SportBusiness International

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Same rules, different game | The commercialisation of women’s football

Same rules, different game | The commercialisation of women’s football

By: Adam Nelson

8 Mar 2018
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  • Marzena Bogdanowicz a key architect in creation of Team GB
  • Establishment of Women’s Super League allows for clearer commercial division between men and women’s game
  • Partners such as SSE and Disney have come on board specifically to work with the women’s team

Marzena Bogdanowicz’s greatest achievement was so successful she worries it’s becoming forgotten.

Team GB – the phenomenally successful rebrand and restructuring of the UK Olympic team, of which Bogdanowicz was one of the key architects – “has just become part of the general day-to-day life,” she says. “Everyone thinks it’s always been there, but I can tell you it wasn’t.”

Bogdanowicz’s latest challenge is to bring that kind of inspiration to the Football Association. Her job, as the head of commercial and marketing for women’s football, is to make England’s women’s football team as much a fixture of the national sporting landscape as the men’s.

If that seems like a pipe dream, Bogdanowicz stresses that at the time of Team GB’s conception, “everyone thought I was crazy. We were tying up however many sports under one banner, which seems so simple, but nobody thought it would work.”

If there are reflections of her previous work in the new role, there are also significant differences. “The Olympics has always been about sport for everyone, irrespective of gender, race or religion,” she says. “Olympics doesn’t isolate gender. It’s all treated as one, men’s and women’s together.

“Football is a different challenge, in that it absolutely is open for all – irrespective of age, gender, race, religion – but we still have a slight hill to climb in terms of changing perceptions and beliefs that actually football is okay for women and girls to play, because it’s just so dominated by boys and men.”

2018 is a critical year for the women’s game in England. 2017 saw not only a significant commercial and sporting restructure – involving the creation of the new two-tiered Women’s Super League, with a fully professionalised top division – but also saw the Lionesses, England’s senior national women’s team, make headlines for the wrong reasons. 

A run to the semi-finals in the Uefa Women’s Championship was overshadowed by the scandal which led to head coach Mark Sampson losing his position after allegations of using racially abusive language toward players Eniola Aluko and Drew Spence. 

The handling of the appointment of former England men’s player Philip Neville as Sampson’s successor, after several prominent female figures within the game were reported to have turned the role down, was also a PR disaster. Neville’s fast-track into the role, despite his relative lack of experience, became a further stick with which to beat the beleaguered FA.

Commercial division

Nevertheless, Bogdanowicz feels that “the building blocks are now in place” for 2018 to be a landmark 12 months for women’s football. “In general, I’d say the game is on an upward trajectory that none of us can quite believe,” she says. “The change over the last five years has been incredible in terms of participation, broadcast, spectators, fans – all of those elements are really growing at a rate that is hard to keep up with, and one of our challenges is to keep up with it and keep ahead of the game. We’ve got so much to do and we are rushing like crazy.”

The FA has outlined four key objectives for Bogdanowicz and the commercial team – “to signpost, to build profile, to change perceptions and ultimately to raise commercial value” – with the ultimate aim of doubling both participation and attendance in women’s football. 

She references the fact that WSL fixtures are now regularly receiving 1,000 fans per game, “a monster number” compared with other women’s sports, as evidence that the foundations are strong, and argues the move to professionalise the WSL opens up a whole new range of commercial opportunities for both the league and its member clubs. Most crucially, Bogdanowicz feels, it allows for a greater separation in the way men’s and women’s football are marketed, a step that has been long overdue.

“You can’t market the women’s game in the same way as the men’s game,” she says. “It’s the same rules, but it’s a different game. You’ve got to change how you position it and how you market it and I think in the past it was, ‘this is how we market and promote the men’s game, so that’s how we’re going to do it with the women’s game’, and you can’t do that. There’s been a sense of, ‘If you sponsor the men’s you get the women free’ – it doesn’t work like that.

“The WSL is absolutely separated, but if a partner from the men’s game or someone who’s interested in the men’s game says they’re interested, we wouldn’t say no to that, we would work with them, but the key is that they have to have the commitment to the women’s game. It’s not a case of come into the men’s game and then you get the women’s game for free.”

