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Brands “lack bravery” in women’s sport, says England Netball CEO Joanna Adams

Joanna Adams, the chief executive of England netball, has called on brands to be braver and take more risks when it comes to sponsorship of women’s sport.

Speaking exclusively to SportBusiness after her appearance at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club at London’s BT Centre, Adams criticised the lack of investment from female-focused brands into women’s sport, saying that “a lot of brand managers, sponsorship managers, have great jobs and don’t want to jeopardise those jobs by doing something they might not get an immediate return from”. 

The opportunity for women’s brands that has been created in sport was huge, she said, but so far there was a reluctance to enter into the market “when a straightforward media buy in a women’s lifestyle magazine is much easier than activating a sports sponsorship.”

“We’ve sat in front of a lot of female brands for whom you’d think it’s a complete no-brainer to be involved in women’s sport,” she added. “Gillette are all over men’s sport, but not women’s. Women shave their legs and their armpits when they’re playing netball, and I’m sure they get through more razors than men. But that conversation just doesn’t happen.”

She also referenced the likes of Dove – which has made significant investments into men’s rugby with its Men+Care marque – and L’Oréal, which has featured the likes of men’s tennis player Rafael Nadal in its ad campaigns – as brands who she felt were “missing open goals” by not targeting a female audience through women’s sports.

Part of the problem, she said, was the feeling within women’s sport that it is competing for the same sponsorship spend as men’s. Netball England deliberately pursued a strategy of “feminising” its brand, something for which Adams and others came under criticism.

“We repositioned our brand to appeal to our core audience, not just selling the same old male-led story,” she said. “People felt we were trivialising netball or dumbing it down, but it was really all about appealing to the target audience. We achieved that, and showed that there are brands out there who want to work in women’s sport, if you build the right proposition. We’ve pursued this strategy since 2011 and every step of the way we’ve listened to our fans.”

Alongside Adams on stage at the BT Centre was Nick Read, managing director of the Vitality Programme at insurance brand Vitality, which title sponsors the England netball team. Read admitted that it was precisely that branding which convinced Vitality to get involved with England Netball. “It was literally all about women in sport for us,” he told SportBusiness after the event. “We want gender parity across our sponsorships, and no other sport that we researched had that bias from a gender perspective like netball, no other sport played so strongly with a female audience.”

Echoing Adams’ thoughts on a lack of bravery in the market, he added: “It is about being brave, because the business case hasn’t necessarily been proven. Someone in the marketing department has got to put that budget somewhere it’s going to get the return on investment, and deploying it in female sport where it’s an unknown is a big call for them. At the moment I think they’re playing it safe – maybe too safe.” 

Last week saw Fifa partners Adidas and Visa pledge to invest equal amounts into marketing and activating at this year’s Women’s World Cup as they did at last year’s men’s equivalent. Adams described this as a “phenomenal, watershed moment”, but said other brands now needed to follow this and show commitment to women’s sport.

Asked by event host James Pearce whether it was easier for Adidas and Visa, as huge companies with vast ad spends, to do something like this just for the PR win, Adams replied: “Does it matter? At the end of the day, brands are involved in sport for their own benefit, and if they’re investing extra money into women’s sport, it doesn’t matter whether they’re doing that as a PR play or for CSR reasons.”

Adams also said that now was a time to celebrate the extent to which women’s sport had managed to break through, particularly in the public consciousness. Last year, the England netball team won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, beating overwhelming favourites Australia on their own turf, but also picked up two trophies – team of the year and greatest sporting moment of the year – at the BBC Sport Personality of the Year awards. The latter achievement was, Adams said, “even bigger” than the Commonwealth gold, because of what it said about the public’s engagement with netball and women’s sport more generally.