US soccer player Mia Hamm – who twice won the World Cup, has two Olympic gold medals and was named Fifa World Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002 – is the closest person women’s football has yet come to producing a global superstar. Even though it’s 20 years after her breakthrough "99ers" moment, she’s still identified as the women’s football star.
It wasn’t just her football skills, though, that propelled her career and visibility. Hamm – who was also well-known for her inspirational work ethic and quotes – was also one of the first to have been courted by big brands. She starred in commercials for Pantene and Nike, and famously took on basketball player Michael Jordan in a Gatorade ad – the first of their kind at that level in the game.
It has taken nearly 20 years, but brands outside the US are now waking up to the power of women’s football. Deals are being struck ahead of the Women’s World Cup in France this summer; Barclays just paid £10m to sponsor the Women’s Super League in the UK, Visa recently signed a seven-year deal with Uefa women’s football, SSE has its name on the women’s FA Cup and Gatorade recently extended its global sponsorship of Manchester City to cover the women’s team.
A wave of investment
The upcoming World Cup has also spearheaded a new wave of brand investment in the national game. Lucozade is sponsoring England’s Lionesses, Nike has created bespoke women’s kits for the 14 national teams represented this summer and Adidas recently announced that the World Cup winners will – for the first time – get the same bonus as their male counterparts.
Our Copa90 World Cup club houses in Paris and Lyon will host events, podcasts, video content and merchandise, created in partnership with progressive brands that are coming up with exciting and truly creative ideas for capitalising on the buzz of the tournament and the cultural impact of women’s football.
With Visa, we have built a team from players around Europe and we’re working together to promote this in a way that brings out the stories of each individual. Denmark’s Nadia Nadim, for example, was born in Afghanistan and began playing football when she moved to Denmark as a refugee after the Taliban executed her father. She speaks nine languages, plays for Paris Saint-Germain and is also training to be a doctor.
Building a new narrative
It’s these kind of stories that help give women’s football the visibility it needs to take a place in the top flight of sport. The quality of the game has improved immeasurably in the 10-15 years since I captained New Zealand at the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games; at that time, even I didn’t watch a lot of women’s football, because it was admittedly lacking in quality unless it was the very top teams.
Quality is no longer an issue, so the priority now is visibility. I don’t mean this as a corporate social responaibility, let’s-promote-women exercise; I’m convinced that all fans need is to actually have access to seeing the sport for what it is now – high-quality, top athletes, incredible storytelling and positive values.
I moved from playing to a job at Fifa and now work at Copa90 because I want to help the sport achieve that visibility – it raises the profile of the game, which in turn fuels demand and makes both the players and the sport a more valuable commodity for sponsors. And it’s better for the sport as a whole, since it’s more reflective of a world we live in, allows for more role models and makes football more accessible.
Women’s football is drawing in ever-bigger numbers: Manchester City is hosting a World Cup warm-up game in April that sold out within 24 hours. A women’s match between Barcelona and Atlético Madrid was recently played in front of a world-record crowd of 60,739 fans and, last weekend, a record Italian crowd of 39,000 watched Juventus beat Fiorentina.
Brands looking for a return on investment should learn from insurance company Vitality, which got in early as an England netball sponsor in 2015 and was massively rewarded when the team scored a shock victory against Australia to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games last year.
Winning helps, of course. The US women’s soccer team has been number one or two in the world for the last decade – but the country also benefits from the fact that men’s sport is dominated by American football, basketball and baseball, leaving soccer more space to develop as a game that has easy access for girls and women.
There are more cultural barriers to progress in the rest of the world. Just ahead of the last women’s World Cup in Canada, Felice Belloli, head of the Italian amateur football association (and who also presided over women’s football), was forced to quit after he dismissed female players as "a bunch of lesbians".
The game is up against the same issues as the whole women’s movement, but together we are all making progress and brands are right behind it. In the era when diversity is starting to be celebrated, when high-profile women such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon are building their own media empires, there’s greater diversity in the voices setting the tone, breaking down stereotypes and painting a more diverse picture about a world we all want to live in. Women’s football is a trend setter, a taste maker and a positive space to further that cause.
Rebecca Smith is global executive director of the women’s game at Copa90