How can women’s sports become mainstream?
While it’s never been a better time to be a female athlete, and participation in sport from women of all ages is on the rise, the one key area where we’re seriously lacking in is corporate investment. The most recent estimate of global corporate investment currently stands at 0.4% for women’s sports, with the majority of the rest of that figure going to the men.
This needs to change, and to achieve this we - that includes government, the media, people in business and you, dear reader - have to be pulling in the right direction. We have to educate potential investors and tell the story of the benefits of women sport better. Here’s my topline take on how.
1. We need to identify and empower female athletes - for the right reasons
The #WhatIf campaign by Women in Football, which launched last month, is a great start when it comes to empowering women’s sports for the right reasons. In a nutshell, businesses such as Betfair, Sky Sports and Barclays have pledged to invest in boosting the profile of women, working in the football industry.
#WhatIf also highlights how we need initiatives like this across the whole gamut of women’s sports, and for reasons that go beyond mere tokenism. These businesses have invested in the Women in Football initiative based on individual achievements and performance, not just their gender.
We need to start championing more sportswomen from a host of different sports because they excel at their game - like kickboxer Ruqsana Bequm and footballers like Sydney Leroux. Female sport stars can generate loyal and avid fanbases, so if we can boost their exposure, we can create a compelling desirable option for businesses to spend sponsorship money with them based on both the quality of their performance and their ability to generate engaged fans, beyond a token gesture.
2. We need to look beyond reach to attract more corporate investment
Sponsorship plays a big part in funding grassroots engagement in sports, and without it, most sports will struggle.
That 0.4% statistic is shocking to say the least, and it highlights the disparity between the growing interest surrounding sportswomen, and the lack of investment in championing them.
The key issue is that businesses look at men’s and women’s sports in the same way. It’s about how many eyeballs - in stadia and on TV’s - they can reach with their sponsorship money. This is disingenuous - while the popularity of women’s sports is on the increase, it’s never going to match the same number of viewers as its male counterparts.
This might be a bitter pill to swallow, but it shouldn’t matter that women’s sports attract fewer viewers. The point is that backing female sports goes beyond how many people see your logo on TV; it’s much more about who’s watching and engaging with the game and how they subsequently feel about the backing a particular business gives to that sport. Brands such as SSE, Vitality and Kia, who are already engaged with women’s games, have spoken about how they’re viewed in a positive light from audiences at games, which has turned into increased brand-love and affinity.
3. We need to sell women’s sport on the basis of engagement and participation
One of the main reasons for the groundswell of interest around women’s sports lies in the fact that they’re viewed as being more inclusive. Men’s football and rugby games are a pleasure to watch. But fans can be too loud and/or rude for families, who don’t appreciate their kids learning a lexicon of swear words to tell the ref he’s made a bad decision.
That’s partly why we’re seeing more families attend female sporting events. They’re slowly becoming the natural home for family audiences, and they may even succeed in bringing on board people who wouldn’t naturally watch sport.
But not only do these games attract a different audience, and therefore, different brands backing them, female athletes have also been shown to appeal to fans in different ways. They’re seen as more likeable and appealing - for example, during this year’s Winter Olympics, a study found that Team USA’s sportswomen drove more social media engagements per athlete than the sportsmen.
So while it’s never been a better time to be a female athlete, the commercial future can be much brighter. Women’s sports deserves to be in the mainstream. But it’s only through continued investment - which we can achieve if we market female sports in the right way, by focusing on the above three points - that we’ll keep growing the female game, and continue to raise the bar.