The 2010s, a decade of momentum and growing opportunities

James Masters, Senior Planner

Jessica Ennis (as Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE was once known) was arguably already the face of London 2012 before 16.3m Brits watched her win the 800m and claim a gold medal in the heptathlon. In the days that followed, the newspapers buzzed with speculation that she would soon secure £3m+ in endorsement deals.

London 2012, in the UK certainly, was the start of the second era of women’s sport. The era where the pace at which it began to shed misconceptions and bolster its commerciality quickened by the year, sometimes – it seemed – by the day.

Nielsen data reveals that between 2013 and 2017 not only did the annual number of women’s sports sponsorship deals announced increase by 37% but, crucially, the monetary sizes of the agreements by 49%.

Alongside this commercial progress, cultural shifts were happening too. To be clear, it is not that gender biases in sport suddenly stopped. One example (from thousands) being the code violation Alize Cornet was given for changing her shirt on court. However, the difference from Women’s Sport 1.0 was that instances of gender disparity began to be more regularly and more strongly called out.

This bias consciousness in sport was, of course, tied up with wider conversations about female empowerment in the 2010s but, we would argue, that the increased visibility of women’s sport amongst the masses was a contributory factor.

In the UK, initiatives like Women’s Sports Week significantly increased the public profile of female athletes, as well as promoting grassroots participation amongst girls & women. (The massive strides forward in participation deserve a series of articles in their own right.)

Meanwhile, the combined power of the BBC, various media outlets, and (most importantly!) the extraordinary performances of the Lionesses, resulted in major football tournaments that were considered major tournaments for the first time by the wider population. In the case of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the stats speak for themselves; domestic viewing figures on the BBC increased from 5.1m in 2011, to 12.4m in 2015, to 28.1m in 2019.

In fact, the era of Women’s Sport 2.0 was punctuated and defined by these big moments. London 2012, FIFA Women’s World Cups, the Vitality Netball World Cup. GB Hockey’s Gold medal at Rio 2016, Serena Williams at the 2017 Australian Open, England winning the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup.

The rest of the sporting calendar was yet to catch up, however. According to Women in Sport, in 2017, women’s sport made up 10% of UK media coverage in the summer of 2017 – a period coinciding with rugby and cricket world cups and UEFA Women’s Euro 2017. This dropped to a baseline of 4% later that year (28 October – 28 November), with men’s sports taking up 81% of coverage, the remaining 16% being ‘mixed’ sports.

Here there was room for improvement… and opportunity for bold media owners keen to fill the vacuum. The launch of Telegraph Women’s Sport, under Anna Kessel, being a perfect example.

Brands too were taking up the mantle. From Under Armour’s ‘I Will What I Want’ content with Gisele Bündchen (2014), to Lidl Ireland’s Gaelic Football ‘ladyball’ spoof, to the provocative tone of Commerzbank’s ad with the German football team (2019) … “We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them”.

If there was a common thread amongst much of this marketing, it was challenging the numerous deep-set negative perceptions we saw in Women’s Sport 1.0. This was a truism in participation too – think Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ and Always’ #LikeAGirl. (How couldn’t we mention them!)

Today, in late 2021, things have moved on further, and as we’ll explore on Friday, brands have the opportunity now to deploy women’s sport for a multiplicity of narratives. But to get here, the period of progress we saw in Women’s Sport 2.0 was critical.

The decade of the 2nd big era of women’s sport was not without issues. No time is. Fundamentally, however, it had been a time of enormous growth in people’s hearts and minds. And in cheque books and wallets.

The stage was now set for women’s sport to step into the spotlight.

Part 1: Welcome to Women’s Sport 3.0

Part 2: Women’s Sport 1.0 – Playing in the Dark