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Women’s sport: Sponsorship viewpoint from Synergy and CSM Sport and Entertainment

Women’s sport: Sponsorship viewpoint from Synergy and CSM Sport and Entertainment

By: Matthew Glendinning

24 Aug 2017
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Will the media coverage given to major women's sports events in football, rugby and cricket during the summer inspire greater sponsorship investment in women’s sport in the UK? 

Lisa Parfitt, managing director, Synergy: The kind of media coverage women’s sport is now getting is long overdue and will certainly strengthen the value that rights-holders can provide to brands. However, it would be short-sighted to think that the value for brands all rests on media value. Let’s face it, there are very few sports or properties that guarantee a sponsor the awareness without a supporting marketing programme.  

When we were advising SSE on its women’s sport strategy and in the process of selecting the SSE Women’s FA Cup, the relative-lack of media coverage wasn’t a deal breaker. SSE could see the potential, the growth in participation, the family values and audience and bought into a story of fairness and equality that would support the desire to shift brand sentiment. Not awareness. Sentiment. 

Don’t mistake me though, media has a role to play in breaking the vicious cycle that women’s sport has found itself in. The argument that no one is interested in women’s sport has been the go-to excuse for the lack of coverage and a much-lauded statistic frightening off would-be sponsors. 

The status of women’s sport has sky-rocketed. This summer alone has seen viewing figures and match attendance smash through current records. In July and August, women’s sport regularly rated in the top five most-read articles on DailyTelegraph.com and on Thursday 3rd August the Women’s Euros coverage had 73,000 unique views, the highest number across all sports coverage including the early reporting of Neymar’s transfer which had only 17,000. There isn’t a more compelling argument to brands who question if women’s sport is the right platform to engage with an audience. 

Sam Wakefield, account manager, CSM Sport & Entertainment: Yes, the media exposure has been great for building the fan base in women’s sport this summer and will likely have a knock-on effect when it comes to investment. 

There are two main reasons sponsors would come into women’s sport; brand exposure through media coverage and a large and relevant fan base with whom they can engage, something the increased media coverage will help achieve 

Brands getting involved in men’s sport tend to pay a premium for what is a large and highly-engaged fan base with a mature media market. With women’s sport, brands would benefit from the kudos of getting in at an early stage before the popularity of women’s sport takes off, both in terms of credibility and at what will be a lower price point. The media coverage of women’s sport is only going in one direction so brands looking further into the future could capitalise on this. 

As an agency, CSM closely monitored social trends to see how brands might benefit from an ambassador increasing their own personal exposure. I wrote a weekly women’s cricket column during my days as a journalist at The Cricket Paper in 2012-13 and the difference in both mass appeal, awareness and media profile among the players has improved for the better. The Women’s Cricket World Cup, with a sold-out Lord’s, captured the public’s imagination and it was great to see the players all over media and social in the days and week following to capitalise on this. 

Research shows that women are inspired by real women doing real things. Long-term ‘heroes’ play less of a role than they do with men in the influencer space. Therefore, the greater media coverage afforded to women’s achievement in sport, the more women will be inspired by it and the more opportunity it opens up to sponsors looking to invest. 

In general, are rights-holders in women’s sport doing enough to supply valuable assets for brands to work with? 

Lisa Parfitt: Any brand that is approaching the purchase of a partnership with the number of tickets, hospitality and branding to deliver value is not thinking about it in the right way. There is a simple yet strong case for why brands should want to support women’s sport and it’s nothing to do with tickets and branding. The most valuable asset IS the sport. 

Women’s sport in the UK is highly successful, as hockey, football, cricket, and rugby alone has proved in just the last 12 months claiming the back and front pages of our newspapers where they rightly belong. Our sports women have provided their own straightforward solution to increase the value of their sport by simply being more successful than their male counterparts. They are inspirational, empowering, and provide a wonderful metaphor for what women are capable of. 

At Engine, we performed a study called ‘21st Century Woman’ that lifts the lid on what women want from brands. Seventy-six per cent of women don’t believe brands are representing the modern woman so with more than seven million women taking part in sport a year (a figure that continues to increase and close the gender gap with men) the use of sport in brand marketing to connect with this increasingly influential audience is a no-brainer. I can take that a step further because our research also shows that women believe that brands have a responsibility to represent them for who they are rather than a stereotype or role that women are still very often boxed into.


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Sam Wakefield: There are improvements to be made. The main problem at the moment is how rights are bundled where there is a men’s team and a women’s team. There needs to be more thought among rights-holders and agencies in how we present rights, how they are bundled and how they can be activated. 

Does offering sponsorship of a football club’s women’s team as part of a bundle including sponsorship of the men’s team achieve maximum results? Probably not, as there is that lack of accountability to actually activate and support. Brands generally are only interested in activating properly with the men’s team but this can shut off the women’s team from securing their own sponsors. I’m using football here as an example, but this applies to rugby and cricket as well.

Men’s sport and women’s sport are two different opportunities that could work in very different ways for very different brands. Being creative about how these rights are packaged is also interesting. Generally the women’s game is a lot more open and accessible, which is something that perhaps could be utilised by the rights-holder when engaging with prospective brand partners. 

When brands invest in men’s sport it is basically ‘buy package one, buy package two etc’ whereas in women’s sport there is more room for more bespoke, creative sponsorship deals that really identify and answer what the brand’s objectives are. 

