This Brand Can

Does anyone out there still doubt that women’s sport offers one of the most exciting opportunities in sponsorship?

In a week where Synergy is hosting #ThisGirlDoes, a brilliant panel exploring why no brand should be without a strategy for women and women in sport, it makes sense to have a quick look at how rightsholders and brands can work together to not only fuel this fire, but benefit from it. And it’s actually pretty simple:

Where possible, any rightsholder with both men’s and women’s propositions should commercialise them separately. And where they are not currently commercialised separately, brands should ask for them to be.

The fact is that most big properties that have both men’s and women’s propositions still tend to bundle them together. Sponsors of the FIFA World Cup (let’s be honest, no-one sponsors FIFA, they sponsor the World Cup), get the Women’s World Cup as part of the deal. The exact same thing applies to the UEFA European Championships, the Champions League, the RBS 6 Nations and the ICC Cricket World Cup. Similarly, if you sponsor England Rugby, Arsenal, Manchester City, PSG or any other major team, you typically also get the women’s team thrown into the deal. While this may simplify things for both rightsholder and sponsor, it is not necessarily the best solution for either side.

One competition where this is not the case is the FA Cup, with the Emirates FA Cup and SSE Women’s FA Cup running side by side. Synergy have been working closely with both SSE and the FA from the beginning to create a bespoke programme for Women’s/Girl’s football, so we have seen the power of this unbundled approach first hand.

By bundling the men’s and women’s propositions together, rightsholders are likely to be leaving value on the table. Basically, this sponsorship version of Buy-One-Get-One-Free doesn’t attribute the appropriate amount of value to the Women’s proposition. How much value do the FIFA World Cup sponsors attribute to their Women’s World Cup rights? Would Emirates expect to pay any less for their overall sponsorship of Arsenal if the Women’s team had a different brand on their shirts?

This isn’t to say that those sponsors don’t value the women’s property at all – of course they do. It’s just that they don’t value it as much as a brand that wants to focus on the women’s property in its own right. And a brand that values it more highly will also be willing to pay more for it.

The brands that value the women’s propositions more highly in their own right are also the brands that are going to create more powerful activation campaigns. Although a slightly different form of unbundling, what Sainsbury’s and Channel 4 did with the Paralympics was one of the most powerful lessons from London 2012. As “Paralympic-only” sponsors they could identify what made the Paralympics so uniquely powerful and could focus their activation budget on bringing it to life. They were able to create brilliant Paralympic campaigns – not just Olympic campaigns that ran during the Paralympics.

There is no doubt that this same principle applies to brands that want to tell empowering women’s stories. As an industry, we need to make sure that they have access to great properties that will allow them to do so. Campaigns like This Girl Can, Always #LikeAGirl, Dove Real Beauty Sketches, Under Armour #IWillWhatIWant and Nike #BetterForIt show what’s possible when a brand gets it right. And it’s a strategy worth pursuing as research by Google suggests that women ages 18-34 are twice as likely to think highly of a brand that creates an empowering ad about women and nearly 80% are more likely to engage with it.

So brands with a strategy for women and women in sport can create better, more relevant and more targeted activation campaigns, while rightsholders can extract more value. Imagine the Possibilities.

Everyday Sporting Role Models

I grew up surrounded by sport.

Cricket clubs in the summer, hockey clubs in the winter. Some of my longest-standing friends were made running around hockey pitches aged four. I never knew any different: sport has always been part of my life.

This week, to celebrate Women’s Sport Week we ran a straw poll in the office amongst the women to find out the moment they fell in love with sport and how this inspired them to have a career in sport. There is no doubt that in most cases it was through a parent, in particular a strong father-daughter bond. I am no different.

My father was an FIH International Hockey Umpire and weekends were spent travelling the length of breadth of the UK, from one freezing cold hockey pitch to another, the best part being…the teas! Summer was warmer, when we lazed about the boundaries of village cricket pitches. When, at 13 years old, my father died suddenly, my world fell apart. It was such a difficult time for my family, but, looking back, we were given extraordinary support by the sports community that surrounded us. No doubt, my father’s death and that very sporting community had a profound effect on me – to keep his passion for sport alive.

