The Rise of Women’s Rugby: The British & Irish Lionesses?

The dust is only just starting to settle following the thrilling Women’s World Cup final, and it seems that a significant legacy has already been left - a change in mindset and perception about Women’s rugby. No more is it the game it used to be, and popularity is soaring across the board. At the grassroots level, participation is thriving; there are more than 27,600 female players in England alone.

At International level, new stars are being born and records are being broken on and off the field; from performance statistics to live attendance figures, viewership and social engagement figures. 3.2 million people tuned into the France vs England World Cup semi-final. Days later, the final won a primetime spot on Britain’s most popular commercial channel, drawing an audience of 2.6 million people. The resounding opinion of fans, sponsors and the media from this year’s Women’s Rugby World cup is that we aren’t talking about women’s rugby anymore, we are just talking about great rugby. So where should the women’s game go from here?

Under Head Coach Warren Gatland, the British and Irish Lions brand remains alive and stronger than ever, following the thrilling 15-15 stalemate with the All Blacks. It has value and equity that seems to transcend how many points are scored on the pitch; the world’s most unsuccessful success story. With that foundation in place, a women’s side seems to be a no brainer – but should the women’s game settle with slotting into the legacy of the men’s Tour? As the World Cup has shown us, our Women are capable of making and breaking records and creating their own place in the history books.

So, what should be the starting point and focus for establishing this new instalment to rugby’s favourite franchise?

Firstly, the history, structure and dominance of women’s rugby must be considered. It makes sense for a joint men’s team from UK & Ireland to travel to play the dominant Southern Hemisphere rugby nations. But that isn’t the case with women’s rugby. Yes, New Zealand is still the powerhouse, but Australia and South Africa are significantly further down in the women’s world rankings. The Lionesses should focus on taking the game to emerging rugby nations, such as USA and Canada, both of whom sit in the top 5.

Secondly, the power that the tour could have on developing nations, in terms of raising standards and growing the game internationally, should be maximised. England Rugby were trailblazers in the build up to the World Cup in terms of their focus and financial commitment to the Red Roses. It seemed other Unions felt the pressure to follow suit - as no one wanted England to get too far ahead. The result – players across the board looked fitter and faster during this World Cup than ever before. The Lionesses can be used as international ambassadors to lift the game worldwide – showcasing the investment, coaching, and fitness standards of the Home Unions, to the rest of the world.

From a commercial perspective, the Lionesses need to be established as its own entity; as a rights holder, and as a commercial platform for brands. This means creating its own brand identity, and unique structure of rights that will allow it to attract its own set of sponsors; something that football did several years ago, but has only recently started to occur in the rugby landscape. Only this year did Six Nations Rugby Limited uncouple the women’s tournament from the men’s game. Rumour has it that the RFU are starting to consider unbundling the rights for the Red Roses; however, the impact of this is yet to be seen in terms of brands involved with the women’s team as the likes of O2 and Canterbury remain to have rights across both teams.

There are plenty of brands that have recognised the commercial benefit of women’s rugby, and are already reaping the rewards in terms of brand and economic impact. This Summer alone, Deloitte, EY and Tyrrells all announced deals across the women’s game; from the World Cup, to the Domestic League, and individual Club deals. As opposed to the cluttered field of the men’s game, women’s rugby is a relatively untapped space meaning brands have the power to shape it and establish unique ownership that drives business impact for them. Get the commercial structure right and the Lionesses have the power to stand alone and be a viable entity on their own – a ground breaking move for women’s sport.

Women’s rugby should be brave and make its own history, heritage and legacy. The British & Irish Lionesses is one powerful way they can do that. It isn’t about 1888, it’s about 2017, marking the dawn of the Lionesses, when women’s rugby put itself on the international map, and added strength, stature and equity to one of the most valuable brands in Rugby. We still have time to add one more record to the history books for this year.

Synergy Spotlight

As the Women’s Rugby World Cup kicks off today and the hype around the Red Roses ramp up, we’ve been talking to the RFU’s Director of Digital, Marketing and Communications – Joanna Manning-Cooper about her experience in the sports industry. Read August’s Spotlight is here.

1. Your career in a paragraph?

+20 years in front line communications and marketing roles in fmcg, media and sport

2. The highlight of your career to date?

Probably London 2012 – I was Head of Media and PR and it was a once in a lifetime project to be part of. But I’ve enjoyed all my roles.

