The England Lionesses were watched by record audiences in this year’s Women’s World Cup, with the semi-final against the US attracting peak figures of 11.7 million on BBC One. This was a significant rise in viewership in comparison with the last time the women’s game hit our screens in 2015, when England’s semi-final with Japan peaked at 2.4 million viewers (also on BBC One).
Although these figures don’t yet match the success of the men’s team – with 26.5 million people watching England play their semi-final against Croatia – it shows that the women’s game is definitely gaining in popularity.
Brands have long understood the opportunity to get in front of consumers through advertising and sponsorship around big sporting events, with the Olympics and Men's World Cup having always been prime events for brands to latch on to. But this year's Women’s World Cup has shown the real opportunity for brands to associate themselves with women's sport and minority sports.
The Women’s World Cup vs the Men’s World Cup
In the UK, this was the first time there has been sizeable advertising spend around the Women’s World Cup, with ads from Fifa sponsors, team sponsors and sports brands all shining. Significantly, Nielsen Ad Intel data shows that this year spend from Fifa sponsors for the Women’s World Cup, where a tournament logo was included in print and TV ads, topped that of the men's competition in 2018.
However, while this is a good narrative for advertising around women’s sport, in the long term the amount of adspend by World Cup sponsors, as linked to the event through the tournament logo in both print and TV, is in decline, dropping from more than £8m in 2010 for the Men’s World Cup in South Africa to £3.5m for the 2018 tournament in Russia. But this total was surpassed in 2019 for the Women’s World Cup, with total spend up to £4m, with £3.8m of that coming from just Visa, which spent £2.2m more than they did on the 2018 competition.
Visa was also the only brand to amplify sponsorship advertising in the run-up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup starting in April, with press and TV ads showing the journey of a young girl buying a pair of football boots – using Visa – and the success that can be inspired by this moment. Advertising from Qatar Airways only peaked once the games began, but reached nowhere near the heights of Visa.
This early advertising activation was a significant shift over the 2018 men’s event, where the majority of adspend from Fifa sponsors including Visa, Coca-Cola, Hyundai and Qatar Airways peaked just as the games began – with the exception of Hyundai and Budweiser, which started their campaigns a few weeks earlier.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup also saw a push in advertising from non-Fifa sponsors, with Football Association sponsor Lucozade championing the Lionesses in an ad that rewrote the lyrics of Three Lions to address the trials and tribulations of women in sport. Meanwhile, another FA sponsor, Budweiser, looked to the words of Queen Elizabeth I to inspire the England team, repurposing her "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman" speech on the eve of the Spanish Armada to say: "You may think I have the body of a weak and feeble woman" in order to tackle biases against female athletes.
As the examples from Lucozade and Budweiser show, the creative execution of the ads around the 2019 Women’s World Cup was markedly different from that seen in the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The 2019 ads were focused on the transformational power of sport and reflected the struggles that female footballers have historically undergone to be taken seriously.
In contrast, the advertising around the Men’s World Cup the year before was far more product-focused. For example, the corresponding Budweiser ad in 2018 showed scenes of Russia with bottles of Budweiser being delivered by drone. Meanwhile, the Visa spot showed fans watching the match in bars and pubs while paying for their rounds with Visa.
With this in mind, it’s crucial for brands to understand that involvement in sporting events, whether that be sponsorship or advertising, should always be complemented with creatively strong advertising campaigns. The beautiful game calls for either an emotional connection or something that speaks to the passion that the sport garners from its fans – and brands that tap into this will be the ones that cut through.
The Women’s World Cup has shown that there is a growing opportunity for brands to associate themselves with women’s and minority sports, and that they often have the opportunity to tell more compelling stories around these sports. However, it is also clear that there is an opportunity for brands to tap into the emotions of the fans through greater and earlier activation. Hopefully, these lessons will have been learned in time for the Uefa Women’s Euros, which will be held in England in 2021.
Barney Farmer is commercial director at Nielsen
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