Playing and watching sport never came with a down-side. I always lapped up the banter of girls’ inability to throw (because I can) and I never saw any inequality in sport. At University, girls’ football, boys’ football, men’s rugby, women’s rugby were all recognised with complete equality and the camaraderie was unique. It wasn’t until I left University that I started to realise that my experience of sport so far wasn’t a fair reflection of how men’s and women’s sport was recognised in the big wide world.

I landed my first job at the Evian Ladies European Tour (LET) as an Events Assistant in 2001. My job was to support the team on the event logistics and administration for the Tour events across UK, Ireland and Europe. I had such glamourous expectations of the events, the spectators, the celebrities, elite sport…how wrong I was.

My first event was at the prestigious WPGA Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, a beautiful links course in South Wales, where if the wind was gusting in the wrong direction your first tee shot was more than likely to land on the beach. I arrived on tournament week and had a run-in with reality. It was lunch time on the first day and we all trotted off for food in the clubhouse. At the front door we bumped into the Men’s Club Captain who pointed at me and pointed to a sign, ‘Men’s Entrance’. My colleagues were horrified, but Mr Men’s Captain gave me very specific instructions as to where the Women’s entrance was. It turned out it was through a side gate, round the back of the clubhouse, past the bins and just next to the toilets. I was mortified.

It was the first time I had ever felt singled-out and demeaned for being a woman. And then I felt angry. How was it possible that a club of this stature was allowed to host a professional LET event when it clearly felt that women were not seen as equal? It turned out the club was going to lift this particular club rule once the players arrive. How courteous.

My second surprise was when the tournament teed off. The players arrived from all over Europe – legends of the game, Laura Davies and Annika Sorenstam, and next generation stars, such as Suzann Pettersen and Paula Marti. The players were humble, athletic and incredibly skilled. But where were the spectators? We always had some really loyal fans who travelled to Tour events, but they were few and far between.

As my career developed and I started working on more international events, I realised quite quickly that the low interest in the women’s game was quite specific to the British culture and not matched worldwide. I was proud to be part of the Solheim Cup 2003 project team, where Europe beat the US for the first time in Sweden. Ironically, this was the first time the event had been hosted outside of the UK (for the European hosts) which no doubt had hindered its profile. In Sweden, the European team were rock stars, not female golfers – elite sportspeople. Over four days, nearly 100,000 spectators turned out to see them play, and big brands including American Express, Volvo, Vodafone and Pringle activated the hell out of the tournament, to much success.

In Sweden and much of the Nordics, golf and sport are part of the culture. Men, women, boys and girls at 5pm after school hit the golf club. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing, or what your ability is, it’s just about what you do. There are no gender issues and certainly no different entrances for boys and girls.

The LET has grown enormously, and there is no doubt that the profile of young, incredibly talented players such as Charley Hull are starting to get the game more attention, but not enough. Since 2012, as Tim Crow says in his Now New and Next article, a women’s sport movement was kick-started by the successes of the GB women on a global stage. With campaigns such as This Girl Can, #LikeaGirl, the BBC’s commitment to women’s football, Investec’s investment in women’s hockey, and programmes such as Back to Netball and Hockey, the profile of women’s sport is no doubt increasing.

What excites me the most is that for the first time there is an active and vocal community of women, from grassroots (This Girl Can 250k alone) to elite, campaigning for equal media exposure, an end to inequality and – most importantly of all – to encourage women to get involved in sport in any way they feel comfortable.

As campaigns like This Girl Can continue to create the next generation of ‘everyday’ female sporting role models, no longer will we have to rely solely on the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Victoria Pendleton or Katherine Grainger. I am proud that my Dad is my sporting inspiration, but I hope my two daughters, part of the much discussed ‘next generation’, look to their Dad and Mum.

Changing the Game for Women’s Sport

Although consensus on London 2012’s tangible legacies in the UK remains elusive, arguably the most high profile and certainly the most sustained legacy is the momentum behind greater recognition for women’s sport, created by the medal success of the Team GB women and their starring role at the Games.