3. Please describe yourself in 3 words.

Dreaming of sunshine

4. What is the key to your success?

You can’t achieve anything without hard work.

5. Who inspired you and why?

Marjorie Scardino (I was Director of Communications at the Financial Times when she ran Pearson). She was always brave, imaginative and decent.

6. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t be afraid of what’s on the other side of the mountain. Something my wonderful Mum said many a time, and , as always, she was right.

7. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Enjoy this special time before real life responsibilities kick in.

Investigating the commercial landscape of women’s football and why it’s in better shape than ever

"There is a very strong brand and economic case for why a brand would sponsor women’s football. One in five women are the main breadwinners in the family. There is a fast growing female economy - women have increased financial stability and, huge buying power – and yet our research shows that women don’t believe they are being represented in brand marketing. Football in particular is a brilliant and powerful metaphor for what women can achieve.”

Read the full article here.

Synergy Spotlight

The 2017 ICC Women's World Cup, the oldest and most prestigious international women's cricket tournament, is back on home soil after 24 years and England have booked their place in the final at Lord’s on Sunday. They will be challenging for the trophy in front of a capacity crowd of more than 26,500, with the ICC having delivered on their bold commitment to achieve a sell-out.

At Synergy we recognise how important it is to not only hero the women on the pitch but also the women behind the scenes making it all happen.  So we are delighted that this month our spotlight is on Zarah Al-Kudcy, Head of Marketing for ICC Global Events.

1. Your career in 1 sentence/1 paragraph?

From communications in a sports agency (Fast Track), to communications and marketing at a governing body down under (Athletics Australia), to marketing in the world of broadcast (Sky Sports) to global event marketing (Rugby World Cup, ICC Champions Trophy and ICC Women’s World Cup).

2. What is the highlight of your career to date?

Being part of the team that delivered the most successful Rugby World Cup in history. And now being part of the team that sold-out Lord’s for the ICC Women’s World Cup Final!

4. Describe yourself in 3 words.

Motivated. Motivator. Sport.

5. What is the key to your success?

I’m obsessed with sport! We never stop learning from different sports, different markets and different people.

6. Who inspired you and why?

I can’t pick one person, partly because I’m indecisive but also because so many people have inspired me over the years. From my Mum who always told me I could do anything (even when I told her I was going to make Wenger sign me!) to the colleagues I’ve had over the years who are now great friends. And of course, some of the sportsmen and women I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

7. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

At risk of being a cliché, I have always been a sucker for a marketing campaign and when I was younger I was really struck by Nike’s ‘Make It Happen’ – it’ stuck with me ever since.

8. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be patient and worry less! Everything happens for a reason.

Synergy Spotlight

1. Your career in one paragraph?

I have coached since I was 16 in Australia. After retiring I wanted to give back to the sport that gave me such amazing opportunities so I got involved with the GB U19 Programme in 2012. In 2013 I took over as Head Coach and in 2016 moved to the Women's team. This year I will lead both programmes.

2. Describe yourself in 3 words.

Committed, innovative and involving

3. What is the key to your success?

Having a great team around me who compliment my strengths and support my weaknesses. Together we are creating a positive culture that we believe to be successful.

4. Who inspired you?

My mum; a ball of endless energy and still playing softball every week at 67 years of age.

5. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

'Pick your battles to win the war'

6. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Spend less time worrying about what other people think of you as you will never make everyone happy.

Inspiring the next generation

We believe Women’s Sport Week is more than just important.  It raises awareness of a key, rapidly growing, section of our industry.  It allows us to talk and debate key issues and helps make heroes of the athletes who train week in, week out and astound us with world class performances. 
 
We talk a lot about getting more women into the industry, more in leadership roles, more making a difference to the way our industry is run but change like this needs a longer term strategy.  It’s why, as a part of our 1+51 commitment, we want to inspire the next generation of young women – raising awareness of jobs which they may not even know exist. 

As a first step, we’ll be going back to school to talk about what we do and the amazing career opportunities plus the perks that only come with a job in sport.  Watch this space for our first back to school session.

