’s hard enough for women to identify a sport they enjoy and to cut through the multiple barriers & fear of judgement that exits, so those who can should be given a fair chance.

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