After the highs and lows of the Women’s World Cup there is a renewed interest in women’s football. An opportunity for a new generation of fans and players to get involved. Now the initial media attention has died off, Strategy Director Dean Matthewson sets out the case for how brands should join in.

The England women’s team have just played in front of a record crowd at Wembley, with the match against Germany selling out weeks in advance. Coming up in November there’s the Women’s Football Weekend with Liverpool hosting Everton at Anfield for the first time in the Women’s Super League, and Tottenham hosting Arsenal at their new stadium. The women’s game looks to be going from strength to strength. 

At the height of the Women’s World Cup, Karen Martin, MD here at BBH London, wrote in Campaign about the tournament being a pivotal moment in the growth of women’s football, and the role that brands can play in that development. 4 months on we’re revisiting the World Cup and looking at how that explosion of interest in the women’s game has continued. And, importantly, how we can keep the momentum going to create the long-term impact the game needs to continue growing. 

Rewind to the summer

July 2nd, 2019. The biggest event in the history of women’s football in this country. England’s semi-final loss to the USA has just peaked at a record 11.7m. It feels like a game-changer for the women’s game. Whilst the United States’ two-nil victory over the Netherlands in the final peaked at less than half of that audience with 4.7m, that was more than 6x the peak of the 2015 final. A massive increase. 

It’s not only just in England where TV audiences boomed. TV records were broken across the globe, including in France, the US, Germany, the Netherlands and China. With TV audiences very commercially attractive to brands (viewers are younger and a larger proportion of them female than for men’s football) it’s easy to see why so many were looking to get in on the action.

The momentum from England’s run to the semi-final was carried into the new season of the Women’s Super League. The first round of matches saw attendance records broken as 31,213 were at the Etihad Stadium for the Manchester derby and 24,564 at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea vs. Tottenham. 

Attendances dropped off sharply in round two, which suggests that to help women’s football to continue to grow the teams need regular access to large stadiums, coupled with family-friendly and inclusive pricing. It shouldn’t be hard to make a big event of women’s football to wider fans of the beautiful game, particularly for major derbies, when the cost of attending the men’s game is so prohibitive. And this gets to the crux of what the Guardian labelled “the big stadium experiment” in round 1. Fans paying a small £7 fee at the Etihad outnumbered those who were given the tickets for free at Stamford Bridge. If it’s free it doesn’t seem special and is easy to miss, even when you’ve secured your ticket. If you’ve paid a small fee to watch a big derby at one of the world’s greatest stadiums, you’ll feel like you’ve been treated to something special. 

And next up it’s Liverpool vs. Everton and Tottenham vs. Arsenal on the same day. It’s good to see that the commitment to staging the big derbies on the biggest stage possible is continuing. 

The role of brands in the development of the game

In her article Karen identified 3 ways that brands could use the Women’s World Cup as a springboard for backing the game longer term:

  1. Don’t disappear when men’s football returns: This speaks as much as anything to purpose and authenticity. Are you really a champion of this game? If so, prove it. Don’t disappear as soon as men’s football returns. While the mainstream public might not notice, the supporters of women’s football will call you out on it.
  2. Support the game and elevate it to the next level: You’ll see no brand benefit by just being there for the short term. If this really is the moment when it all changes for the women’s game, be one of the brands leading that change.
  3. Don’t compare the women’s game to the men’s: Sell the game and its stars on their own merits. We don’t need the constant reference to male players to be able to enjoy the game. Let it be its own thing. 

This provides us with a framework with which to analyse the future possibilities for brands and their relationship with women’s football:

Use the continued interest as a springboard for backing the game long-term – Barclays being the league sponsor

Because it shouldn’t be either/or when it comes to backing women’s football – you can be a champion of the men’s and women’s game. It’s not hard, it just takes a desire to do so. 

In this country, Barclays proved their commitment pre-World Cup by signing up to sponsor the Women’s Super League on a three-year, £10m+ deal. 