Synergy Launch “The Pledge”

We're offering three governing bodies the chance to receive £25,000 worth of creative time to promote their women’s game. 2017 sees a jam-packed year of women’s sport, with highlights such as the rugby and cricket World Cups, and the UEFA European Championships. As a progressive agency proud to work with some of the world’s most ambitious businesses, Women’s Sport Week 2017 is the perfect time to launch and celebrate the initiative.

If you are a governing body then you are in with a chance to win. All you have to do is fill out the entry form: http://bit.ly/WSWThePledge and tell Synergy about a Women’s Sport brief you need help with – from helping to get that new potential sponsor over the line, to encouraging an existing partner to renew or even creating a brand campaign to help raise awareness and grow your fan base. The prize includes a kick-off briefing session to agree objectives, three weeks of creative development time and an ideas presentation at Synergy HQ where we’ll pitch to you. Terms and Conditions apply.

1+51: A year-long commitment to women’s sport

Women’s Sport Week is all about raising awareness and increasing the profile of women’s sport. At Synergy we’re all in! From the record-breaking audiences for GB Women’s Hockey gold medal match to 35,000 fans at Wembley for the SSE Women’s FA Cup Final – both domestically and internationally women’s sport is unquestionably growing, but there is always more we can ALL do.At Synergy we are devoting resources to showcasing the best of women’s sport throughout the year. To kick off Women’s Sport Week 2017, we’re proud to launch 1+51: our commitment to women’s sport this week, and every week of the year.

And here’s how we plan to make this happen:

1. The Pledge – It’s Competition Time
We’ll be offering three governing bodies, committed to growing women’s sport, the chance to win up to £25,000 of Synergy creative development time. Entries are open from Tuesday 20th June until Friday 7th July. You can enter here.

2. Back to School: Synergy Women Inspire the Next Generation

We’re inspiring the next generation of young women – raising awareness of jobs which they may not even know exist. As a first step, we’ll be going back to school to talk about what we do and the amazing career opportunities plus the perks that only come with a job in sport.

3. Spotlight: Raising the Profile of Women in Sport

We want to shout about the amazing women making such an impact in sport. So, each month we’ll profile a new inspirational woman…keep an eye on our website and social channels.

4. Feature: Day in the Life of the GB Softball Team

On Friday 23rd June, we’ll post our first live Instagram story live from the Women’s Softball European Championships in Italy. GB Softball player and Synergist, Chiya Louie, will be behind the scenes with the team in camp where the team will be aiming for qualification to the 2020 Olympic Games. Exciting stuff, we can’t wait.

5. Sports Kit Friday

We’ll be getting our kit on and raising funds for Women in Sport and our very own GB Athlete, Chiya Louie.

It’s going to be a jam-packed week, so watch this space for more detail on each of our five initiatives.

21st Century Girls

During Engine’s 21st Century Woman event yesterday, surrounded by a collection of clients and colleagues, listening to a captivating panel of women including Stella Creasy MP and Kate Dale of #ThisGirlCan fame, I found myself reminiscing about bedtime stories with my 4-year-old daughter from the previous evening. No, it wasn’t being on the 6th floor of Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road that got me thinking. I was still very much tuned into the discussion on how women are depicted in marketing and popular culture. But my conscience had been pricked by the realisation that I was part of the problem under the spotlight – in the same way that panellist Harriet Hall (Features Editor of Stylist.co.uk) had caught herself asking ‘What’s her name?’ when a friend said she had found a new cleaner. Do the seemingly innocuous bedtime stories I have been reading to my daughters propagate the very same outdated gender stereotypes that were being laid waste by the panel?

So last night, on the eve of International Women’s Day, I decided to check the bookshelves at home. And there it was: gender stereotyping writ large in oversized text and pretty illustrations of domesticated women and hard-working men. Mums doing household chores. Dads fixing things. A preponderance of male central characters. Even the anthropomorphised animal characters were overwhelmingly male and heroic. It was more proof, as if any were needed, of the antiquated way gender roles are depicted in popular culture.Engine’s 21st Century Woman study had a very particular take on who shares blame and who has the responsibility to improve the situation: the marketing community. The research, compiled over 12 months, with input from 1,000 UK women, had some pretty damning evidence of how brands are failing to accurately portray women through marketing. 76% of women think that brands are not representing them properly, and 40% of women cite advertising and the way brands talk to them as one of the most likely reasons to be self-critical.The research also showed that 86% of women enjoy being a woman (yes, that means 14% don’t) but 45% find it difficult, primarily as a result of institutionalised sexism. Marketing at large is not just failing to address the issue of ‘damaging and dangerous gender stereotyping’ (Harriet Hall), but helping embed it in society. According to Stella Creasy, ‘advertisers are the front line of a cultural war’, and most of them seem to be on the wrong side.

