A Very Brief History of Women’s Sport in the 20th Century…

James Masters, Senior Planner

As the noughties came to a close, the now long gone The World Sponsorship Monitor, released a series of damning statistics about the commercial state of women’s sport. From 2005 to 2009, women’s-only sponsorship deals made up 3% of the total of reported sponsorship deals in the UK, and only 0.4% of the value.

Whilst a significant proportion of the total reported deals (32% of total, 42% of value) were deemed ‘combined’ sports – for example, Mars’ £24.4m agreement with the FA – there was no data attributed to the women’s element of said deals, and the fact remained too that the largest women’s-only sponsorship deals were typically 0.5-1% of the size of the largest in men’s.

This lack of significant commerciality continuing well into the start of the 21st century is one of the reasons why our first era of women’s sport stretches across the whole of the 20th. Another, related factor, being the predominance of amateurism in women’s sport.

There were exceptions of course. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1943 and disbanded in 1954. Serie A’s 1970s glory years which attracted some of the world’s best players with professional contracts – including former Scottish international Rose Reilly who won the Mundialito (a precursor of the World Cup) with Italy. And, most notably, the Women’s Tennis Association, spearheaded by the indomitable Billie Jean King.

Yet King, and her relatively few contemporaries were shining stars in an otherwise gloomy sky. Indeed, her story reveals another of the era’s fundamental flaws; namely, the blatant and commonplace bias towards women’s athletes and sports.

And although the proclamations of self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs – who King competed against in the infamous Battle of the Sexes exhibition match – are shocking now, three decades later Sepp Blatter could openly suggest that the popularity of women’s football would be improved by players wearing, “more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball”.

To be fair to Blatter… in 2011 a betting company plastering QR codes (which linked to their online platform) on the bikini bottoms of British beach volleyball players was deemed a “cheeky” idea by marketing industry commentators.

Slowly and surely though, things were starting to change. We had gone from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, being assaulted by race manager Jock Semple, to the likes of Paula Radcliffe becoming a celebrated (but, admittedly, sometimes derided) national figure.

In fact, by the time The World Sponsorship Monitor presented its 05-09 data, Radcliffe’s fellow Olympian, the swimmer Rebecca Adlington had secured 2nd and 3rd place on its list of the top reported deals in women’s-only sport.

These weren’t enormous endorsements, £550k and £250k with Speedo and British Gas respectively. But combine that with the growing number of brands attracted to the likes of Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton, as London 2012 approached, it felt like there was something special in the air around women’s sport. As though it might finally break through into the light.

To read part 1, Women’s Sport 3.0, click here.