A red card, a missed penalty and a tea-drinking goal celebration to remember – the Lionesses' World Cup journey was filled with memorable moments but, despite the semi-final heartbreak, England’s journey has inspired many. Their encounter with the eventual winners was the most-watched UK TV programme this year (at 11.7 million), making it even more pertinent for brands to stay involved to help accelerate growth.
The audience build
The TV audience for England versus the US smashed the previous best for a women's game – 7.6 million for England's quarter-final win over Norway. And that, in turn, beat the previous best of 6.1 million for England's Scotland tussle. In one tournament, the audience has nearly doubled. Put into context, four million people watched the Lionesses lose the semi-finals at the 2017 Euros – so a long-term upward trend is forming.
It’s a family affair
In the fan zones that MKTG produced in Paris, the demographic was clearly different to the men's game: more female and family-oriented. There was a party atmosphere, but the "lads on tour" feeling was largely absent. Many would say that’s a good thing. The depressing scenes from the Ajax-Spurs Champions League clash shows there’s still work to be done to combat the alcohol-fuelled aspects of watching the male game. For sponsors, a greater proportion of female fans will be hugely interesting, not only for brand image but also because 80% of purchasing decisions are made by women.
Club football no longer the poor cousin
In one sense, the women’s game has been the inverse of the male variety, where fan loyalties to clubs are often stronger than to country. International tournaments can feel like shop windows for the real business of club football. With the women’s game, it’s the international tournaments that have generated the big interest, while club matches have received poorer viewing and attendance figures.
Yet there’s much to encourage us as Russ Fraser, general manager at West Ham United Women, explains: "The biggest difference I’ve seen in women’s football over the past few years is that brands are now approaching clubs, rather than the clubs having to actively persuade brands. Getting to this year’s FA Cup final, which was heavily trailed on TV, clearly boosted interest in sponsors wanting to work with us."
As we know, Visa voted with its feet in 2018, announcing a seven-year deal with Uefa that included rights to the Women’s Champions League, the Euros and "Together #weplaystrong", Uefa’s marketing platform encouraging more girls to put on their boots. The fact that 21 million European women play football was key to Visa’s decision to get involved. Now it wants to make football the most played female sport. That day may come soon, given that European sides occupied three semi-final berths. It’s a real win/win – by supporting the next generation of footballers, Visa is building awareness to its future customer base.
A fresh approach
This Women’s World Cup felt fresh because of how they have approached things, from the way the squad was announced to the accessibility of the players. Kelly Smith, one of England's finest all-time internationals, has described female players as closer to their audiences and more prepared to showcase their true personality than their male counterparts – an observation that could be confirmed by the US's Megan Rapinoe, outspoken critic of Donald Trump. Kelly’s description of her early experiences as the star performer in an all boys’ team, and how she was forced out of the league because of her gender, showed purpose and authenticity – qualities that chime resoundingly with modern audiences.
Learning from the men’s game
Brands that act now to capitalise on the zeitgeist moment will benefit from the learnings of the men’s game; investment in male sport came out of simply sticking your name on all existing assets for just one channel: TV. Although mere badging is frowned upon now, it has undeniably shaped present-day behaviour in the way sponsorship gets done.
In women’s sport, it could be different. Sponsors have the opportunity to play a role in shaping activation rights with the intellectual property owners because they’re engaged at early stages talking to the source. The stars have aligned for the lift-off of the women’s game – next time, let’s hope it's the Lionesses' turn to lift the trophy.
Michael Brown is managing director at MKTG