It was clear before London 2012 that momentum was already building, with the public furore at the omission of women from the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist a clear signal of things to come.

Now, post Games, nowhere is the legacy in the UK more evident than in the competition between the BBC, BT Sport and Sky to out-behave each other as champions of women’s sport.

BT and Sky both have dedicated editorial platforms and sportswomen of the year awards. BT Sport broadcasts Women’s Super League football and the BBC has ramped up its coverage of England women’s international football, in particular the most recent England v Germany friendly, which also out-sold – for the first time ever – the previous month’s men’s international.

And what a difference a few years has made to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, with the 2014 Team of the Year award presented to the World Cup-winning England women’s rugby team.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, as consistently demonstrated by a long-running Women In Sport campaign, that women’s sport in the UK is overwhelmingly the poor relation to men’s, in terms of both media coverage and, as a result, sponsorship.

The transformative financial effect that media coverage can have can be clearly seen in women’s tennis. Billie-Jean King’s pioneering work in creating the WTA, and above all the dual men’s and women’s format of many major tennis events – in particular the Grand Slams – has kept women’s tennis and its stars in the spotlight, and as a result the money, for years. Other women’s sports, lacking the media spotlight, are playing catch-up, and the gap is growing.

Bridging it will not happen overnight, but in time, increased media visibility will come and will inevitably drive increased commercial viability for brands looking to sponsor women’s sport.

However, media coverage is only part of any viability equation for brands.

New behaviours will also be required. The inconvenient but undeniable truth is that much of the brand money invested through sponsorship in women’s sports is connected to sex appeal – what one might call the ‘Kournikova factor’.

It’s easy for brands to get quick wins by adding to the purses of the planet’s most glamorous stars – after all, sex sells, right? But sponsors that genuinely care about the advancement of women’s sport will look to celebrate women as athletes, not pin-ups, and to lead the way in promoting an attitudinal change.

This is something that has been confronted by the brand Always, with its highly creative and engaging #LikeAGirl campaign. Based on the simple question of what it means to do something (such as run, throw or fight) ‘like a girl’, and demonstrating quite how loaded this phrase has really become, the campaign challenges both genders’ thinking, acting as an apt reminder of the effects adolescence has on both girls’ and boys’ perceptions of themselves and others.

And, as well as new behaviours, brands interested in using sport to market to women will also need to navigate two major and related disconnects between theory and reality in this space.

The first is the assumption that a higher profile for women’s sport will automatically drive greater women’s participation in sport. This is unproven. Famously, for example, after London 2012, sports participation in the UK actually decreased across all groups, including women.

Which leads on to the second disconnect. The fact is that many women, for a variety of reasons, are not sports fans. As such, another widely held assumption, that using women’s sport to promote exercise amongst women will be effective at scale, is also unproven.

The new Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign recognises this, attempting to drive attitudinal change to sport amongst women by confronting the fear of being judged, a key barrier for many women.

At Synergy, our understanding of these disconnects has led to successful campaigns for clients, proving that brands can make a difference if their activity is grounded in the appropriate insights.

Bupa’s ‘My First Run’ campaign demonstrated how crucial the right female ambassador is (in this instance, Jo Whiley) to drive coverage, engagement and ultimately behaviour change, which in this case led to an estimated 23,000 women being inspired to take part in their first ever organised run.

Similarly, Coke Zero’s ParkLives programme, which offers free, fun, family activities in local parks, has seen great success, with communications specifically avoiding the ‘s-word’ to ensure female participants are not put off by a direct association with ‘sport’.

So, there’s no doubt there is a big opportunity for brands here. That said, they must beware of thinking about it solely in the context of sponsoring Women’s Sport – capital W, capital S. For us, the biggest opportunity lies in driving attitudinal and behaviour change in the context of women in sport and in women’s relationship with sport in its broadest sense: in building trust, providing inspiration, and creating the environment in which women can express themselves, and audiences and participants can connect without prejudice or agenda.

Tim’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.