How the Women’s game is attracting fans and appealing to brands
As we approach the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, which will be hosted in France this summer, Richard Jaffa has taken a look at the meteoric rise of the women’s game.
The increasing stature of women’s football is no doubt one of sport’s most prominent trends, propelling the world’s most popular game forward. In the last five years the flame has begun to burn more intensely, and there has certainly been a rise in the exposure and promotion of the Women’s game in both the media and by governing bodies.
Last year, FIFA announced its global strategy to double women’s participation to 60m by 2026. FIFA’s estimation of 30m female participants from its 2014 study includes unregistered players, with 4.8m defined as registered.
According to Global Web Index’s online survey across 44 markets, there is closer to 120m females (aged 16-64) who ‘play or take part’ in football, which is a loosely defined term, but points towards a large pool of potential active players. Male participation is approximately four times higher at 477m.
What is not in doubt is the significant uptake in participation in recent years. Over the past 20 years in the USA, the number of registered female players has increased from 100,000 to 1.4m. In Europe, it rose 7.5% to 1.4m in 2017 alone.
The same trend can be seen for professional/semi-professional players, with numbers doubling in Europe to 3,572 in 2017 as more leagues were formed. The Spanish women’s league turned professional in 2015 and Real Madrid has just announced that they will enter a team into the competition for the first time in their history.
UEFA have been a particularly positive influence on developments at grassroots level, pushing their #WePlayStrong campaign to encourage participation by breaking down entry barriers. Expect to see campaigns with similar, emboldening messages in France this summer. In England, the FA recently launched the SSE Wildcats scheme working with local county FAs and aimed at 5-11-year-old females, to align with its aim to double girls’ participation by 2020.
A Level Playing Field
It’s not just participation that is increasing. There is a growing appetite in terms of viewership, which is part of a current trend encompassing women’s sport more broadly.
Football’s pull can be attributed to an improvement in the overall quality & integrity of the spectacle, with the increasing professionalism of players and leagues a contributing factor.
All 11 teams in the English Women’s Super League (WSL) are now fully professional outfits, which in the long term will help football become a sustainable career choice for women and encourage greater participation. If this upward curve continues, attendances are likely to elevate way beyond current levels (WSL crowds average at just 900).
Success always helps to drive engagement, so England winning the recent She Believes Cup should maintain the feelgood factor and entice fans to follow their progress at the World Cup this summer. The FA have done an admirable job in promoting the women’s team on a level-footing with the men’s, creating campaigns that have integrated both the Lions and the Lionesses.
Showpiece events continue to break records, with the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada and the 2017 UEFA Women’s Euros in the Netherlands breaking total attendance records at 1.35m and 240k respectively.
Given the format has now expanded from 16 to 24 teams, it’s widely expected that France 2019 will smash attendance and viewing records once again. An impressive 764m in-home TV viewers tuned in for Canada 2015, and the final between Japan and the USA became the most watched soccer match, female or
male, in US history with 23m viewers.
Over 45,000 fans turned up to watch the SSE Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley in 2018 too, a figure that reflects genuine interest among the masses. Given the generally low attendance figures experienced in the WSL, turning passive fans into active ones should be of the utmost importance.
In Mexico, the Liga MX Femenil final 2018 had an attendance of over 51,000, evidence that passion for the women’s game extends far and wide. Closer to home, Spain’s Primera División set a new world record attendance for a women’s club match in March 2019, when 60,739 fans attended Atlético Madrid Femenino vs FC Barcelona Femení.
That was followed a week later by Juventus F.C Women selling-out the 39,000-seater Allianz Stadium in Turin (more than double the previous Italian record) as they beat Fiorentina to take a step closer to the Serie A title.
Interestingly, those who follow the FIFA Women’s World Cup are slightly more likely to be male than female, demonstrating that the women’s game appeals to both genders in almost equal measure.
Tools brand Stanley Black & Decker, a traditionally male-focused brand, have sought to capitalise on this by choosing to extend their FC Barcelona sponsorship to feature on the front of the women’s shirt. We are witnessing a new avenue of football sponsorship open to an array of brands who may previously have dismissed the sport as being almost exclusively male.
Money well spent
Further evidence that women’s football is being taken seriously from a financial and brand marketing perspective is the recent unbundling of UEFA Women’s rights packages, with FIFA widely expected to follow suit.
Clearly UEFA understand the appetite for brands to associate exclusively with the women’s game, and they have been rewarded by VISA becoming the first standalone women’s sponsor in a 7 year, multi-million-pound deal. Rights cover the UEFA Women’s Champions League, Senior, U19 and U17 Euros and the Women’s Futsal Euros. VISA should be lauded for making the strategic decision to match their marketing spend on men’s football to women’s, and other brands have been quick to emulate this.
Lucozade Sport have also sponsored the Lionesses & will use players such as Nikita Parris as ambassadors in upcoming marketing campaigns, whilst Adidas recently announced that it would be awarding its sponsored players the same amount in bonuses as their male counterparts, should they end up on the winning team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in June.
Banking giant Barclays have also just signed a historic title sponsorship deal of the English Women’s Super League, in a deal worth over £10 million across three seasons which also guarantees £500,000 in prize money for the first time.
This summer’s World Cup, meanwhile, already has 5 local sponsors, such as Crédit Agricole, paying in excess of $1m each, evidence that they foresee sufficient exposure and ROI to justify investment.
And partnerships are not just limited to tournaments. Health and beauty retailer Boots broke new ground last week by announcing a landmark investment in women’s football, which will see them partner with the five football associations of the British Isles for three years, in a multi-million pound deal. That announcement came fresh off the back of the news that Budweiser will also sponsor the England women’s team; their first expenditure in women’s football.
This wave of investment only serves to demonstrate that brands are finally recognising the power of women's football in its ability to build new narratives and communicate with new audiences - a trend that will continue to develop in the coming years.
A man’s game?
There has long been a misconception that football is a man’s game followed predominantly by men. However, our CSM Watermelon survey data suggests this is wide of the mark and there’s a significant female fanbase to be engaged with.
Data from our survey uncovered that 58% of females are interested in football, an equivalent to 609m across 18 markets. 50% of females are interested in the Men’s FIFA World Cup, and 40% in the Women’s World Cup.
We may, therefore, see a shift by female-facing brands previously hesitant to sponsor elite level male football. Conversely, the same could occur for male-focused brands as women’s football continues to establish itself.
Competition amongst brands and potential host nations for showpiece events is also set to become more aggressive, as they fight to ride the wave of this emerging trend.
Expect more and more brands to invest in women’s football sponsorship, the number of deals to elevate and the fees to substantially increase, closing the gap on the men’s game.
The top female players will be more widely harnessed as brand ambassadors as they become household names, competing with and complimenting their male counterparts. Indeed, we are already seeing a shift in the broadcast space with Alex Scott regularly chosen for Sky Sports punditry, receiving wide acclaim on social media.
In-stadium attendance and broadcast figures will also accelerate rapidly, as the game moves into the mainstream. As money is more evenly distributed, the quality of players, staff, coaches, facilities and grassroots schemes will improve and subsequently bolster the quality of the final product, its value in the media and appeal to brands.
Expect to see more gender crossover in football operations too. There will be more female staff and coaches in the male game and vice versa, with shared expertise.
It’s an exhilarating time for all involved with the women’s game and expect the wider football spotlight to be firmly focused on the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, giving this exciting development an added boost.