Over on the other side of the pond, just before the US team were victorious in the Women’s World Cup Final, Budweiser signed a multi-year sponsorship deal with the National Women’s Soccer League to become the first official beer sponsor of the competition, saying it was a chance to support women’s soccer every single day, not just once every four years. They followed this up with the ‘We Won’t Stop Watching’ campaign, which landed immediately after the final, aimed at using the celebratory mood to grow attendances and support for the league. 

Two days after the final, Nike dropped a documentary called Gurls Talk: Spit Fire, Dream Higher on to YouTube celebrating girls in communities around the world that are breaking down barriers. From superstar world beaters to young barrier breakers, Nike tells the stories of girls and women throughout their football journey. 

Barclays, Budweiser and Nike: Three brands that didn’t waste a minute in terms of proving their continued support. And both will play vital roles in developing the game further. But what of other brands and other opportunities? 

Be part of developing the game for the future

Research by Dark Horses during the World Cup asked fans how they could be more engaged with the sport moving forward. Their answers were as enlightening about the current state of the game as it was the future. What fans said they wanted was to know more about the players and their stories. “Every good story needs interesting characters. Heroes and villains. Those to cheer and those to jeer.” This also reflects how the game so far has been ‘sold’. More about the game and the teams itself, more about how it’s different to men’s football, less about the personalities. It’s time to evolve how the sport is talked about. In short, it’s time for women’s football to embrace superstar players. And, importantly, there’s the opportunity to do this in a more natural and fan-friendly way then is shown in the men’s game. Women’s football doesn’t need to copy the men’s template in terms of turning its players into superstars, it can do its own thing. 

A benchmark for the game should be that by the next tournament in 2023 the number of household names featuring on the pitch should be exponentially higher. Brands have a big role to play in helping women’s football get there, through sponsorships, advertising campaigns, and very importantly because of the target audience, on social. 

Make no mistake, it’s not going to be easy to grow the game. Why? Men’s football is becoming ever more popular and the sports market is becoming ever-more crowded. Take the UK as an example for the sport wall of noise that women’s football has to compete against. No sooner had the Women’s World Cup Final finished than the media narrative segued into the latter stages of the Cricket World Cup, then the Ashes, the return of the men’s football season, the Rugby World Cup. 

But the appetite, support and fandom are there, particularly because a large proportion of the audience aren’t directly targeted by any of those other sports. 

Despite the best efforts of broadcasters like the BBC and ever-improving coverage of women’s matches across the media, we can’t rely solely on media companies to be the megaphone that women’s football needs because of all the other sport demands on their air time and column inches. It’s up to the game and brands to do this themselves and do it in their own, unique way.

Realise that this isn’t a woman’s version of a male game, it’s something all of its own

Earlier in 2019 Copa90 and Manchester City released research into how to grow the women’s game. One of the key findings was that fandom is different from that in the men’s game. For fans of the women’s game supporting their club or country feels like a shared crusade with like-minded fans that support other clubs and countries. Of course, there are still rivalries but, much more so than in men’s football, fans are in love with the game as a whole rather than just seeing it through the perspective of their own team. There’s, therefore, a much stronger sense of community amongst fans, and important because the game is that much smaller than the men’s, that sense of community is elevated by having greater access to stars than you’d find in the men’s game. This is an amazing opportunity for brands. Two things brands struggle to create, love and community, and one thing they can help fans with, access to stars, are there to be readily exploited.

The Copa90 research showed that fans hate it when they feel like they have to defend the game. They shouldn’t need to. The constant reference to the men’s game is not going to help this. For example, five years since Fran Kirby was dubbed ‘the mini Messi’, players shouldn’t need to prove their star credentials by being compared with male players. And fans should not have to feel like they have to defend the game against media pundits or online commenters that frequently explain the game through constant reference to men’s football. Even when it’s done favourably, which is infrequently at best, it always hints that the ‘real thing’ is to be found somewhere else. This is deeply unfair and belittles the talents and passion of the players and fans that make the women’s game what it is. 

It’s time to treat women’s football like its own thing: Growing, unique and breaking new ground with new fans and audiences.