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Beyond the World Cup: how brands can help kick off a new dawn for women's sport

This Fifa Women’s World Cup has been the most successful ever – drawing financial backing from household names as well as record viewing figures. Now, sponsors and broadcasters have an opportunity to carry on the momentum beyond football and herald in a new dawn for women’s sport; and those who embrace it will reap the rewards.

It’s been a summer of record-smashing on and off the pitch for the Fifa Women’s World Cup.

On Sunday (7 July) the United States won the trophy for a record fourth time following a victory against the Netherlands in France. Earlier on in the tournament, Brazilian midfielder Formiga rewrote history as the oldest player to compete at 41-years-old, she also took the crown for the most separate World Cup's appearances (by either a male or female player).

In the UK, England’s semi-final match against the USA, drew almost 12m viewers, making it most-watched TV programme of the year. Fifa anticipates that viewership across all platforms to reach the 1bn mark – lower than the men’s 2018 fixture which was watched by 3.5bn – but still, record-breaking.

In short, it’s been a watershed moment for the women’s game. Fueled by a growing appetite from audiences, brands have bet big on this year’s tournament.

For the first time, the likes of Coca-Cola, Barclay’s, Mars, Boots and Budweiser have inked deals with the national teams and broadcasters. With oversight of the purse strings and the ability to influence coverage, sponsors and broadcasters now have a responsibility to maintain this momentum beyond the summer, and beyond the World Cup – tapping into opportunities like the Netball World Cup, Wimbledon, and Tokyo 2020 to usher in a new era for women’s sport.

A long-term strategy, not a tick-box exercise

For Benny Bonsu, who recently joined online publisher GiveMeSport as its first head of women’s sport, it can only be a “great thing” that brands have jumped in at the deep end and are supporting women’s football. But they now need to show they’re willing to walk the walk beyond June and July, and across other sports too.

“The question is always what happens after? As a brand are you going build a narrative that you're just doing it for the summer, or you actually believe in this journey and show you're prepared to move forward?” she asks.

Bex Smith former New Zealand international turned global director of the women’s game for Copa90 agrees that a focus on women’s games has to be a long-term investment for brands and media owners, not just a flash in pan around a tentpole event like the World Cup. They’ll have to think carefully about creative executions and how they define success too.

“You can’t just say ‘we tried this and it didn’t work because there was no audience’. It takes time to build an audience and if you’re not going to do that with a long-term investment in mind, your return on investment isn’t going to be in the first year, or the second year,” she notes pointing to Copa90’s partnership with Visa, which last year inked an unprecedented seven-year deal to sponsor Uefa women’s games following the unbundling of sponsorship rights from the men's game.

To push the partnership, Copa90 has built a team from players around Europe to shine a spotlight on the stories of individual athlete. For example, Denmark’s Nadia Nadim, was born in Afghanistan and began playing football when she moved to Denmark as a refugee after the Taliban executed her father.

“There are a lot of brands even at the World Cup that have jumped in and are going to jump off,” she concedes. “There has to be an ecosystem to support women’s games. Brands will form a part of that as well media, and social media, and partners in the game.”

Misha Sher, worldwide vice-president, sport and entertainment, MediaCom, helped broker Boots’ three-year deal with the FA to sponsor the UK and Ireland women’s teams for three years. 

Boots' partnership gives it access to an extensive suite of rights including match day ads and pitch-side branding. It’s also been running OOH, social, content and PR activity, which Sher highlights as a strong example of how brands can be “purposeful” in their support of the women’s game within the ecosystem.

He adds: “It’s really pushing the sport and Boots has put a commitment down. It’s identified this huge white space and it’s a brand you would probably never associate at all with football or generally sports has gone all in it’s owning it.”

Smith acknowledges that advertisers are “afraid” to push into this “white space”, highlighting that they need to build and hire teams that are well-equipped to deal with the unique challenges they might come up against versus men’s sport.

“They have to get it right. When I talk about investing in the women’s game it’s not about throwing money at it, [a brand] can throw millions of dollars at something but it needs the right people, with the right mindset and experience in and around the women’s game – the stories [of these athletes] can be quite different from the men’s game, if it’s not done properly then it repeats that self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘oh, this doesn’t work’.”

Taking it off the pitch

Twitter’s Laura Froelich who heads up US partnerships at the platform, says forthcoming events like Wimbledon and the Tokyo 2020 are just some of the golden opportunities coming up that brands and broadcasters would be unwise to miss out on.

For its part, Twitter has given visibility to athletes through live-streaming content deals with the likes of the Women's National Basketball Association. It’s also partnered with Adidas to live-stream smaller volleyball and soccer matches.

A big focus for Froelich’s team has also been helping leagues and brands tell the stories of athletes who might be lesser known than their male counterparts due to the lack of parity been men and women’s sports.

“Events like the Tokyo Olympics are yet another opportunity for girls to find new athletes that inspire them. Platforms like ours are helping people get to know the athletes better and we’re seeing a surge in interest [in women’s sports] because people can make personal connections with learn more about the athletes.”

The European Women’s Basketball Championship, which have just drawn to a close, is something Bonsu highlights as another missed opportunity for advertisers.

From agencies pitching to brands asking

For all the hype though, is there an appetite for brands to invest in and champion these sports in a global sponsorship market that's poised to hit $35bn before the year is out?

MediaCom’s Sher says over the past 18 months interest from clients has “accelerated” in a way he’s never experienced. “It’s gone from us pitching women’s sport to brands to them coming to us and asking us what’s happening and whether there’s a role for them to play in the space.”

“They’re not asking particularly about things like cycling or W1 series," he explains. "The fact there’s so much attention on women’s sport, and there’s only so much so many brands can do with the Lionesses, means there’s clients who are interested in football but now open to looking at other things. That means, cycling and other sports that have perhaps been off the radar for big clients will find an increased level of interest in them.”

Beyond the summer, Froelich says brands must make more effort to understand what the opportunities are around various women’s leagues. For Bonsu, it’s all about changing the narrative around women’s stories and GiveMeSport is willing to work with other platforms to do this.

“We’ve now got a partnership with the Daily Mirror around women’s coverage, if BT Sport or the likes will work with us to grow this then we will, to make women’s games equal and global," she says. 

Smith adds that if brands want to continue to make sure women’s sports stays relevant after the World Cup they need to make sure they’re funneling in proper investment.

“It’s pretty simple, you’re representing half the population, so [the investment split] needs to get to a place where it’s 50:50,” she says.

“Whether you’re a brand or a media company, there are massive discrepancies in investment and it makes people look at the outcome and say ‘well women’s sport isn’t popular’ or ‘it isn’t as popular’ – well that’s because you haven’t invested as much in it."

Featured by The Drum

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