Visa’s commitment to women’s football lays down a challenge for other sponsors

VANCOUVER, BC - JULY 05: Abby Wambach #20 and Christie Rampone #3 of the United States celebrates after winning the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 5-2 against Japan at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Every so often, a moment changes the sports marketing world forever.

Some moments happen behind closed doors, and only reveal their significance later. Mark McCormack’s handshake with Arnold Palmer, or Horst Dassler and Patrick Nally’s creation of the multi-brand sponsorship model.

Others literally shake the world – not just the sports marketing world – instantly, and sadly in my lifetime they haven’t come any bigger than Ben Johnson’s failed doping test, the Fifa arrests, or Tiger Woods’ disgrace.

Happily, there have also been plenty of big, brilliant moments.

Moments when genius creativity reinvents sports marketing, such as Nike’s Ronaldinho crossbar film, sport’s first viral by design, or Oreo’s ‘You can still dunk in the dark’ Super Bowl post, sport’s first instantaneous global social media moment.

And moments when sports marketing feels like it really can change not just itself but the world for the better, like Channel 4’s genre-defying ‘Meet the Superhumans’ London 2012 Paralympics campaign, or – no apologies for mentioning it again – Nike’s uncompromising Colin Kaepernick ad last year.

Especially moments like those. When you know they’re going to make a difference, and make you think “I wish more sponsors did that.”

Here’s the thing. Another one of those moments might just have happened, in women’s football.

And its effects on the sponsorship not just of women’s football but of women’s sport in general could be more profound than anything we have seen up to now.

But it happened very quietly.

In a post on Visa Europe’s innovation blog published on March 1st, SVP Marketing Adrian Farina wrote ‘…today, we’re making a commitment to support Women’s Football with [my italics] a marketing investment equal to our support of the Men’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, in 2018. We will play our part in ensuring the women’s game gets equal standing, recognition and appreciation as the men’s game because it’s about time’.

Now, being only a few lines in a corporate post with an unremarkable headline (‘Ushering in the power of the collective: Team Visa’) it didn’t cut through.

Yes, it’s worded rather vaguely, and as such begs some questions. Does ‘Women’s Football’ mean the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, of which Visa is a sponsor? If it doesn’t, what does it mean? And over what period is the investment being made?

But with those caveats, make no mistake – this is a game-changer for women’s sport sponsorship, and sponsorship in general.

Whatever Visa spent on activating the 2018 Men’s World Cup would have been a lot of money, so matching that investment on women’s football is a major commitment that sends out a very strong message about equality.

It also of course lays down a very direct challenge to two key stakeholders in women’s football: to Fifa, whose prize fund for this year’s women’s World Cup is, at $30m, a fraction of the $440m prize fund for the next men’s World Cup; and to Fifa’s five other global sponsors – Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai, Qatar Airways and Wanda – who will all now inevitably come under pressure to declare and equalise the ratios of their activation investments in the men’s and women’s tournament.

And for as long as Fifa bundle the men’s and women’s World Cups into their global sponsorships, I strongly suspect that the activation equality test, to coin a phrase, will be one of the key metrics on which Fifa Partners are measured.

This doesn’t stop at the city limits of FifaLand. Anything but. It will go global, and beyond football.

For example, there are numerous brands who sponsor both men’s and women’s sports and events around the world. Whether they do so via bundled or separate sponsorships, it won’t be long before they will be asked to take the activation equality test too.

Nor will it be long before brands who only, or primarily, sponsor men’s sport despite having equal-gender customer bases – of which there are more than a few – come under pressure to sponsor women’s sport.

Whatever the scenario, the winners will be brands like Visa who make it happen themselves rather than waiting to be told or exposed.

But if the result is increased sponsorship of women’s sport, and ultimately equality in sports marketing, everyone’s a winner.

Tim Crow has been at the forefront of sports marketing for thirty years. Formerly chief executive of Synergy, he now advises a range of companies at the intersection of sport, marketing, media and technology. Follow him @shaymantim.

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