Dividing the commercial structure of the men’s and women’s games will allow Bogdanowicz and her team to work much more closely with brands and partners who are committed to women’s football, and not just taking it as a bonus bolt-on to a wider FA partnership. Some partners – such as energy firm SSE and entertainment giant Disney – have come on board specifically to work with the Lionesses, while sportswear brand Nike have expanded their FA partnership to include the women’s team but have already begun working on tailored, female-specific activations.

“We’re looking at working with partners that want to go with us on a journey,” says Bogdanowicz. “The first conversation with a brand is, ‘what are you trying to achieve from a business perspective, what are your key objectives, how can we help in terms of the women’s game to support your objectives and deliver against your objectives, what can we do for you?’ Rather than, ‘give us money and badge it.’ 

The process of engaging new partners will be much more of a collaborative effort than it has been in the past, Bogdanowicz says, noting that securing the right partner and taking a flexible approach to working with them is more important than just looking at the bottom line, with a greater focus on what each brand will get out of the partnership, always with an eye on the long-term goals of the FA. Brands must have a specific goal they wish to achieve through the promotion of women’s football, rather than just be looking for exposure through a popular national team.

“We can look at numerous opportunities that the women’s game can offer a brand, be it challenging some of the cultural perceptions, building community programmes, or encouraging women into leadership positions,” she says. “But if we understand what their objectives are, we can help them achieve them, which is why no single size fits all. The work that we’re doing now with Nike, their recent campaign with one of the female players, that is just the start of where we’re going with Nike and that is a huge opportunity.”

While commercial value is maximised by engaging with partners who can bring something unique to the promotion of the women’s game, Bogdanowicz says top-level integration between the FA’s personnel and commercial teams remains vital to achieving the organisation’s core goals – chief among them the promotion of the sport to girls and women.  

“We now have more dedicated individuals that are working on the women’s game specifically than we’ve ever had before, and they are very much integrated across the whole business rather than, ‘that’s the women’s team, that’s their job’”, she says. “By integrating it, it’s part of every day life, it’s not, ‘they do that over there'. It’s integrated and that to me is crucial in terms of actually normalising the women’s game.”

Grassroots growth

The professionalisation of the WSL also means the FA is working much more closely with its member clubs, and is relying on them to help open up the pathways to young girls interested in getting involved in football. 

“The opportunity that a WSL club has, or any club along that new pyramid, is to make a generation of girls active,” Bogdanowicz says. “We want to raise the profile of all the WSL players. They are football’s freshest stars, that’s what we are looking for, is to show all the players across all the teams, not just the Lionesses, but the pathway that we have. That is an amazing opportunity for young girls to get involved and come with us on that journey. We will build the profile of all the top players. We want them to be household names, we want young girls to aspire to be like a Lioness, behave like a Lioness.”

For now, the FA’s approach is largely a top-down one, with the focus being on promoting the WSL and the Lionesses in the hope that it will inspire a new generation of girls to take up the sport. There are plans in place, however, for further work at a grassroots level, where once again the FA is expecting its commercial partners to play a major role. SSE has already become the title sponsor of the SSE Wildcats, an initiative designed to encourage girls aged between five and 11 years old to get involved in football.

The partnership which has most excited Bogdanowicz is the tie-up with Disney, who she calls “the best storytellers around”. Disney will collaborate with the FA on Girls’ Football Week, which runs from 23rd to 29th April, helping the body communicate the value of football to young people across the country.  

“To work with them gives us an opportunity to talk in a new way with a new narrative to young girls who we can’t otherwise reach,” Bogdanowicz explains. “We know how to talk football to a football audience, but they know how to tell a story to girls and boys and parents – because as much as we need to show girls about football, we also need to show boys that it’s okay for girls to play football. Disney can help us do that.”

While Bogdanowicz acknowledges the debt owed to other sports, particularly the Olympic disciplines, in blazing a trial for equal representation between men and women, she sees the FA as “treading our own path” as far as football is concerned, and she wants England to be the example other associations look to in the future. The FA’s commitment to promoting women’s football, from the top level right down to the grassroots, is “extraordinary”, she says, and adds that since joining the FA she has been amazed by “the power of football.” 

“More so than any other sport, football can make a generation of girls active,” she concludes. The FA and WSL, she says, have created “an incredible opportunity to really normalise football for girls, and the FA’s commitment is incredible in terms of the support across the board, internally and for all the stakeholders. That’s what I find really exciting.”

SportBusiness International will publish an in-depth report about women’s sport that will be available to subscribers on 26th March.

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