Day job aside, as a father of two 21st Century girls, this is all pretty troubling. Until yesterday, I thought my parental efforts against gender stereotyping had been relatively robust. My wife and I chose a neutral colour for the nursery. My daughters are subjected to a fair amount of ‘male’ sports such as cricket and rugby on TV. The All Blacks are their favourite team (it’s more about the "pre-match dancing" than backing the winning team), and if New Zealand are not playing, the 4-year-old will support whoever is wearing blue. I’ve instituted regular ‘cooking lessons with daddy’, which, I tell myself is to make sure they don’t develop gender associations with domestic roles (although if my wife reads this she’ll probably question why that doesn’t apply to the laundry). And I made sure the girls' first trip to a major sporting event was to see professional über-talented women play, at The SSE Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley. I’m not expecting the 1-year-old to have identified any female role models, but it is a memory that will be established in the re-telling.

Granted, the nursery paint colour might ever so slightly be influenced by not knowing what sex our firstborn would be, and there is heavy personal agenda in all the above. I love watching sport. After all, it is part of my job (no, my wife doesn’t buy that line either). In a parallel life I would quite like to have been a chef. But if those personal biases give my daughters a less gendered upbringing and avoid fostering unconscious biases in their little brains, I’m comfortable with the egoism at play.

I’m hoping it will all add up to sense that they can do anything with their lives, without pre-conceived, gender-defined paths. At the moment the 4-year-old self-identifies as a Ninja Turtle and wants to be Leonardo (blue bandana) when she grows up, although I’m wondering if it’s a phase (and now wondering why there aren’t any female ninja turtles...I’m sure the Renaissance had some pretty awesome female role models). She likes tennis, ballet (mixed class), dinosaurs, baking, rugby tackling and anything blue (did I mention that already?), so I'm hoping we've avoided too many gender stereotyping clangers.

The panel discussion highlighted so many areas where I can do more in my day-to-day interactions at home. Bedtime stories is one of them. But if I learnt one thing yesterday above all else, it is that my efforts to avoid gender stereotyping in my daughters' upbringing doesn’t stop when I leave the house for work. It is about making sure any clients or brands I work with reject stereotyping through their marketing and advertising, so the depictions my daughters see challenge the status quo. There was so much sense spoken yesterday, but maybe the panel was wrong about one thing – social media isn’t the front line of female oppression. It’s bedtime stories.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

On March 7th, as I sat in the audience of Engine's 21st Century Woman event, I couldn’t help but feel the momentum behind the profile and awareness of women’s sport. We are moving in the right direction. The world is slowly waking up to an equal playing field and diverse boardrooms equating to a stronger economy and future. We already know the social and physical benefits of sport, and new research from Women in Sport and Investec goes further to highlight the benefits this gives women in their personal and professional endeavors. In its entirety, the progress of Women’s Sport is positive. Yet there is still this underlying attitude that likes to rear its ugly head: we seem to take two steps forward, and one step back.

October 2015 | Chelsea Ladies Leading the Way.
For the second season running the Women’s Super League went down to the final game, with Chelsea Ladies clinching their first ever title. The win also landed Chelsea their second trophy of the season after their victory over Notts County in The 2015 SSE Women’s FA Cup Final. This success would have been unlikely had the women’s team’s future been left in the hands of the club’s board. It was the then Chelsea F.C. and England captain, John Terry, who came to the rescue when their budgets were cut in 2009.

November 2015| Slow Progess for NGOs
Change needs to start at the top. Having a greater number of women in decision-making roles will benefit sport at every level. The annual ‘Trophy Women’ Report, published by Women in Sport, highlighted that almost half of sporting organisations boards failed to meet the 25% gender balance guideline, while 16% were found to have no women at executive level at all.

December 2015 | Women’s Participation Rising Faster than Men’s
Good news: the gender gap is closing at a grassroots level. Sport England released its latest findings from its Active People Survey. The number of people regularly playing sport rose by 1.65 million between 2005 and 2015, with the rise driven by an increase in the number of women playing sport. 7.01 million females aged 16 years or over (31.2%) played sport once a week, with running the fastest growing sport for women.

