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Brands backing women’s sport is wonderful – but they are followers, not leaders

England’s all-time leading goalscorer Kelly Smith talking football with students at the announcement of Barclay's sponsorship deal with the FA Women's Super League.

Rejoice! The sports marketing industry has officially recognised half the population of the world. This wonderful news comes just 91 years after British women got the right to vote. These really are heady times.

Barclays’ decision to sponsor the FA Women’s Super League led the news agenda last month, allowing the bank to breathe the rarefied air of the moral high ground. Who knew that restoring a corporate reputation could be so easy, and so cheap? For the price of a trader’s bonus, Barclays is now mentioned in sentences that also include words like ‘brave’, ‘fearless’ and ‘brand purpose’. The last time they were on News at Ten they were being fined £1.4bn for fraudulently selling residential mortgage-backed securities that helped cause the financial crisis.

Taken along with announcements from Visa, Boots, adidas and Budweiser, the Barclays deal has been hailed as a new dawn, and there’s talk of momentum in the air.

“Deals valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds – more of it value in kind than cash – are being replaced by multi-million-pound investment from household name brands making a long-term commitment,” says Sally Horrox, managing partner at Y Sport. “We are starting to destroy old myths around women’s sport – and it’s not just football.”

I really, really hope this is true. I have a daughter and I want her to see women in positions of power, doing incredible things, whether that’s in sport, science, politics, fronting the news or leading FTSE 100 companies. Whatever works, I’m all in.

But we should avoid the trap of projecting a moral compass on to multinationals, or thinking that brands take a leading role in important societal issues.

With very few exceptions, sponsors don’t lead, they follow. And as with the case of gender equality, they are often bloody slow to do so. For all the talk of thrilling disruption, the sport sponsorship market is mostly a ponderous, bovine presence. They’ll be all over women now because that’s where the rest of the herd is going.

Yet for years we were told the numbers for women’s sport don’t add up, that they didn’t support the investment required to build a credible marketing platform. Now suddenly they do.

The chronic under-investment in women’s sport was always just about personal prejudice: someone, somewhere high up just didn’t fancy it, and then used the numbers to post-rationalise. A benefit of data analytics is that it allows career bureaucrats to hide their bias behind the fake certainty of the spreadsheet.

Of course, the entry of big brands is great news, and it’s right they should pay through the nose for the opportunity to signal their virtue. But they aren’t the heroes of this story.

Let’s instead focus on the people who’ve dragged, cajoled and bullied the rights-holders into taking women seriously, to create properties that can be properly commercialised, and who have pushed the media to build platforms fit for a whole new cadre of sporting heroes. This is the back-breaking grind that has got us here which has been carried out day to day by people such as Kelly Simmons, Liz Nicholl, Ruth Holdaway, Sue Campbell, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Katherine Grainger, Sally Hancock, Anna Kessel, Charlotte Atyeo…this is just the start of a long list of genuine thought leaders who’ve done something important: they made it no longer acceptable to simply benchmark women’s football, cricket, golf, hockey, tennis and rugby against the men’s versions. These sports are doing a different job, and they stand and fall on their own merits.

It’s for this reason my mind goes to Nora Ephron, who waged a parallel battle in the film industry. Before her death, the writer and/or director of hits such as When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood and Sleepless in Seattle wrote a collection of essays that included two lists, entitled What I Will Miss and What I Won’t Miss. In the latter she wrote: ‘Panels on Women in Film’.

She was bored of the handwringing, and instead wrote parts for women that were “as complicated and interesting as women actually are”, rejecting Hollywood’s inclination to use female characters as mere adornments to men. In this way, Ephron’s films always passed the writer Alison Bechdel’s acid test for assessing the presence of women in fiction:

  1. Does it include at least two women?
  2. Who have at least one conversation?
  3. About something other than a man or men?

More than half of films still fail this test, but the ones that pass make more money. It’s a lesson the sports business may yet learn.

To follow Richard Gillis on Twitter: @RichardGillis1.

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