Women's football: how brands can ride the gathering wave of popularity

Laura Bassett is consoled after scoring an own goal in England's semi-final defeat by Japan
Laura Bassett is consoled after scoring an own goal in England's semi-final defeat by Japan

England may have lost their semi-final at the FIFA Women's World Cup, but their overall performance marked a triumph for the sport and reignited the UK's faith in a national team playing the beautiful game. Marketing looks at the opportunities for brands eager to tap into the fervour surrounding women's football.

In recent times, the words ‘England’, ‘football’ and ‘World Cup’ haven’t tended to conjure up images of sporting prowess, let alone attract big-cat metaphors, yet, this summer, a team of footballers from England has lived up to its nickname, the 'Lionesses'.

The women’s game presents a huge opportunity for brands

This week got off to a great start for the team with victory over Canada, the host nation of the Women’s World Cup, becoming, in the process, the first senior England football team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup tournament since 1990.

Despite the game being broadcast at 12.30am on a Sunday, it attracted 1.6m viewers, while 2.6m watched England's previous game against Norway on BBC Three, the channel’s highest viewing figures since the London 2012 Olympics.

Sadly, the Lionesses' defeat last night at the hands of 2011 World Cup victors Japan has meant the end of England's hopes of triumph in Canada. Nonetheless, the team will face Germany on Saturday in a third-place play-off match, and, whatever the outcome, England has re-inspired a nation and altered the landscape of women's football beyond recognition.

For many brands that have not countenanced an association with men's football, the growing emancipation of the sport will make it an increasingly attractive prospect.

This side of the Atlantic, the Football Association recently appointed adam&eveDDB to help tackle negative images of women playing football. The agency has been briefed to expose incorrect stereotypes and challenge the idea that it is a boy’s game.

"Women’s football is now the fourth-largest participation sport in the UK," says Mat Goff, adam&eveDDB’s managing director. "But there’s still a lot of work to do at a grass-roots level – only 41% of 10-year-old girls play football, versus 95% of boys. And most of them still don’t feel confident, or believe it’s a sport for them. We are working with the FA on a new campaign, #wecanplay to help change this perception."

Changing perceptions is, of course, easier when people are listening, and that is now the case with women's football.

Russell James, the FA’s head of marketing, told Marketing: "Since The Football Association assumed control of the women’s game 22 years ago, the popularity of the sport has grown exponentially. At the time, there were just 80 registered girls’ teams but now there are 2.89m women and girls playing football on a regular basis. And the FA’s aims don’t end there, [we aim] to make football the second-biggest participation sport in England, behind men’s football, by 2018."

The Football Association's 'We Can Play' campaign by adam&eveDDB
The FA is working with adam&eveDDB on 'We Can Play', a campaign to encourage women to play football

So it's little surprise that women’s football is piquing the interest of commercial partners. A spokesman for Adidas told Marketing: "Our sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup directly contributes to the development of the game globally, and women’s football is a real focus for us this year and beyond."

Another such brand is Continental Tyres. "We have sponsored the FA’s Women’s Super League since 2011 and extended this to the England Women’s team in 2013," says Guy Frobisher, the company’s UK marketing director.

"In recent years, women’s football has increased the number of players, coaches, and fans – and, importantly, is securing significantly more media coverage in recognition of the growing audience for the sport."

He points out that in 2014 more than 100 hours of women’s football was broadcast on TV and radio, while about 8000 people attended the National FA Girls’ Football Festivals and Fanzones, which were delivered in partnership with Continental Tyres. "There are currently 1.3m players, 275,000 registered players and 5200 teams," he adds.

While Continental’s associations with the sport were not the consequence of women’s football per se, the company is keen to stress that it enables it to reach a broader and, potentially, more influential market.

England has re-inspired a nation and altered the landscape of women's football beyond recognition

"This delivers us to an important audience, namely families, and allows us to talk about our premium brand so that we are top of mind during the purchasing decision for tyres," says Frobisher.

The FA’s James concurs. "The women’s game presents a huge opportunity for brands," he says. "The FA WSL and WSL 2 has developed a unique, family-friendly atmosphere, which has been replicated at international level. This has proved very appealing to brands."

SSE recently signed a four-year title sponsorship of The FA Women’s Cup, the first ever major sponsorship of the competition, while other tie-ups have involved the likes of BT Sport, Nike, Vauxhall and Continental Tyres, which James says "have all invested significantly in The FA WSL and England Women".

For Continental Tyres, it is important to be involved at all levels of the women’s game, from grass-roots to the highest professional ranks.

"Our involvement in football covers a number of strands to activate our association, an example of this being the ContiWarmUp programme, which encourages footballers of all ages, and coaches, to warm up effectively to optimise their own performance and minimise the risk of injury," says Frobisher.

Continental Tyres also uses leading players as brand ambassadors, recently running a ‘Road to Canada’ campaign in the run-up to the Women’s World Cup, which focused on four players – Jess Clarke, Karen Carney, Toni Duggan and Eniola Aluko (pictured below).

Continental Tyres' 'Road to Canada' campaign featuring Eniola Aluko
Eniola Aluko is among several of the England team who act as brand ambassadors for Continental Tyres

As a Women’s World Cup sponsor, Adidas says it is the most visible brand on the pitch at the tournament. "As well as providing the Conext15 Official Match Ball (and a bespoke version for the final), Adidas also supplies kits to six of the leading federations, including current FIFA Women’s World Cup holders Japan and two-time winners Germany, as well as Sweden, Spain, Colombia and Mexico."

Meanwhile, Continental Tyres extends its support via ‘The Offside Rule,’ an online podcast and website. "We worked with the podcast to create a Continental-branded magazine entitled Road to Canada, which included lots of exclusive football content," explains Frobisher.

These women are incredible role models. Many of them are excelling in careers outside of football

Adam&eveDDB’s Goff stresses how the nascent popularity of women’s football is a boon for brands. "It means that brands getting involved in women’s football have a chance to get in early and help to shape and create the way fans enjoy, watch and share their experiences," he says. "As the sport gets bigger, the players will become higher profile, which will create a whole new raft of well-known sporting heroes for the brands to associate themselves with."

His point is echoed by Continental’s Frobisher, who says: "We expect there will be continued growth in interest in women’s football and that extends the opportunities for the brands, like Continental Tyres, that are involved.

"We feel that as our involvement has been directed to support the sport’s development, that role will be recognised."

While the behaviour of male footballers on and off the pitch sometimes attracts publicity for all the wrong reasons, Goff is enthusiastic about the more positive attributes of female footballers.

"When we go past the tipping point - it feels like the time is now - and female football stars become as mainstream as their male counterparts and are being emulated in playgrounds, there are rich sponsorship opportunities," he argues.

"These women are incredible role models. Many of them are excelling in careers outside of football, because the sport currently doesn’t remunerate the way it does for male players. Eni Aluko for example recently qualified as a lawyer."

But there are still challenges ahead, many rooted in outmoded schools of thought and gender stereotyping.

"Research undertaken for the ‘We Can Play’ campaign has shown that only one in four dads would encourage their daughters to play football," points out James. "As society becomes more accepting of the sport being suitable for girls, participation figures will increase significantly."

This is good news for brands looking to reach a more diverse audience for an already hugely popular game.

"It’s an exciting time for the women’s game," adds James. "This summer could represent a tipping point that propels the sport to become a whole new ball game."

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