January 2016 | Gayle’s Conduct Falls Short
Gender equality is not recognised by all. West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle rightly drew sharp criticism for his comments after asking out reporter Mel McLaughlin live on air. He was subsequently fined £4,900 for his remarks.

February 2016 | NFL Believes in Diversity
Across the pond, the NFL continued with its efforts to encourage female involvement in the sport. February 2016 saw the introduction of a “Rooney Rule” for women, requiring teams to interview female candidates for “executive positions”.

March 2016 | Indian Wells CEO Sparks Outrage
Another day, another example of a high-profile gender howler. Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore’s comments that the women’s tour “rides on the coat-tails” of the men’s game received widespread backlash, resulting in his resignation. This reignited the debate of women’s pay in tennis – despite the sport remunerating men and women equally across the four Grand Slams.

April 2016 | Netball Goes Full Time
England Netball announced that players would go full-time from June 2016, with 14 players initially selected to join the summer training camp. The move is part of England Netball’s mission to reach the 2019 World Cup.

May 2016 | Record SSE Women’s FA Cup Crowd
For the second season running, The SSE Women’s FA Cup Final was held in front of a record crowd. Nearly 33,000 people were in Wembley Stadium, with millions more at watching from home as Arsenal defeated current holders Chelsea to claim their 14th title.

June 2016 | Synergy: This Girl Does
Synergy’s event with Jacqui Oatley MBE, Tanya Joseph, Colin Banks, Ruth Holdaway and Carly Telford provided thought-provoking discussion. Brands left with a clear positive message on the commercial and social value to be gained from women’s sport partnerships. See here for our seven top takeaways from the day.

July 2016 | Royal Troon Enters a New Age
After Muirfield voted not to admit women members in May, Royal Troon showed the golfing world the way forward as their members “overwhelmingly” voted to allow women to join.

August 2016 | RFU Tackles Sexism
The RFU announced they are to award 48 new contracts, including 16 full-time deals, to members of the senior women’s squad ahead of their World Cup defense in 2017. The decision came as part of new £1 million investment in the women’s game, and will allow the squad to train full-time.

August 2016 | Olympic Coverage Backlash
Media coverage of female achievements during the Rio Games was consistently slammed as sexist and degrading. From Andy Murray’s put down of John Inverdale to Helen Skelton’s wardrobe debate, everyday sexism within the media was quickly shut down. The level of backlash to the media coverage showed a growing intolerance of gender inequality amongst sports fans and represents a new age of women’s sport reporting.

September 2016 | ‘Vast’ gender wage gap still exists
As we begin to feel we’d climbed the summit, our summer and post-Olympic come down was worsened by the Gender Balance in Global Sport report. Published by Women on Boards, it found significant differences in pay for men and women in basketball, golf and football.

September 2016 | City Make the Front Page
Ending on a high, Manchester City claimed their first WSL title in style, beating the current champions 2-0 and earning a rare front-page slot in The Guardian. A watershed moment for the women’s game, and a huge step forward for Women’s Sport.

Recapping on the year, it is apparent the media, sponsors, governing bodies and NGOs are all saying, doing, or acknowledging what needs to be done to continue to move forward. Disappointingly, the work of the many is all quickly undermined by the headline-grabbing actions of the few. Fortunately, opposing these outdated perceptions is a much stronger force and fans are ready to openly voice their outrage and disagreement. 10 years ago complaints would be buried in the news editors’ inboxes; today sport is an ongoing social media spectacle, and fans are the harshest, but most honest critics. Harnessing the power of them will be integral to really making a difference. Surely this, combined with new research, is enough for us to take action, instead of continuing to simply highlight the issues? I remind myself that we’re preaching to the converted: a room full of women – and men – who are at the forefront of advocating and supporting change.

We retweet, like and love posts from people that share and validate our opinion. But we are people who love sport, work in sport, and are already invested in it promoting women’s sport.

So, how do we only move forward? Women’s Sport needs to evolve from a movement into the norm. Women's Sport needs bigger brands that talk to a bigger audience. Brands have the power to reach the masses and be a part of social change.

After all, actions speak louder than words.