When you look at why many brands get into sport it is all about working with the big personalities. Sponsors want to work with sports people who are the most famous, the most popular and with the biggest audience. I think when BBC Sports Personality comes up we will see a heavy female presence and rightly so. Hopefully, this will be another step for creating valuable assets for sponsors. 

How important is content creation, social media and distribution to the sponsorships in women’s sport at the moment? What have you seen that works well in this area? 

Lisa Parfitt: Brands need to choose the right format (film, photography, graphics, copy) and channel (social, digital, earned media, paid media etc.) to deliver their message to the audience they are targeting – we’ve built our agency structure around this. Women’s sport as a platform shouldn’t dictate the channel that brands use, however, given how women’s sport has thrived for years online, digital channels are a great place to start to deliver the brand story to a well targeted audience. 

In our experience fans of women’s sport online are more likely to share and engage with branded content that shares their passion. SSE has had great success with creating brilliantly creative content with an equally brilliant digital strategy – smart use of data and superior audience segmentation – that has generated brand building results. The SSE Dads & Daughters content series was created from the insight that only 50 per cent of Dads encourage their daughters to play football. The resulting series of mini-documentaries celebrated fathers who have played a major part in their daughters’ playing careers across all levels of the game, and the enormous benefits they’ve seen as a result. Each film was maximised through PR and digital channels and a network of parenting influencers to go beyond just women’s football supporters. The films evoked massive positive brand sentiment thanks to the real-life relatable stories that SSE told. 

Sam Wakefield: It is incredibly important and we have been seeing this first hand with some of the influencers we work with. 

We’ve done a lot of work with Emily Skye, one of the world-leading fitness bloggers (more than 12 million followers), for our client Lucozade Sport. She gave a talk at our offices recently on how she has been tailoring her content to the female audience. 

Emily is pregnant and she has brought that into her fitness content. She talked about how this is part of showing vulnerability to a mass audience – she is moving away from traditional glossy magazine perfection and ‘keeping it real’ as it were. Emily is showing that real women can be active much in the same way as ‘This Girl Can’ did, which was a great campaign. 

Increasingly we’re seeing brands are looking for a combination of both sporting influencers and content creators and this is something we’re working on with our client, Renault F1 developmental driver Carmen Jordá. Carmen is not just one of the leading women in motorsport, but also a major lifestyle influencer. She is, of course, talking about motorsport on her channels, but also about fitness, food and travel and is an attractive proposition for sponsors. 

As before – sponsors want both the biggest audience and the right audience. Women’s sport is providing a growing, new audience and if content and social can continue to tap into this and make more stars in women’s sport then we will only see sponsorships grow.


What role will sporting goods manufacturers and sponsors from all sectors play in the continuing global commercialization of women’s sport?

Lisa Parfitt: The impact will only be felt with rights-holders, media and brands working together. No one party is any less or more responsible. 

For media, the commitment to increased coverage needs to be all-year-round whether there is a big tournament or not. The football/rugby/golf correspondent’s mandate should be to cover the women’s and the men’s game. This isn’t about positive discrimination it is about reporting on the outstanding achievements of both genders.

The rights-holders need to be clear on the strategy for growth. The unbundling of rights from men’s sport is critical for the future commercial growth of women’s sport. Let’s take the Women’s Champions League, Uefa has made a huge investment in the women’s game with the recent launch of #Togetherweplaystrong targeting teenagers to get involved in the game. And yet, at the Women’s Euros this summer, all the sponsors were the same as the men’s Euros and adding no value. If governing bodies are investing in their game then they need partners to support them in their objectives. Buy one, get one free doesn’t work. This is one of the reasons why SSE partnered with the FA and the SSE Women’s FA Cup. The FA has unbundled the rights from the men’s game which gave SSE a strong single-minded message. 

A brand like Under Armour has made women a priority understanding the value in the female sport and fitness revolution. In its most recent campaign, ‘Unlike Any’, Under Armour celebrates female athletes not for being women but purely for their outstanding achievements. You would expect this from the sport apparel sector with market share to secure but we are working with plenty of non-sport brands looking to tap into a female audience who value an active, healthy lifestyle. Those that are successful will have a super authentic story or message and a credible role to play.

All three working together is the route to commercial independence for women’s sport.


Sam Wakefield: Sporting goods manufacturers have already played as big a role as any. The size of the prize for sport goods manufacturers is huge and they have recognised this. 

Women’s active-wear is a $20bn business but there is room to grow. The top companies see the value in women-specific sporting goods – you have Nike aiming to get their women’s gear sales up to $2bn and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank lauding the impact of women’s business on their profit line. You can also see it in the investment into Serena Williams and Missy Franklin by Nike and Speedo respectively to suggest that brands like this are serious in investing in this space. 

But tennis and swimming go together with athletics as the more ‘traditional’ big female sports, elsewhere there is still much more work to do. 

As mentioned earlier – cricket, rugby, football etc. are growing and increased media coverage and social media activity will help this. There is an education process which needs to take place among all sector sponsors who might still look at the pure viewing figures compared to the men’s and be turned off. 

Sponsorship is such an important way to gain exposure and engagement and with attitudes towards women’s sport improving there is a good opportunity for the right brand to join them on the cusp of becoming mainstream. The more sporting goods manufacturers and all-sector sponsors get involved in women’s sport the more money can be invested in improving and marketing the sports. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation at the moment. 

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